Of Humvees and Heroes: Aluminum, Steel Do Battle

Of Humvees and Heroes: Aluminum, Steel Do Battle

Ford had been kicking around the idea for 20 years or so when it announced its ’15 F-150 pickup would be built primarily not of steel but of aluminum. The debate about the merits of the two metals has been raging within the three industries since word about Ford’s plans first got out.

Whether Ford’s gamble pays off and rival automakers currently disdainful of the hype surrounding the F-150 eventually up the aluminum content in their trucks are questions being mulled by product planners, designers and engineers.

And let’s not forget marketers.

A key issue in the public aluminum-vs.-steel standoff is strength. And to bolster their respective claims, each side is playing the military and, by extension, the patriotism card. The implication is that if it’s strong enough to protect soldiers in combat, then it’s strong enough, and safe enough, for you and everybody in your truck.

Ford advertising assures us it uses “military-grade” aluminum alloy, which differs from pure aluminum in that it also contains small amounts of metals including copper, magnesium and chromium.  Manufacturer Alcoa, a Ford supplier, makes an unalloyed connection between aluminum and military applications, notably the aluminum plate used to “up-armor” Humvee personnel carriers – which, like the F-150, are built with an aluminum body over a steel frame – as they became targets of roadside bombs during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“All Alcoans are working hard to ensure that these orders move quickly through the plant in order to support our troops,” Alcoa says in a press release.

The steel folks are raising the stakes as the buzz around the F-150 continues, even with its aluminum sheen somewhat tarnished by word the Ram 1500 powered by a 3.0L V-6 EcoDiesel turns in better EPA-rated fuel economy than Ford’s 2.7L V-6 Eco Boost gasoline-burner.

At last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Steel Market Development Institute set up shop near a critical high-traffic area: a corner of the sprawling media work area occupied by tables laden with coffee urns, bottled water, pop (in THOSE cans, not steel), baked goodies and sundry snacks.

The exhibit featured a chassis stripped down to its steel skeleton against a near-billboard-sized backdrop illustrated with a soldier-type dressed in camo fatigues and holding a beaming little boy, also dressed in camo, presumably his son – above the caption, “When performance matters, nothing is as sure as steel.”

A press release from the marketing group lays it on even thicker, showing the same image over the caption, “Our Beloved Military & Veterans: Protected on the Battlefield and Back Home” and declaring, “Inconsistent performance is not an option when lives are on the line.”

Protecting soldiers in their aluminum-retrofitted Humvees, or protecting camo-clad Dad? Emotional advantage: steel – which, in high-strength and ultra-high-strength form – is used in 77% of the F-150’s frame, while aluminum alloy is used in the Silverado’s and Sierra’s engines blocks, cylinder heads, hoods and front suspensions. The facts tend to make the message fuzzy.

There’s nothing at all unusual about this steel-aluminum synergy to the product planners, designers and engineers who look at materials dispassionately while marketers, at best, want to instill confidence in consumers about their product or, at worst, want to raise doubts about a competing product.

How are consumers responding? “That aluminum truck,” the F-150, as usual outsold the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra combined in January, albeit fewer than one in five were the new, aluminum-intensive version. Credit a loyal customer base unlikely to be swayed by reductive marketing.

The manufacturers’ ultimate objective is meeting ever-tightening CAFE standards, and both aluminum and steel are weapons in their campaign to shave weight from their trucks. The steel camp shouldn’t worry about being left behind, and the aluminum camp shouldn’t be printing any “Mission Accomplished” banners.

In other words: Make trucks, not war.

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