Journalists from around the globe were in overdrive this week with a sexy car story from the North American International Auto Show focused on the 2015 Ford F-150 pick-up truck and its aluminum body. The vehicle was unveiled at Detroit’s Joe Louis arena, but in terms of the fight for automotive market share, it really doesn’t deliver a knockout punch to steel as some are suggesting.
Not yet anyway.
It does deliver a powerful body blow to steel use in an enormously popular vehicle. Ford’s official description of the truck says it is using “high-strength military-grade aluminum alloys in its body and bed.” But in the same paragraph, Ford gives a shout-out to steel, touting the truck’s “fully boxed, high-strength steel frame.” In short, the best-selling US vehicle is shedding some 700 lbs of previous weight that will boost fuel economy.
In perspective, however, the aluminum F-150 does more psychological damage to steel than physical harm. Consider:
- According to statistics from the Washington-based American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), US steelmakers were on pace in 2013 to ship about 15 million short tons of steel to the automotive market. Total domestic shipments were expected to clock in at about 95 million st, meaning automotive consumes just less than 16% of all steel shipments. Two end-market segments consume more steel than automotive: service centers (25%) and construction (18%).
- Sales of the F-150 in 2013 were nearly 650,000 units. If 700 lbs is saved-assuming all of it is coming out of steel’s hide – that’s 227,500 st of steel vanishing from all those trucks. Those tons will be a loss to the steelmakers supplying Ford for sure. But a couple hundred thousand tons isn’t much in a size-matters market measured by about 100 million tons. The loss represents just 0.24% of all steel mill shipments.
This is not to take anything away from what’s a big win for aluminum, which to date has made similar, but limited body-part inroads in mostly high-end vehicles (Audi, Range Rover). The F-150 buzz has made aluminum supporters more emboldened than ever. They see it as a mass-market victory. The question remains, however, as to how much influence Ford’s choice of materials for the F-150 will have on other manufacturers.
At the Platts Aluminum Symposium earlier this week, Randall Scheps, Alcoa’s marketing director, said North American auto sector aluminum demand is likely to grow by 1 million mt by 2025.
The average car would see the use of aluminum body sheet rise to 55 lbs/vehicle in 2015 from 12 lbs/vehicle in 2012, reaching 136 lbs by 2025, Scheps estimated.
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Yet, steel remains the dominant material in most all vehicle production-with a key reason being that auto plants are designed to handle steel rather than competitive materials. (See Saturn and engineered ‘plastic’ body panels, which was also touted as steel’s undoing-where are they now?) In terms of tooling and material cost efficiencies, steel has the edge. But the F-150 attention has certainly jolted the steel industry – which has been steadily developing lightweight, advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) – with yet another wake-up call.
In fact, overshadowed at the Detroit show, the steel industry unveiled what it called “conclusive findings” from a recent market study of steel in automobiles. The 2013 US Truck & SUV Market Study of more than 3,000 US-based truck and SUV owners was commissioned by the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the AISI, and conducted by MindClick Global, a leader in supply chain research and sustainability.
MindClick Global did more than 3,000 online interviews with participants representing the broader US consumer market. SMDI said the study revealed “at a 95% statistical confidence level that the manufacturing of vehicles using advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) grades increases overall automaker brand equity to the consumer. Contributing factors included steel’s reputation for safety, performance and fuel efficiency.”
SMDI added: “When directly compared to other automotive materials, steel is more strongly associated with strength, safety and protection of the family, an important and personal element of a consumer’s driving experience.”
Which reminds me of a meeting I had many years ago with a steel executive regarding steel versus aluminum in cars. We got to talking about consumer perceptions of crash worthiness and safety.
He handed me an empty aluminum beer can and told me to squeeze. Like anyone else, a little pressure and it crumpled. Then he gave me an empty soup can made of steel. I squeezed and it hardly flexed.
“Now, if you think of your car as just a big ol’ can on wheels,” he said, “which would you rather be in?”