Low oil prices are igniting vehicle sales. And those old, American favorites – sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks – are becoming popular again
Increased sale have, in turn, spurred greater demand of certain metals.
Now it looks like another metal is going to benefit from increased purchases of pickups and other vehicles – aluminum.
A Truck-Load of Aluminum
Ford Motor (F) is leading a revolution in vehicle manufacturing. The company is changing from constructing vehicle bodies out of steel to making them out of aluminum, as a way to improve fuel efficiency.
Ford is betting a lot on this new tactic. In fact, it’s overhauling the construction the F-150 pickup – the top-selling vehicles in North America for 32 consecutive years – by using new techniques involving aluminum. The F-150 is also estimated to account for about 90% of the company’s global profits.
Using aluminum instead of steel will reduce the F-150’s weight by about 700 pounds, resulting in fuel savings of somewhere between 5% and 20%.
The Financial Times described the new process, saying, “Most of the aluminum pieces are screwed, riveted, or glued together, while a few critical components are welded with highly concentrated – non-spark-producing – lasers.”
The key takeaway for investors here is that the auto industry will use the metal in volumes never seen before.
Obviously, the aluminum industry is all for this change, and is eager to provide Ford with all the aluminum it wants.
New Tech Boosts Demand
Foremost among these companies is the industry leader, Alcoa (AA), which has the F-150 contract.
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Serendipitously, the company also recently announced a breakthrough technological process it developed called Micromill.
Essentially, raw aluminum is put into a furnace where it’s mixed with other metals and turned into an alloy. This molten alloy metal is then cast directly onto a conveyor belt, where it’s flattened into coils and sold to automobile companies.
The Micromill method is more cost-efficient and eliminates the current process of casting the metal into slabs and then rolling these slabs into coils. The new process reduces the time needed to convert molten aluminum into coils from 20 days to 20 minutes!
But most importantly for vehicle makers, the aluminum that comes out of the process is 30% stronger and twice as formable as the high-strength steel most automakers use today. The aluminum made using this process will also be 30% stronger and 40% more formable than the aluminum Alcoa sells today.
Regarding the technology, Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld said, “Alcoa Micromill represents a major breakthrough in aluminum materials. This technology will unlock the next generation of automotive products with strength, formability, and surface quality combinations never before possible.”
The process should be available sometime around 2018 and will increase even more the auto industry’s usage of aluminum.
A Shiny Future
The marketplace climate certainly looks perfect for Alcoa and its Micromill.
Automakers are being forced to look for ways to improve fuel efficiency by the government’s target for fleet fuel mileage. And trucks are back in high demand.
Thus, lighter trucks will be an easy step for vehicle manufacturers in meeting goals and demand.
A step that will also likely raise Alcoa’s profitability.
And “the chase” continues,
P.S. Follow me on twitter @TimMaverickWSD