Will aluminum use help or hurt next-gen Ford F-150 sales?

3 replies [Last post]
dwinter@wardsauto.com's picture
Joined: 2011-08-08

Extensive use of aluiminum on next-gen Ford F-150 pickup, including the bed, is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. It's a bold move, but I worry about unintended consequences. 

Link to my blog is below. What do you think?

Comment and register your vote on survey at right.



Henrik Bonutti's picture
Joined: 2013-02-15


We met at last year’s plastics lightweighting event but didn’t have a chance to talk much. I wanted to comment on your article and offer some insights on aluminum. I've worked extensively with aluminum during the last decade, and had the benefit of knowledge compiled from the fleets of aluminum intensive research vehicles that ThyssenKrupp Budd build for Ford Motor AMTD in the 90’s … i.e. the AIV’s ThyssenKrupp Budd built for Ford based on the second generation Mercury Sable body.

If you spot weld aluminum sheet in combination with structural adhesives, (weldbonding) the durability of the resulting aluminum vehicle structure is superior to anything made of steel. In 2002 we tested an AIV after 8 years and 120,000 miles of operation … the car had been exclusively operated between Detroit and Chicago during that time. This particular AIV was assigned to Alcan Aluminum which explains the two city location. I participated in the research work where Ford stripped that vehicle down and tested the body for static torsion and static bending. Despite its years in the field, the AIV body's test results were the same as those when the AIV bodies were initially built by Thyssen Budd, and tested by Ford. We simply couldn’t tell any difference in static torsion and static bending of the 120,000 mile AIV body versus when it was built. For comparison or a control, I then tracked down a steel Sable with 109,000 miles that had similarly lived between Detroit and Chicago, in that same span of time. However when we measured static torsion and bending of that body, it had deteriorated by over 40% from similar Sable bodies when they were initially studied and benchmarked back in 1992.

It’s not uncommon due to corrosion and fatigue of typical steel spot welds to lose 40% of the structural strength by the time the vehicle hits 100,000 miles in our northern environment. Extrapolating on that, you can conclude a steel bodied vehicle that met a 5 star crash rating when new wouldn’t match that 5 star performance 8 years later. However an aluminum weldbonded structure would perform in crash exactly as designed despite that age.

Ford’s main issues with aluminum on the F150 will be its higher material cost as well as challenges in stamping. Aluminum has considerably reduced formability from conventional drawing quality bake hardenable grades of steel. Also spot welding presents challenges with aluminum due to oxides and intermetallics quickly building up on the electrodes... but there are some good solutions already in production to address spot welding shortcomings.

However on the subject of aluminum dent resistance compared to steel which many people would expect to see a major loss of performance, it's really not an issue. Most automotive exterior panels are formed from 6XXX bake (precipitation) hardenable grades of aluminum, and if you up-gauge the aluminum about 30% over the comparable steel stamped panel, you achieve the same panel stiffness as you had with steel. Despite the modulus of aluminum being only 70 GPa versus 200 GPa for steel or 1/3, the stiffness of a panel is also a function of the thickness of the panel raised to the third power, so you don’t have to thicken the aluminum all that much to match the stiffness of the thinner steel panel. Then as far as dent resistance, assuming the bake hardening raised the aluminum strength to 260 MPa or higher you are in the range of steel yield strength for dent resistance. .

Overall, there is tremendous value and longevity in well engineered aluminum bodies. Yes, they won’t be as easy to repair for most collision shops because they don't understand aluminum that well yet, and yes aluminum vehicles will cost more to manufacture when new, but they will last much longer, and provide superior durability to anything we’ve experienced in steel.

So I applaud Ford for continuing to innovate with aluminum in the F150 just as they did when they pioneered the rivet bonded aluminum construction in the Jaguar XJ X350 and later in the XK.X150.

Hank Bonutti
Bloomfield Hills, MI

TheAutoProphet's picture
Joined: 2013-05-29

It won't hurt. Here's why: Ford (like GM and Chrysler) tests the hell out of their trucks for durability. Unless Ford wants to lose their crown in the marketplace, they will make sure that the Al parts are as tough or tougher than the parts they are replacing.

It's too important of a product to screw up. So if you see an aluminum bed on an F-150, it means it passed.

dwinter@wardsauto.com's picture
Joined: 2011-08-08

I agree. New F-150 will be most thoroughly tested in history. I see main hurdle as public perception, or misperception of aluminum.

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