Needless to say, working with aluminum is not the same as working with steel.
"I think I lost a large portion of my hair trying to make that [first aluminum] job work. I must have spent weeks fighting splits and wrinkles. It wasn't long before I came to the conclusion that drawing and stretching aluminum were not as easy as I had thought," wrote Art Hedrick, STAMPING Journal's tool and die expert, in a 2007 column.
Will Ford's manufacturing operations experience the same frustration?
Time will tell, but engineers and tool- and diemakers are already gearing up. That much is known after word leaked in late July that the 108-year-old company was looking to incorporate aluminum body panels in its hugely popular F-150® pickup truck, starting with the 2014 model year. Ford officials told The Wall Street Journal that the lighter body panels can help to cut the overall weight of the truck by 700 pounds, helping it to meet federally imposed fuel economy standards not just for 2014, but all the way to 2020. The Journal also reported that a Ford assembly plant near Detroit could begin producing aluminum parts in the fall.
Ford is a trailblazer in the sense that it is committing to make a switch to aluminum body panels for a vehicle that is designed for work instead of simply commuting. However, it's a stretch to call it the first automaker to go this route. Jaguar produced its XJ® model with aluminum body panels in 2002.
Jaguar worked closely with its technology partners, such as Schuler and Bilsing Automation, to work out the production processes over six months. Jaguar chose hydraulic presses with programmable rams and cushions, which helped to control the drawing process and eliminate potential problems with the temperamental material. The presses also offered smoother engagement with the aluminum than typical technology of the time did.
Nowadays the engineering staff probably can try out many forming scenarios for the aluminum panels in a 3-D modeling environment. Hot stamping and servo press technology also are available to improve material flow or to impart actual changes in the material. The push to create a truck with aluminum panels doesn't sound as crazy as it might to the general public.
That's a testament to our industry. Many think of metal forming simply as banging out metal parts quickly and cheaply on old presses, but the craft of metal stamping continues to evolve—manufacturing hard-to-fathom goals into production reality.
Manufacturers can make it happen. Only consumers, however, will determine if an aluminum truck meets their expectations. Ford sells more than 400,000 F-150s per year, so the company's marketing department better get to work.