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.

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