Alcoa is lightweighting the way

  • 25-Apr-2008 03:19 EDT
alcoa_bus for China.jpg

Alcoa is working with Zhengzhou Yutong Bus Co., China’s largest bus manufacturer, to design lighter buses that make extensive use of aluminum in time for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Aluminum will be greenhouse gas neutral by 2025, according to an Alcoa report on its website: “In the critical transportation industry, our research in life cycle modeling has shown that by [2025] the emissions of the entire aluminum industry can be offset by the potential emission savings from the transport sector’s increased use of aluminum.”

Having the transportation sector indeed use more aluminum in its end products is the ultimate goal of Kevin Kramer, President of Alcoa’s newly formed Wheel and Transportation Products business unit. It made sense to combine the previous Wheel Products and Auto and Truck Structures businesses into one unit, he said, because of their adjacent growth opportunities and common customer needs for highly engineered, lightweight solutions.

Headquartered in Cleveland, OH, the new business unit serves the commercial vehicle, automotive, and defense markets.

“We have found ourselves in a somewhat enviable position because of our brand presence with consumers, especially on the [heavy-duty] truck side, making sure there is a clear understanding of the lightweight safety elements that aluminum brings as an alternative typically to steel,” said Kramer. “The challenge for the Transportation Products piece, now woven into Wheels, is consistent with what we’ve been trying to do with wheels—there is a premium that you pay initially, but it’s making sure that the lightweight/safety value proposition is well understood.”

For the past 30 years, aluminum content per vehicle has grown every year, he noted, and aluminum is the second most commonly used material for vehicle production. In 2006, the global average for aluminum content per vehicle was about 319 lb (145 kg), according to industry estimates. That figure is expected to rise to more than 330 lb (150 kg) by the end of the decade, no doubt driven by the need for vehicle weight reduction in response to new and more stringent CAFE regulations in North America.

“We’re still finding plenty of opportunities to increase the average weight [of aluminum] per vehicle,” Kramer said. “I think we’ll see the increased aluminum content in structural chassis parts—everything from engine cradles to A-pillars, B-pillars, full spaceframes, etc. And that’s where a lot of the inquiries and interest that we’re pursuing right now are.”

A technology that Alcoa is confident will make further inroads is its proprietary Alcoa Vacuum Die Casting (AVDC). Nissan’s new GT-R sports sedan makes use of AVDC for its inner-door and rear-seat structures. Both components also feature new, proprietary alloys that are derived from the company’s work with aerospace alloys.

The C-446 alloy used for the single-piece door reduces the weight of the completed door assembly by 35% compared to a conventional steel door, while consolidating parts and “providing all the safety specs that one would expect obviously. Nothing is compromised,” said Kramer.

Alcoa believes the technology can extend into other automotive applications, and even into the commercial transportation sector. “We are working on other structural components within Ferrari spaceframes, as an example, so AVDC can be used for various sectional pieces in an overall spaceframe.”

The Wheels segment has seen consistent growth, but Kramer does not see huge percentage gains in the future. “I don’t want to call [the market] saturated, but we may see a shift from cast wheels to forged wheels, just because there’s a greater weight savings with forged wheels vs. cast.”

He also expects Alcoa’s Dura-Bright wheel technology, which has been “very effective” on heavy trucks, trailers, and buses around the globe, to become more commonplace in the auto industry. “Dura-Bright is not a coating but a surface treatment that we patented a number of years ago initially for the commercial transportation industry,” Kramer explained. “We would take a polished, or satin-finished, truck wheel and apply this process that basically changes the metallurgy of the base metal. Then we have a unique final process that protects against filiform corrosion and also rejects brake dust, mud, and so forth. You don’t have to polish your wheels—hit them with a hose and they remain very clean.”

Alcoa is now supplying Dura-Bright to Shelby Automobiles for the company’s 2008 Mustang King of the Road and Super Snake models. The technology is also on some new Saleen fitments, as well as Porsche fitments by German tuner Techart.

Also on the commercial-vehicle side, Alcoa has partnered with the largest bus manufacturer in China, Zhengzhou Yutong Bus Co., to build an aluminum-intensive bus. Prototypes are expected to be ready in time for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.

“We’re excited about…providing a unique bus structure that significantly reduces the weight and CO2 emissions but still maintains safety standards,” said Kramer, noting that Alcoa is adding sales engineers in China to work with truck and bus fleets on adopting the company’s one-piece forged wheels.
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