Alcoa says process steps up competition between aluminum and steel in automotive market
Alcoa Inc. said it can make aluminum sheet that's stronger, easier to shape and less expensive to produce with “breakthrough” technology that will step up competition with steel in the automotive market.
The mill process will reduce the time it takes to convert molten aluminum to coil from 20 days to 20 minutes. The new alloy is 30 percent lighter and twice as formable as high-strength steel automakers use, Alcoa said Thursday. Its ability to be shaped is comparable to mild steel used in auto bodies for 75 years.
The aluminum maker is working with an unidentified automotive manufacturer to develop the process and has conducted successful trials at a pilot plant in San Antonio.
“Alcoa Micromill represents a major breakthrough in aluminum materials,” said CEO Klaus Kleinfeld in a statement. “This technology will unlock the next generation of automotive products with strength, formability and surface quality combinations never before possible.”
Alcoa said trials validated the material's surface quality for exterior panels and performance. Kleinfeld said that will allow automakers to produce lighter, more fuel-efficient and more stylish vehicles.
“It looks like it has the potential to be a big deal,” said Lloyd T. O'Carroll, senior analyst at Northcoast Research. “Obviously the auto market is huge, and to the extent this process can meet production and quality requirements will determine its success.”
Automakers are turning to lighter-weight materials, such as aluminum, as they gear up to meet the government's target for cars to get 54.5 miles per gallon of fuel by 2025.
Analysts expect them to switch to full-scale production using aluminum in their best-selling vehicles.
Alcoa has a contract with Ford Motor Co. to make aluminum sheet for the body of the new F-150 pickup, which is 700 pounds lighter than the previous model because of its aluminum content.
The Micromill process underscores the importance of new technology and the company's desire to cut production costs, said Ray Kilmer, Alcoa's technology chief. Engineers at the Alcoa Technical Center in Upper Burrell are working on process and alloy development, he said.
The process “makes aluminum a drop-in substitute for mild steel in applications where before we couldn't go,” Kilmer said.
Mild steel “has been a benchmark for body structures. The problem is it's too heavy. With aluminum we already have lightweight, and we are getting strength and more formability through the Micromill.
“Now we have the level of formability that the auto industry is used to, and now they can do it with aluminum alloy,” Kilmer added. “It's a green process, too — one quarter of the size of an existing mill, and uses less energy and less water.”
To increase use of the process, Alcoa could expand the Texas plant or build a new facility in another location, he said.
The New York-based company employs about 2,000 in the Pittsburgh area — at its corporate operations center on the North Shore, the Technical Center, and Traco Co., a window manufacturer in Cranberry.
John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or email@example.com.