Commercialization Flash: Aluminum Bodies on Ford Pickups

Ford’s crown jewel is the F150 pickup, the best-selling vehicle in North America for more than 30 years, and best-selling truck for more than 40. Rather than resting on its laurels they made a significant commercialization bet moving their crown jewel to aluminum bodies back in the 2015 model year. The switch cost more than $1 billion and took six years to implement. Use of aluminum is common in specialized production like aircraft and limited production, high-end vehicles like the Audi A8 and Jaguar XJ, but this move to a high-volume production vehicle, let alone the top-selling vehicle in the US, is significant.

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Industry analysts see this switch as calculated to get Ford down the steep aluminum production and servicing learning curve quickly by starting with their highest volume vehicle. Weight savings on the F150 comes in at 700 pounds per vehicle, providing both a fuel economy and carrying capacity boost, and combined with a bevy of new, fuel efficient engine options across its product line will give its fleet significant fuel economy increases over the next several years.

There are some clear challenges in this commercialization move. Aluminum is lighter than steel, but also far more brittle, tending to crack versus bend; it has high heat-transfer characteristics, requiring specialized welding equipment and techniques; and joining different metals together produces corrosion requiring specialized assembly methods. Also the commercial aviation industry is moving production from aluminum to carbon-fiber, raising the possibility of auto manufacturing skipping aluminum in favor of carbon-fiber.

What to watch for? Putting aluminum bodies into volume production is a calculated commercialization bet, taking a specialized, low volume technique and scaling it. The upside is clear benefit of the fleet’s fuel efficiency and relative advantage over the competition. The downside is the approach doesn’t pay off and Ford’s competitors benefit from its failed investment – by not making it.