A battery of questions about the implications for the electronics industry came to mind when Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) recently announced the new F-150 pickup’s aluminum construction. My initial question was “What are the downsides of switching from steel to aluminum?” Without a doubt, the issues involving safety and overall strength become primary consumer concerns as pick-up trucks are subject to more wear and tear and are more prone to roll-over than the average on-road sedan.
Aluminum manufacturers like Alcoa, (NYSE: AA), are avidly marketing their products to electronic OEMs with the hope of increasing the use of this material. For example, Alcoa recently announced it has begun offering electronic companies aerospace-grade aluminum they can use in consumer products to make mobile devices that are thinner, lighter and stronger than current offerings. The company said it expects the new proprietary aluminum, codenamed ProStrength, would gain greater use in the electronics market as manufacturers try to distinguish their products and meet customer requirements.
“Consumer electronics makers had been exploring ways to create beautiful anodized finishes on aerospace-grade aluminum alloys because they are among the strongest, yet lightest metals available,” said Ray Kilmer, chief technology officer at Alcoa in the statement. “ProStrength’s anodized finish creates the metallic look and feel that consumers prefer, and the high-strength aluminum allows manufacturers to produce thinner, lighter, and more durable enclosures.”
Ford is blazing a path many in the electronics industry are likely to follow. In my mind I see how quickly the idea of an aluminum pickup bed showing a 1:1 bash-to-dent ratio would be a sales and marketing nightmare. Ford announced the new design uses “military grade” aluminum. So I went to Wikipedia and asked “What is military grade aluminum?” No pertinent answers were forthcoming. I then asked Google to show me a table of aluminum alloys. Bingo. There are more than a few and I found where Aerospace uses alloy aluminum on the Space Shuttle and other mission critical applications.
Even though “military grade” is an impressive term, I wanted to quantify the differences. However, not knowing what alloy specifically is being used throws up another roadblock toward an empirical evidence argument. If there is one thing I have learned as a component engineer, it is the fact that quality trade-offs are made when money is balancing the other side of the equation. So Ford must have found the sweet spot between quality and cost without negatively impacting durability, reliability, and safety. I am sure an engineering team had to stand in front of management and definitively swear that all of the criteria for a good and practical design had been met. So is it time to invest in aluminum stocks?
Aluminum Electrolytic and polymer aluminum capacitors have been the staple ripple voltage filter components in almost every AC power supply. Even with rising demands for these types of capacitors, as concerns the electronics industry, the pricing may remain stable for years to come. Currently supply is outstripping demand. Even with the current supply conditions, Alcoa Aluminum is adding manufacturing capacity to handle increased demands from the auto industry. It is a good bet, that any electronics components like heat sinks and motor housings will also enjoy a cost stability due to the plentiful supplies of raw materials.
In 1972, approximately 26,500 tons of aluminum cans were recycled and today that number is estimated to be as high as 800,000 tons; Over 100,000 Aluminum cans are recycled every minute in the United States alone. Every can that is recycled means more resources that are available at a lesser cost. Even though the economic benefits are straightforward, there are still many hundreds of thousands of tons of aluminum cans every year that are being disposed off alongside roadways, in dumpsters, and in office trash cans.
Aluminum can be recycled without degradation so it is a highly sustainable material. Aluminum is the third most plentiful element known to man; only oxygen and silicon exist in greater quantities. So for all the negative quips asking if Ford’s new F-150 is a rolling beer can, as far as the environment is concerned, that may not be an insult at all.
According to a recent study by the United States Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, “Opting for aluminum over steel in new automobile construction to improve fuel economy is also the best way to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.”
Highlights from the ORNL study include:
- Reducing vehicle weight with aluminum can results in the lowest total vehicle lifecycle environmental impact – cradle-to-grave – as compared to both traditional and advanced steels.
- An aluminum-intensive vehicle can achieve up to a 32 percent reduction in total lifecycle energy consumption, and up to a 29 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, compared to a typical vehicle on the road today which uses traditional and high-strength steel in the body construction.
- While a lightweight steel vehicle has a lower production phase environmental impact, those initial gains are erased by higher energy use and carbon emissions during the steel vehicle’s use phase.
- More than 90 percent of automobile energy consumption and carbon emissions occurs during the vehicle’s use phase, with the mining, production and manufacturing phases accounting for just 10 percent or less.
- For an aluminum intensive vehicle, the breakeven point in its use phase for making up the energy consumed during the initial production phase is 9,300 miles – of which most automobiles on U.S. roads would reach in their first year of operation.
Ford executives have stated that the military grade aluminum alloy is the same alloy as used in the Hummer and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Not specifically stating where on these war machines the alloy is being used, for me, begs the question of safety. If the alloy is used for the chassis vs. the flashing around a headlight, then that is saying something. I think we really won’t know anything about safety for perhaps another year when statistical data pulled from customer experiences become the de facto realities moderating the market-speak.
My initial question was: “What are the downsides of switching from steel to aluminum?” I think I will take a Mulligan on that question and ask another: Why have we not used aluminum for this level of car manufacturing before? Obviously, whatever the downsides, the engineers at Ford have more than compensated and are possibly opening up a new market for aluminum. Today’s alchemists are those who have switched from gold (AU) synthesis research to practical use aluminum (AL) results and yet ironically, they still may be producing real gold.