Machinery Chatter
Jim Patrico Progressive Farmer Senior Editor

Wednesday 01/15/14

F-150 Gets Lighter

An aluminum pickup truck? That's the question behind a big gamble Ford has made with its new F-150. There are several reasons to think it will succeed.

Ford trucks for model year 2015 will use aluminum for much of their body. The frame will remain high-strength steel.

One, the 2015 models will be 700 pounds lighter than this year's, which should mean a significant improvement in gas mileage. (One estimate I have seen is 30-mpg highway for some models.) Two, it could be the start of a trend for all automakers, who must meet much higher federal mileage standards in a few years. Being first with aluminum could burnish Ford's already shiny reputation for innovation. Three, Ford has sold 33 million F-Series trucks since 1948 and more than 760,000 last year alone. It has a lot of loyal truck buyers anxious to buy another one.

The main bugaboo, of course, is that aluminum just doesn't have the same reputation for strength as steel or sheet metal. The gamble revolves around buyer acceptance of an unfamiliar concept.

To be clear, the 2015 F-150s will not be totally aluminum. The frame will be high-strength steel and the engine will be traditional metals. Aluminum alloys will make up part of the engine compartment and most of what you see on the outside of the vehicle. Ford spokesman Doug Scott told reporters at the Detroit Auto Show: "We are using the same alloys that are used in the Hummer and the Bradley fighting vehicle. We have the same objective of strength and durability."

Obviously, Ford wants to convince truck buyers that aluminum is not wimpy. To that end, it launched the new F-150s with a stealth trial program. It lent trucks to a gold mine, an energy utility and a construction firm without telling the users the truck bodies were aluminum. After about 300,000 total miles - -much of it grueling work -- engineers took apart the trucks to evaluate their condition and eventually made some tweaks. Marketers quizzed the users about their experience. Sales staffs weighed pros and cons. Based on positive reviews, top executives then decided to roll the dice, hoping Ford can create a perception that the new trucks are as strong and reliable as their predecessors.

Expect Ford's future ads and commercials to stress the toughness and durability of the new F-150s. Also expect to see more comfort features and enticing technologies in the new pickups. Ford already is talking about LED headlights, a 360-degree camera view for backing into tight spots, blind spot detection when changing lanes and active park assist. It also says the new trucks will have more engine choices and will have plenty of towing power.

I live 40 miles from Ford's assembly plant near Kansas City where F-150s roll off the assembly line at a rate of about 340,000 every year. That's about one truck per minute during a workweek running three shifts. It represents almost 5,000 well-paying union jobs for the area. Add to that thousands of suppliers and related industries. Little wonder that anything having to do with F-150 is big news here.

The Kansas City Star, for instance, pointed out that Ford would have to invest a ton of money in its Kansas City plant because working with aluminum presents some special assembly challenges. Welding aluminum is different than welding steel, for instance. Even the process of moving heavy components will have to be changed because workers now often use strong magnets to lift and carry steel parts. That won't work with sheets of aluminum.

Think about dealers and body shops, who will have to learn to make repairs on aluminum parts. And insurance companies: How will their rates adjust to the new concept?

Obviously, there are a lot of angles to Ford's aluminum gamble. It's too early to establish odds.

(AG)

Posted at 3:41PM CST 01/15/14 by Jim Patrico
Comments (5)
Are many rail cars and semi-trailers not manufactured from aluminum alloys?
Posted by Bonnie Dukowitz at 5:36AM CST 01/17/14
As a semi owner I have had reliability issues with both aluminum frames and bodies when put into situations where twisting forces are present (farm use). I foresee serious longevity issues with aluminum body parts. Especially farm, industrial or commercial uses. Mike
Posted by Mike Baker at 9:59AM CST 01/18/14
Does this that the new Ford pickups will not rust?!!
Posted by JEFF HANSON at 8:49AM CST 01/20/14
Does this mean that the new Ford pickups will not rust?!!
Posted by JEFF HANSON at 8:53AM CST 01/20/14
Aluminum does not rust but it does corode. I'm sure Ford has figured out how to build a quality product. Just look at Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks for example, they have been utilizing aluminum in their cabs for many many years with very few problems. Those of you who don't believe in aluminum bodies, I'm betting you are diehard GM or Ram fans. Ford is not going to release a new F150 unless they truely believe it will hold up to their already high standards. Lets face it, they simply could not afford for the f150 to flop. I will bet big bucks that says it will be a huge hit.
Posted by RJZ Peterson at 1:01PM CST 01/21/14
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