How Aluminum Could Revolutionize the Auto Industry


(Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

(Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

The next time you finish off a can of soda, take a moment to notice the composition of the packaging. Most likely, you have been drinking from an aluminum can — if not a plastic bottle, that is — as you have been for much of your life. Would you have ever imagined the same material that makes up that can would someday become one of the leading components in auto manufacturing? It may seem unlikely, but it’s true. In fact, the lightweight metal is turning the entire auto industry on its head thanks to some engineering prowess and demand for more efficient vehicles.

The main force behind aluminum’s surge in manufacturing is how light it is compared to other metals, notably steel. Over at Ford’s (NYSE:F) engineering headquarters, technicians were able to make the company’s best-selling F-150 pickup 700 pounds lighter than before simply by using a 95 percent aluminum body in lieu of steel. According to Forbes, the change was made to increase fuel economy in the face of changing consumer demands but also to keep the truck’s capability intact.

The 2015 F-150′s chief engineer, Pete Reyes, told Forbes his team used some simple tactics to make sure the aluminum-based truck lived up to its predecessors. “Aluminum being a third as dense as steel, you can have three times the thickness before you have the same weight as steel. So in a lot of cases, we tailored it to the strength we needed,” he said.

Reyes explained that aluminum can be calibrated to contend with steel’s strength, but the major drawback is that it is more expensive. Three times more expensive, according to The Wall Street Journal. Not only are automakers faced with a new material needed for manufacturing that ends up weighing more on their bottom line, but new production machinery and training for employees also requires bigger upfront investments.