Few automakers have switched vehicle bodies to aluminum, but the lightweight metal is making inroads. Ford's F-150, Cadillac's CT6, General Motors' next-generation pickups, the redesigned Jeep Wrangler and the Jaguar XE have — or will have — aluminum body panels.
Ganesh Panneer, general manager of automotive in North America for aluminum supplier Novelis, says vehicles made from mixed materials — steel, aluminum, plastic and magnesium — are emerging as the preferred lightweight strategy. He spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
Q: Aluminum is being used more for closures, doors, hoods, etc. Why haven't more automakers switched to full aluminum bodies?
A: A few years ago when Jaguar started with its all-aluminum body, that was thought to be the solution. The most recent example we have is the Ford pickup with the all-aluminum body. As the design philosophy evolved, and the manufacturing technology evolved, we've seen that the optimal solution is really a mix of materials, with aluminum still being the predominant material of the three — steel, carbon and aluminum.
I believe the future will be more of a mixed material strategy rather than a single material. The best example you can see on the roads today is the Cadillac CT6, which still has more than 50 percent aluminum, with the rest being steels, plastics and some composites. This is simply because the design community and the industry are figuring out that there is no one material that provides everything in one form. The best approach is to mix and match the material and optimize each part and optimize the overall body.
What are Novelis' top priorities?
We have three main priorities in innovation where we're putting our r&d efforts. The first is greater formability. In a few months we expect to have a superhigh formable alloy out of either a fusion of alloys or a monolithic solution, and this will allow our customers to further push their designs. The second one is high strength. We want to continue to develop products that have high yield strength and be in the position to compete with high-strength steel. There are some products in the trial phase right now. Hopefully, we'll have some in the market fairly soon.
The third area is in joining. It's basically riveting, bonding and spot welding. We want to be able to provide aluminum solutions that work with a variety of these joining technologies. Being able to join aluminum with steel or with composites is going to be key in the future.
Once aluminum welding is perfected and can be done at high volumes, will we see more use of aluminum?
It will help in the penetration of aluminum into the mainstream. Formability and strength will be key factors. It's all going to come down specific applications, and how aluminum competes with steel in that particular application. If you think of certain parts, such as B-pillars and B-pillar reinforcements, we could really see applications of higher-strength aluminums coming into the market and being quite competitive with steel.
Have cheaper fuel, slacking consumer demand for fuel efficient vehicles and uncertainty about how the government might change fuel economy standards affected automakers' decisions to increase aluminum content?
We don't see that. We're quite curious to see what will happen to the 2025 fuel economy standards, but at the same time we are seeing a strong pull from customers to use aluminum in more of their designs. We still see strong growth, especially in the closure area.
The shift you are seeing in the marketplace — moving from midsize cars to SUVs — is clearly also playing into it. The larger the vehicle, the more need there is for lightweighting.
Do electric vehicles offer the potential for large growth?
Yes. Certainly. We see electric vehicles being one of the growth areas in the automotive space. One of the issues EV manufacturers face today is maximizing the range. And the lighter body helps them achieve a higher range.
When will new grades of aluminum arrive that give designers more freedom to create deeper curves and bends in the metal?
We have just started introducing Novelis e200 into the North American market. E200 is a highly formable alloy that allows us to draw inner and outer panels with crisper shapes and lines. Several customers are trialing the product and the early trials are very encouraging. Currently, if you look at the Porsche Panamera body, which uses e200, this is an example of how well e200 works.