What the US Steel Industry (Still) Thinks Of Ford Motor’s Aluminum F-150

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Source: Adobestock/3dmentat

This is a Throwback Tuesday post from MetalMiner’s Top 50, updated with new information since it initially ran January 15, 2014. Hope you enjoy the first of many #tbt posts! This was the first of several posts about the new aluminum Ford F-150 that have since graced our pages.

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ford-motor-aluminum-F150

Source: thetruthaboutcars.com

If there’s any reason at all to be anywhere near Detroit during Winter (believe me, I’m from the Metro D and can say such things with more than passing conviction), it’s to attend or be involved in the North American International Auto Show.

If it’s not sports, it’s cars, and at least the city keeps the lights on at the Cobo Center, where the latest designs are unveiled, human models awkwardly complement the exhibitions, and concept cars are the main attraction.

(It’s where I’ve spent many hours of my youth, to be followed by a Ride to Nowhere on the Detroit People Mover and coney dogs at Lafayette).

However, arguably, the biggest story from the Auto Show this year, although quite a concept, was not exactly a concept car – it was Ford’s all-aluminum F-150 truck.

How’d That Happen?

Apparently, after designing and building the new F-150, Ford “secretly” distributed the vehicles to a number of test subjects to see if their lightweighting efforts would hold up.

“The automaker was looking to test how lightweight aluminum alloys would hold up on the job, at a gold mine, an energy utility and a construction firm…What Ford learned from 300,000 total miles convinced the world’s biggest seller of full-size pickups to make wholesale changes to the F-Series,” writes Jerry Hirsch for the LA Times.

The new F-150 weighs 700 pounds less than the previous model, featuring an engine compartment, doors, hood, side panels, truck bed and tailgate all made of aluminum alloys. The way they’re marketing the featured material is by calling it “military-grade aluminum.”

Back to Car Wars: Aluminum vs. Steel 

So how do advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) producers – and the steel industry in general – respond to Ford’s move?

Should the move be seen as a huge vote of confidence from a major OEM for a lightweight substitute? Based on that F-150 decision, what does the future look like for steel vs. aluminum from steel industry’s perspective?

(Update: consumers have enthusiastically embraced the new F-150).

I posed those questions to Lawrence Kavanagh, the president of the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the American Iron & Steel Institute, after a recent press conference on AHSS in Detroit.

“Ford is a great and valued customer of steel and we have been working with them for 26 years in the Auto Steel Partnership,” Larry wrote me in an email. “We continue to develop new steel lightweighting solutions and showed an example today of steel matching an alternative material part in weight at 34% less cost, and this part is on the road today.”

Indeed, according to the LA Times, Ford also upped the percentage of AHSS in its new F-150, from 23% to 77%. That’s a good move to hedge their bets for a couple of reasons: 1) aluminum is harder to stamp and weld, requiring more heat and electricity; and 2) according to a recent study conducted by MindClick Global, 90% of consumers ‘prefer’ steel-made vehicles over other materials – but of course, the study was commissioned by SMDI, so take that with a grain of salt.

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But make no mistake, Ford’s bold move is still a watershed moment for the aluminum industry. “Our goal remains to minimize, if not eliminate, any lightweighting advantage of alternative materials as the business case for such materials then falls apart,” according to Larry. “This is happening and the future therefore looks bright for steel.”

Where do you weigh in on this issue? Leave a comment below!

Comments (31)

  1. Robert says:

    There will have to be quite an effort to convince the average boat/utility trailer hauler that lighter vehicles with less HP get enough traction and power to deal with wet boat ramps and occasional tough terrain. Will stick with my Toyota Tundra for the time being. Was thinking of Toyota and Ford as a possible replacement but that will be delayed or the old Toyota will be replaced by a new one……

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Robert – that’s what many consumers are saying (and likely what many are feeling)…that the brand perception depends a lot on HP, safety and durability, and Ford may have dented that with their aluminum move. Time will tell!

  3. AppleFan says:

    ” minimize, if not eliminate, any lightweighting advantage of alternative materials as the business case for such materials then falls apart”

    Really? Imagine if they had been able to achieve this in the computer industry. The newest MacBook Air would be built from machined AHSS, and weigh how much??? Where weight is an asset, steel is the material. Think chef’s knives, guardrails, storage tanks, … Otherwise, the weight is a disadvantage, and other materials can offer a higher strength to weight ratio — in which case, it come down to cost and competitive performance. AHSS aircraft are not competitive. Now perhaps AHSS pickups are not competitive.

  4. sheldon rinehart says:

    in reference to alm bodies, how will this metal react with the sodium cloride used on roads?? are the unpainted portions treated with something?

  5. adrian martinez says:

    to be honest during my entire career in the infantry i have yet to see aluminum heavily used in anything important other then carabeaners, soda cans an the butstock of my m4……….so my question is where is this ” military grade aluminum” used as i have yet to see it on anything important i mean storage units are steal as are most of combat vics……i belive this move could be good for the industry but market it for what it is……..a soda can on wheels that looks nice

    1. Jeff Yoders says:

      Adrian, from what I understand most of the military applications are in aerospace. Duralumin for airframes and other aviation projects. It would seem that the applications for the infantry and ground forces are still limited. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/vistas/match3.pdf

  6. Joe Weiser says:

    Being machinist for over 35 years I have never heard of military grade aluminum can you tell me exactly what it is

    1. Jeff Yoders says:

      What they’re talking about is aluminum alloy 7075 (aluminum with primary alloying material zinc). It is used in the manufacture of M16/ rifles for the American military. In particular, M16/AR15 rifle lower and upper receivers as well as extension tubes are typically made from 7075-T6 alloy.

      The first 7075 was developed by Japan’s Sumitomo Metal in 1936. 7075 was used for the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter’s air frame for the Imperial Japanese Navy starting in 1940. Since then, it’s been used widely in both aircraft body and small arms manufacturing.

  7. Taras Berezowsky says:

    Hi Joe, I would refer you to my colleague Jeff’s response to Adrian Martinez’s comment (above) and the attached pdf laying out certain USAF applications of aluminum. Cheers!

  8. Gary Black says:

    Are we making tanks out of alum ? NO. Are we making airplane out of alum? Yes. Why because people survive tank crashes, people do no not survive plane crashes. I do not want to take my chances with a crash in my vehicle for a mile or two in fuel mileage.

  9. Taras Berezowsky says:

    Gary, you have a point indeed – evidently (and we should update this article to reflect this), the F150s have received good crash-test ratings, although the extended cab version scored worse than the regular ‘crew’ cab version of the truck. However, from what we’ve heard, Ford is beefing up its 2016 model to address safety concerns. (AHSS still makes up a considerable percentage of the vehicle’s structural elements.) Thanks for reading!

  10. Tom que says:

    It’s a marketing ploy ,banking on our patriotic fervor. Aluminum has been incorporated on quite a few navy ships. Lessening the weight and providing ballistic protection.
    Many alloys are added to different materials to provide the desired results whether it be for military applications or commercial.
    Stating that is military grade is nothing but marketing. Oohya

  11. Mike stelmar says:

    Look at aftermarket jeep armor.It’s being made out of aluminum and surviving off road abuse.

  12. Becky says:

    My next truck will be a Ford with Aluminum body. I have owned GM for years and they always look like crap as they age because of the rusted out bodies. I have worked in the metal industry for years and have always said ” why don’t they make aluminum bodies?”

  13. bill says:

    My c10 from 75 is great at driving through hail storms. How does the alum. hold up?

  14. Joe says:

    Do your home work this is another stunt from ford aluminum has to be 1.5 times thicker than steel to have the same strength so ford again is lying as yo usual.If it was stronger then bridges and Building would be made of aluminum of course there not.Also look up the data on frames from Dodge being the strongest and GMC ford Bent so far you could not open the Doors not the case with Dodge or GMC the Facts

  15. Juanito Ibañez says:

    “to be honest during my entire career in the infantry i have yet to see aluminum heavily used in anything important other then carabeaners, soda cans an the butstock of my m4.”

    Three uses of “military-grade aluminium” pop into my mind here: M113 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), the successor M2, M3, M4, M6 & M7 Bradley Vehicles, and the M993/M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) Vehicles.

    BTW: the butt stocks of the M4s are no longer aluminum – having been replaced quite some time back with high-impact plastic units.

  16. Juanito Ibañez says:

    The aluminum used by Ford for the F150 are from Alcoa and Novelis and are the T4 5000- and 6000-series alloys.

  17. RobertW says:

    AR receiver extensions have always been aluminum.

  18. Joe says:

    I like Ford. Old Ford. Today’s trucks get the job done, and save a little more on gas I suppose, but I’ll stick with my 72… you know, the age when they were actually built simple, and TOUGH, to last. The “military grade aluminum” ain’t all its cracked up to be, just a fancy label to sell to people. It still rusts if you’re in humid weather or where there’s salty roads, and falls apart. Folks buy trucks because they’re supposed to be strong. Nowadays they’re built more like SUV’s. Sire they’re safer, but as smart as the guys at Ford are, there’s no way they can’t make a steel truck with crumple zones.. Make them out of steel, stop using plastics, soft metals and composites to save a dime here and there, and sell it to us at the same price..Big strong v8’s, or at least LARGE displacement v6’s with turbos, and hard metal beds at least.

    1. Jeff Yoders says:

      Hey Joe,

      Have you seen GM’s new ads about the aluminum vs steel beds? http://agmetalminer.com/2016/06/08/chevy-silverado-ad-literally-pokes-holes-in-ford-f-150s-aluminum-bed/

  19. Michael Taylor says:

    You say your trucks are “Military Grade”? I work for the US Government. What is the MIL -Spec number on your Military Grade? If it’s Military Grade, it must have a Mil-Spec number! I think you are FALSE advertising.

    1. Jeff Yoders says:

      We tend to agree, Mike. While Ford has said they use Mil-Spec aluminum, they have not revealed the number.

  20. Ted schindle says:

    The f150 is the only truck out there getting 5 star all around rating for crash test Inc front, side, roll over and corner hits and why does gm claim best v8 hp because ford is moving to 6’s with more power

    1. Jeff Yoders says:

      Actually, Ted, both the Silverado and the F-150 received 5-star ratings from NHTSA for the 2016 models. GM, however, did not make the Silverado available for complete crash-test ratings from IIHS, allowing the F-150 to score higher on the more-stringent IIHS tests. http://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1102070_2016-ford-f-150-vs-2016-chevrolet-silverado-1500

      The F-150 did beat the Silverado in the IIHS overlap frontal-crash test, earning a “good” rating and enabling it to be an overall top pick. The Silverado could only muster an “acceptable” rating in the overlap frontal-crash test. IIHS is known for innovation and we expect more stringent tests such as the overlap frontal crash test in future rounds of testing.

  21. Bud Olesen says:

    I think that in reality, it really doesn’t matter. Metallurgy has changed, as have industrial metal alloys over the years. Certainly, steel is stronger than aluminum, but that being said the F-150 is more than 700 lbs. lighter than Chevrolet, Ram, Toyota, and Nissan full size, light duty pickup trucks.
    Ford is not going to make stupid marketing decisions when it comes to the F-150 because this vehicle is the lifeblood of the Ford Motor Company. Their market research suggests that a vast number of light duty truck buyers do not even use their trucks in workplace situations. They just want a nice pickup truck for utility and do not even care about heavy hauling. Therefor, the point of Aluminum vs.Steel, in real terms becomes moot!!! If you think about it, it really makes sense. For those who want added bed strength, all they need to do is spray in a bedliner or drop in a plastic bedliner. Lets face the fact that most people who spend 40k/60k large don’t really want to see the bed of their new truck with dings and scratches, period. The towing capabilities are not even an issue because the frame of the F-150 is fully boxed steel.
    Btw, I took the leap and I do love my 2016 F-150.

  22. Doc says:

    Well after 7 months with my new F150 we are sending it to the scrapyard. We used to get at least 16 to 18 months out of them. This is not very cost effective. We log, and beat the hell out of the trucks. We put these trucks through the ringer, well there is no way we will be buying another Ford pick-up till there made of steel again. In the first week the bed collapsed, tailgate bent just by putting our equipment rack in the bed, within 6 months we had to remove the bed all together. We have bent the frame, been through 5 drive shafts, a transmission, and the motor is so weak we have to pull it up the hills with a skidster to get our equipment to the crews. My review, Bad truck won’t do the job.

  23. Moosin' Around says:

    My 2000 F250 still runs great and looks good thanks to a little fiberglass. You see here in NY all that steel ends up turning brown and falling off your truck. If my old girl had an aluminum body, I’d keep it forever.

  24. K says:

    I have a 2015 F150 aluminum body. V8 motor. Alaskan roads. Can pull a 4 place enclosed trailer with no problem. For those of you who have not tried it, don’t knock it till you do. And…….I’m just a girl.

    1. Jeff Yoders says:

      We here at MetalMiner encourage more girls in trucks, no matter what the make or model!

      Jeff Yoders,
      Editor

  25. John Summers says:

    Firstly, you always have corrosion with any metal or alloy. I personally would prefer a steel body truck, to an aluminum body truck, simply for strength, durability, and safety. When I look at vehicles on the road today, I see many trucks built from the 1980’s and even earlier still running. Frames are functional and intact, and they are still workhorses. True they might not have been as fuel efficient, but they were build with quality, simplicity, and durability in mind. Aluminum alloy bodies were never traditionally used for many reasons, I mean take a look at rims. Aluminum alloy rims reduce weight and give the vehicle better handling, but they are prone to cracking or bending. Steel rims are heavier, and it feels like driving a tank, but they are much more durable. I guess like all things it boils down to personal preference, but I would personally go with a Ram 1500 ecodiesel.

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