Considering the industry's current cost-consciousness, there might be some difficulty believing that auto makers are willing to replace an inexpensive component with another part that costs three times as much.
But that's exactly what auto makers are proposing to the aluminum industry, says Richard L. Klimisch Aluminum Assn. Inc. vice president. “If we can get aluminum down to three times the price of steel, there'll be more aluminum orders than we can handle,” says Klimisch. “We're not there yet. Aluminum is still more expensive, but you only have to use half as much.”
Less aluminum is needed because it's stronger than steel. It's a characteristic often lost on the general public, who generally associate aluminum with flimsy consumer products such as aluminum foil or soda cans. Despite its high cost and image problem, aluminum still is winning more automotive applications, based on an AAI-commissioned report compiled by Ducker Research Co. Inc., a Bloomfield Hills, MI-based industrial market intelligence outfit.
Automotive aluminum use increased 10% from 1999 to 2002. Ducker says the average aluminum content per vehicle totals 274 lbs. (124.5 kg) today, up from 251 lbs. (114.1 kg) in 1999 and 183 lbs. (83.2 kg) in 1991. “As the automotive industry goes, that's a big leap,” says Klimisch.
Those gains are even more impressive in light of the depressed steel and magnesium prices during the last couple of years. Both materials are top competitors to aluminum in automotive applications.
Aluminum's biggest gains are coming in engine blocks, cylinder heads and control arms. Overall engine block penetration totals 35.4% in 2002 vs. 22.5% in 1999.
Cylinder head penetration jumped from 69.4% three years ago to 84% this year. Engine-related penetration will continue to go up at least through mid-decade as General Motors Corp. converts most of its engines to all-aluminum architectures.
There are 2.6 million more aluminum control arms and lateral suspension links than in 1999, says Scott Ulrick, senior partner at Ducker. And the number of aluminum closure panels increased to 3.8 million parts from 2.2 million in 1999. Suspension parts and closure panels are two areas of vehicle real estate that the steel industry has attempted to defend by releasing studies promoting the use of new steels that provide weight savings and higher performance.
Aluminum usage is increasing more quickly in light trucks because of intense pressure to improve the fuel economy of big pickups and SUVs. Average aluminum content per light truck rose from 257 lbs. (116.8 kg) in 1999 to 279 lbs. (126.8 kg) this year. A 68% increase has been recorded over 11 years. Average aluminum content per passenger car currently is at 267 lbs. (121.4 kg), up from 242 lbs. (110 kg) in 1999.
A summary of the changes in the aluminum content for all 16 systems in the study shows that every product form except forgings and impacts are increasing. AAI believes the next big conquest will be door panels. “That's the next frontier,” says Klimisch.
However, the aluminum industry may be hard-pressed to keep up the kind of growth it's recorded since the early 1990s. While magnesium remains a minor threat, steel will be significantly harder to oust, especially if the high-tech steels catch on, and there are some indications that is happening. Cadillac CTS uses ultra-high-strength steels in welded subassemblies and Group Lotus Ltd. is replacing aluminum with micro air-cooled forged steel in the four suspension system uprights in its Series 2 Lotus Elise sports car.