The aluminum giants Alcoa Inc. and Novelis Inc. have spent time convincing Detroit automakers’ that aluminum is the way to go when it comes to building lighter vehicles. These companies are finally reaping the benefits of that long campaign, as Ford Motor Co. will launch its new aluminum-bodied F-150 truck. A handful of rivals are making their way into an industry that could be worth $10 billion in a decade. Since Ford unveiled the truck’s new design, Constellium NV has announced plans to build a U.S. body sheet plant while Aleris Corp. and Wise Metals Group are considering a foray into the burgeoning U.S. sheet market.
Novelis and Alcoa are not afraid of the competition since it will be several years before rivals start production. The demand may grow by 40 percent over the next decade. The rapid shift into automotive sheet shows how quickly a hard-fought innovation can spill over and benefit the competition. For decades, aluminum has been used as a lighter alternative to steel in wheels, engines and the hoods of some models. Lighter vehicles can run on less fuel, stop and start more quickly and haul heavier loads. Audi and other premium carmakers have built aluminum bodies for years, but relatively high costs have capped aluminum use in the United States.
The biggest breakthrough came 15 years ago when Alcoa invented an invisible coating, called A951, which makes bonds between aluminum parts more durable and longer lasting. Automotive aluminum demand in North America is expected to rise 40 percent to 4.5 million tons by 2025, according to a study by Ducker Worldwide. At current aluminum prices, that is worth $10 billion and represents just under 10 percent of current global consumption.