U.S. Steel, Alcoa compete as Ford pickup shifts from steel to aluminum
By Mike Wereschagin
Published: Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:10 p.m.
Darell Frank isn't delusional.
“I didn't buy a big truck because I wanted good gas mileage,” said Frank, 58, of South Fayette. “I bought it because of my lifestyle.”
Better mileage sure would be nice, though, he said. Frank uses his 2013 Ford F-150 pickup to haul cargo and tow a utility trailer — work that drags his fuel efficiency down to 15.6 miles per gallon, according to the readout on his dashboard.
Ford plans to boost the fuel efficiency of its top-selling truck by replacing its steel body with an aluminum one for the 2015 model, which debuted at the Detroit Auto Show last week. The potential effects go far beyond shaving 700 pounds off the truck's weight.
Aluminum manufacturer Alcoa is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to meet increasing demand from automakers. U.S. Steel is pouring resources into research and business partnerships to maintain its place in the auto industry. And thousands of small-town auto body shops that built their businesses around steel-bodied cars suddenly could be unable to fix the top-selling vehicle in the country.
“It sucks,” said Mike Chabalie, owner of Xtreme Car and Truck Accessories in South Fayette.
Chabalie contracts with two Ford dealerships. The aluminum body won't need rust-proofing, taking a bite out of one of the services he offers. He's not sure whether the paint or spray-on truck bed liner will adhere to the new F-150's shell.
Aluminum cars are not new. Audi and Alcoa developed an all-aluminum body for the A8 sedan 20 years ago, and other luxury carmakers followed. But no luxury model sells nearly as well as Ford's flagship, the best-selling truck in the United States for 37 years and the best-selling vehicle of any kind for 32 years.
“Clearly, for the steel industry, this is not a good thing. Supplying auto body steel is their bread and butter,” said Anthony Rollett, professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
About 15 percent of the steel that U.S. Steel produces goes to the transportation sector, which includes automobiles, according to the company's annual report.
Rising fuel efficiency standards drove U.S. Steel into research projects and business partnerships intended to produce lighter steel, according to its 2012 annual report. A joint venture with Leipsic, Ohio-based PRO-TEC Coating Co. involves a $400 million production line that will be capable of churning 500,000 tons of steel a year, the report says.
Ford will continue to use steel for the F-150's frame.
“We are dedicated to developing new solutions featuring advanced, high-strength steels in order to remain a supplier of choice for safe, strong and lightweight materials, particularly as our customers strive to reach the (fuel efficiency) standard of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025,” spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said.
U.S. Steel's loss is expected to be Alcoa's gain. The aluminum giant expects automotive sales will increase from 9 percent of its rolled aluminum business in 2013 to 16 percent in 2016, according to investor information on the company's website.
The business occurs at a key time for aluminum makers. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner entered service in 2011 as the first airliner built mostly with composites and titanium rather than aluminum, Rollett said.
“For the aluminum industry, it's quite important,” Rollett said.
Alcoa is spending $575 million to expand plants in Davenport, Iowa, and Knoxville, Tenn., to meet growing demand from the auto industry, spokesman Kevin Lowery said. The Davenport expansion added 150 full-time jobs, and Knoxville is expected to add 200, Lowery said.
“Aluminum is already the No. 2 material used to make cars today. Its use has grown every year for the past 40 years,” Lowery said. “It's not as if it's coming out of nowhere.”
But many auto body shops might need to buy separate sets of tools and build a cordoned-off work space to handle aluminum vehicles, said Tim Kilkeary, owner of Kilkeary's Auto Body in Eighty Four.
High-end automakers Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi certified Kilkeary's shop to work on their all-aluminum cars, he said.
Using the same tools for aluminum and steel — a sander, for example — will imbed steel particles in the aluminum surface, leading to corrosion, he said.
“Even in the case of a body hammer, we have aluminum-specific tools because, as you're hammering on a steel surface, pieces of that metal are embedding themselves in that hammer,” Kilkeary said.
“There's a big learning curve and a big investment ... in tooling and facilities,” he said.
Routine repairs, such as straightening a bent piece of bodywork, require special techniques for aluminum, Kilkeary said. If the metal is not heated prior to straightening, it will bend itself back out of shape, he said.
That kind of expertise does not come cheaply, he said.
“We have to amortize that investment” in training and equipment, Kilkeary said. “The only way to do that is to charge more.”
As long as Ford can keep costs in line with other trucks, F-150 owner Jeff Zutter said he would like to see a lighter, more efficient truck.
“I think it's a good idea,” said Zutter, 55, of Dormont, whose 2007 F-150 gets between 16 and 18 mpg.
Auto industry analysts speculated last week about whether buyers such as Zutter would conjure images of beer cans and foil wrap when they heard about the aluminum body. But in addition to civilian aircraft, the military uses aluminum extensively, Rollett said. Ford emphasized “military-grade” aluminum in early sales pitches for the F-150.
“It's not just a matter of strength. It's a matter of how the body crumples up when it hits something really big and heavy,” Rollett said. “If it breaks, it doesn't absorb as much energy. You can design it so it crumples just as well as steel.”
Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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