When you enter Novelis’s shiny new aluminum rolling mill in Oswego, N.Y, on Lake Ontario, you are confronted with several huge, multistory conveyor belts of 2-m-wide sheet winding onto coiling reels. It’s a place where a 2-ft-thick ingot of aluminum can travel a mile or so as it is heated, squeezed, and processed through rolling mills, furnaces, and cutters to emerge as flat-rolled sheet only millimeters thick. In a large storeroom nearby, row upon row of massive—2250-lb—coils of sheet await shipment to automotive stamping plants south and west.
The new 182,000-ft² addition is part of the multibillion-dollar aluminum company’s plan to expand sales of rolled aluminum sheet products to the automotive industry in North America. Already the global leader in beverage can recycling, the Atlanta-based, Indian-owned Novelis also holds half the market for aluminum auto sheet market, supplying Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, and Mercedes-Benz.
But despite dominating the aluminum auto sheet market, only 6% of Novelis’s shipments (by weight) this year are automotive, leaving a large margin for future growth that company executives are eager to tap. To meet growing demand, the corporation reportedly allotted about $750 million to add rolling capacity, finishing facilities, and recycling plants in fiscal 2014. In fiscal 2013, its record capital investment came to $775 million.
About $200 million of that outlay has gone to build two modern sheet-rolling lines at the 50-year-old former Alcan production complex in Oswego, boosting production to more than a billion pounds of aluminum sheet annually for the beverage can, building and construction, and automotive industries, said Marco Palmieri, Senior Vice President and President of Novelis North America.
A turning point
“What you're seeing here today is the start of a huge transition in the auto industry,” said Novelis President and CEO Phil Martin at the recent ceremony to christen the plant’s integrated hot-rolling and cold-rolling lines. “We think that we’re at a turning point” that favors aluminum in cars, he said, motioning toward a nearby display including an Audi A8, a Jaguar F-Type, and a Lincoln MKT—all models that incorporate hoods, roofs, fenders, door structures, and even entire chassis of aluminum.
When asked about the price differential between aluminum and steel sheet, Martin replied: “It’s the wrong question.” After first observing that lightweight steel commands a premium price, he said: “Yes, aluminum will cost more,” but the accrued savings, efficiencies, and benefits that will propagate through the car from lightweighting and so forth will make it fully competitive with steel.
And aluminum offers capabilities that high-strength steel (HSS) simply doesn't. “It comes down to physics,” he said, arguing that aluminum’s low density and high specific strength give it engineering and performance advantages. Palmieri cited the metal’s excellent formability, coating flexibility, and “complete recyclability.”
“Aluminum is becoming the metal of choice for auto structures, and we want to play a role in meeting the challenge," he continued. "There’s huge pressure on the auto industry right now,” and in the current regulatory environment where sustainability is key, aluminum has the edge. Driven by government CAFE regulations, “it’s just a matter of time,” he said, noting that the average vehicle today contains 343 lb (156 kg) of aluminum—a number that has grown consistently over the years.
Nevertheless, Palmieri acknowledged that Novelis expects future cars to be constructed of “mixed materials, including aluminum, steel, and polymer composites.”
New production lines
The two new 120,000-ton-capacity continuous rolling lines—which include heat-treatment and annealing, surface-treatment, and lubrication systems as well as the latest CIM, statistical process control, and JIT scheduling software—run top-quality rolling machinery from Tenova of Milan, said Tom Boney, Vice President and General Manager of the Automotive Unit.
Novelis Oswego can make some 170 automotive product platforms, he said, out of multiple varieties of series 5000 aluminum alloys for structural parts (in which magnesium is the main alloy element) and series 6000 (silicon magnesium types) for outer and inner body applications.
Boney said that the plant also can produce Fusion aluminum sheet products, which feature multiple alloy layers. Using a proprietary process, Novelis can roll "hybrid" sheet from two- or three-part ingots that are composed of layers of different alloys that were cast cleanly as one. For car stampings, he said, the combination of a high-formability alloy on the outside and a high-strength one on the inside can deliver the needed structural strength while retaining flexibility.
Over the past decade or so, Boney noted, the automakers and their suppliers "have figured out" how to shape, join, and otherwise exploit aluminum’s properties so that it can now beat steel structures consistently. “Yes, there’s still more to learn,” he allowed. “After all, steel’s had a hundred years to come up with solutions," but after a sustained R&D effort and using modern digital methods, "it’s mostly fine-tuning at this point.”
Palmieri said the Oswego rolling operation is a cornerstone of Novelis’s new “closed-loop recycling” strategy to reduce the cost of automotive aluminum sheet while using less energy and creating fewer emissions. “After stamping, as much as 50% of the sheet is scrap. But instead of sending it to the scrap metal dealers, it goes back to Novelis, where we segregate out the different alloys and reprocess them into new sheet.”
Recycling uses 95% less energy than mining ore and refining it into aluminum and about a third less energy over its lifetime compared to that of HSS, says Novelis, citing Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates. The expectation is that the energy savings can help cut the prices of its aluminum auto sheet products.
The company plans to soon start construction in Oswego of a $45 million, 81,000-ft² facility for recycling auto scrap aluminum. It is also developing “special trucks” engineered to carry the big, heavy rolls of sheet to stamping plants and return with loads of aluminum scrap for reuse, Palmieri said.
Likewise, “when cars like these [on display] are finally junked, they will be dismantled and the aluminum melted down to replenish the basic supply,” he said. “Today as a company, we already recycle 43% of the aluminum we use, and we’re aiming for 80% recycling by 2020.”