Photos courtesy of Ford

AJAC’s annual Car of the Year program shines a light on the best new products available at your local dealerships for the next model year. Less publicly, perhaps, but equally important, is the association’s recognition of the individual technologies that form components of new vehicles each year.

For 2015, AJAC’s technology panel reviewed a total of 14 entries from various manufacturers; 11 in the innovation category and three in the safety category. Among these, Ford has submitted for consideration its use of aluminum in the 2015 F-150 light-duty pickup.

“But wait,” you’re thinking, “how does aluminum use in a production vehicle qualify as a new technology?” A valid question, for sure, and to get the answer we had an opportunity to sit down with Peter Friedman, manager of Ford’s Manufacturing Research Department in the Research and Advanced Engineering organization.

Being more of an engineer than interviewer, I was content to ask short questions and get long answers, and lucky for me Friedman was happy to oblige.

Friedman acknowledges that the use of aluminum in the automotive industry is nothing new. Ford’s own experience in aluminum is extensive, albeit with lower volume models. Aston Martin has been using an aluminum monocoque structure and body panel for years.  The Ford GT used an aluminum space frame and body panels (4,000 units). And the Jaguar XJ has been using an aluminum unibody structure for 10 years.

Among other brands, Audi has been using aluminum in their production cars for 20 years with a cumulative worldwide production volume of more than 750,000 units.

But these are small potatoes. Even Audi’s impressive production numbers pale in comparison to the 700,000 unit annual production forecast for the F-150. As a result, every step in the process had to be rethought, from suppliers to production to end-of-life considerations.

So even though we’ve seen aluminum in vehicle construction for decades, Ford is taking it to a whole new level. This is even more significant when one considers that the F-Series has been Canada’s bestselling truck for 48 years, and for the past four years it has been the country’s top selling vehicle, period. Needless to say, the success of this project is important to Ford, and the investment immense.

The aluminum F-150 project saws its genesis in 2008, when Ford engineers were determining how best to give their truck a competitive advantage in terms of capability while at the same time meeting increasingly stringent emissions limits imposed by government.

Much transpired during the truck’s development phase, including Ford covertly delivering previous-gen trucks with aluminum boxes into the field. This real-world experimentation helped shape the properties of the alloys that would eventually make it into this 13th-generation F-150.

As one can imagine, the first concern for such a dramatic increase in the use of aluminum is finding suppliers to support Ford’s high-volume production rate. As important as the success of this new truck is to Ford, so too is it shaking up the aluminum industry in North America. Depending on whom you ask, this is at least as significant to them as was the switch to aluminum pop cans that took place more than 40 years ago.

2015 Ford F-150 Aluminum Cab, Box, Front End2015 Ford F-150 Aluminum Recycling
2015 Ford F-150 Aluminum Cab, Box, Front End, Ford Aluminum Recycling Flowchart. Click image to enlarge

Significant cooperation between Ford’s engineers and new suppliers was required to develop the alloys that would produce the properties of strength, toughness, and durability that this truck demands. The overall increase in production volume prompted American Specialty Alloys to announce a new US $1.2B aluminum “mini-mill” in the southeastern United States. How’s that for impact?

Reduced weight alone is not what will sell the new truck. “Customers don’t care about weight,” Friedman explained. But the advantages that aluminum brings in terms of “lightweighting” align with consumers’ priorities when they’re shopping for a new vehicle. Fuel economy, acceleration, handling, braking, ride quality. These are some of the most important attributes for consumers, and each of these is enhanced when you manage to reduce a vehicle’s curb weight by more than 300 kg (700 lb), and lower its centre of gravity in the process.

The cab, box, and front end are constructed from four distinct alloys that were developed specifically for the truck. Limiting the materials to these four alloys has enabled complete reuse of aluminum scrap generated during the production process. In fact, the same trucks that deliver rolls of aluminum sheet to Ford’s Rouge Center production facility continue on to the other end of the plant to pick up scrap from one of four bins. That scrap goes straight back to the casting plant to be dumped into a vat and re-melted.

Steel hasn’t been abandoned on this new truck, though. The frame is still constructed from the more conventional material, although increased use of high-strength (70,000 psi) box sections, from 23 to 77 percent, has decreased the weight of the frame alone by 60 pounds without sacrificing strength.

The use of two materials in a single product brings with it a unique challenge to overcome: in direct contact, the dissimilar metals would induce an electrical current due to galvanic action. For this reason, all parts are insulated using a proprietary electrocoating process before ever coming into contact.

Ford invested more than $800 million at its Rouge Center assembly plant and adjacent Dearborn parts facility in Michigan, and started producing the F-150 in November. When asked about any hiccups that have been encountered in the first weeks of production, Friedman noted that there have been minor, non-aluminum-related issues that accompany any new model production, such as supply of some parts. “In any launch there are hitches,” he noted. Overall, though, production numbers are on target so far.

Another $1.1B is being invested at Ford’s Kansas City facility in Claycomo, Missouri, which will cease production of the current F-150 and close down for a month starting Christmas Eve in preparation for the new truck. Between these two facilities, production capacity will meet the anticipated 700,000 annual production forecast.

The overall stamping process doesn’t differ significantly in the move to aluminum, but still, all new equipment is required for the new body. There are other detail changes in the production process as well, particularly in the assembly and painting areas.

2015 Ford F-150 Periodic Table2015 Ford F-150 Self Piercing Rivet2015 Ford F-150 Flow Drill Screw
2015 Ford F-150 Periodic Table, 2015 Ford F-150 Self Piercing Rivet, 2015 Ford F-150 Flow Drill Screw. Click image to enlarge

Conventional steel bodies are spot welded, but the noise and sparks that accompany welding have largely been eliminated in favour of structural adhesives and new fasteners. The adhesives provide a continuous bond for enhanced strength and stiffness. Self-piercing rivets create their own interlock when joining two pieces together without the need for holes to be made first. Flow-drill screws are used on joints where only one side is accessible, such as when joining sheet to a closed tube.

There has been much speculation related to whether body shops will be equipped to deal with repairs of the aluminum trucks, and how the costs of such repairs will affect insurance premiums going forward. Ford has teamed with I-CAR, the collision repair training organization, and put together a program that equips shops—both manufacturer-backed and independent—with the know-how to complete the required repairs. Of course, it’s not just about training. An average shop that does not currently repair aluminum would need to invest $35-50K in equipment to add such a capacity.

Friedman also noted that the new F-150 is of a more modular construction than the old truck, making it easier to remove and replace components rather than repairing them, which would actually reduce repair costs in many cases.

Manufacturer’s Website:
Ford Canada

There is no question we’ve seen aluminum in the industry before, but Ford has managed a significant advancement by scaling its use to the volume required by the new F-150. Working out how such a change will affect every step in the production and use of the country’s bestselling vehicle is worthy of merit.

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