Move over steel — Aluminum is now the target

Dale Brosius, a consultant and president of Quickstep Composites (Dayton, Ohio), observes that chasing aluminum as a competitor is a much easier task than chasing steel — if the composites industry can meet cost and volume requirements.
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It’s been a year since I started this column, in which CompositesWorld gives me free rein to express what’s on my mind. Inspiration comes from a lot of sources, one of which is feedback from readers via e-mail. My first reaction was, “Hey, someone is actually reading these columns!” Some correspondence is from past or long-time industry acquaintances who simply want to say “hello” or make a general comment on the content. And I received one from a young engineer at a U.S. OEM, who wanted to meet and gain more insight into carbon fiber (I was flattered and happy to oblige).

But I especially appreciate those responses that extend my narrative, citing other examples or angles I might not have considered. Some are contrarian, taking an opposing position, which I also welcome. I do my best to respond and establish a dialogue; it helps me develop my own perspective on the industry.

Recently, I received an e-mail from a former plastics and composites engineer who had worked at GM and Chrysler over the course of several decades. He responded to my February 2014 column (short.compositesworld.com/GomKwRky) in which I lamented the nonproliferation of award-winning composites applications in vehicles, such as pickup boxes. He told me he had developed a composite pickup box for Chrysler that was displayed at the 2001 Detroit auto show, but the design never made it into production. 

The Chrysler box was developed in response to those previously introduced by Ford and GM. (Both of these are, unfortunately, no longer in production.) The e-mail’s author, in fact, told me that he has one of the box prototypes sitting in his backyard in Ohio, where it will never rust away like the steel box it was intended to replace. During the course of our e-mail exchange, he expressed his frustration with having been one of a few “composites guys” in a place populated with “metal benders.”

A few days later, I was in a meeting with a major North American Tier 1 supplier of composite parts to the automotive and heavy-truck industries. One of the participants from the Tier 1 is the VP of advanced R&D. I’ve known him since the mid-1980s, when I was selling him Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, Mich.) vinyl ester resins to make high-performance SMC for structural parts. The discussion topic for this meeting was new materials and processes for making lighter weight composite parts. Options included low-density Class “A” SMC, carbon fiber SMC and high-speed resin transfer molding (HP-RTM), amongst others.

About 20 minutes into the meeting, I made the observation to the group that the word “aluminum” had come up in the discussion at least 15 to 20 times, but not once had the word “steel” been used! All of the composite technologies they were discussing are targeted to be both weight- and cost-competitive with aluminum. The meeting highlighted the fact that the goal, today, is not to be cheaper than steel (which is unrealistic for composites in high volumes), but to be cheaper than stamped aluminum.

Although aluminum body panels have been used on low- to medium-volume vehicles for more than a decade, the high-volume arena has been overwhelmingly dominated by steel. But this paradigm is set to change with the introduction of Ford Motor Co.’s (Dearborn, Mich.) aluminum-intensive 2015 F-150 pickup, which was released to the public at this year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS 2014) in Detroit, Mich. 

The F-150 is not only a vehicle known for durability, it is also Ford’s largest selling model in North America — more than 750,000 units in 2013. By using aluminum in the body and structure, Ford claims a weight reduction that exceeds 700 lb/318 kg — clearly a response to forthcoming fuel economy requirements. 

In mid-February, it was reported that General Motors Co. (Detroit, Mich.) had followed Ford’s lead and signed major contracts with aluminum sheet suppliers to convert its line of pickups from steel to aluminum in 2018. Clearly, the landscape is changing.

In 1995, Chrysler chief engineer Francois Castaing notably commented, “Steel is for cars, aluminum is for airplanes, and plastics are for toys.” At the time, composites content on commercial aircraft was less than 10 percent of structural weight, and it would be nearly 15 years before the composites-intensive Boeing 787 Dreamliner made its maiden flight, which will be followed to market soon by the Airbus A350.

Yes, the Ford and GM shift to aluminum for high-volume trucks is much easier to do in an environment full of “metal benders,” but the trend is clear: the need for lightweighting is creating opportunities for materials substitution. For composites, chasing aluminum as a competitor is a much easier task, if the composites industry can meet the automotive OEMs’ cost and volume requirements. I am sure of one thing: I wouldn’t want to be in the steel business right now….

Quickstep Holdings Ltd.

Quickstep Composites LLC