Did Auto, Aluminum Makers Act Too Soon?

By Tim Triplett

Did the aluminum industry jump the gun in its pursuit of the automotive market? World Steel Dynamics’ Peter Marcus contends that aluminum makers underestimated the steel industry’s ability to innovate and develop new high-strength steels. Investments by the major aluminum companies in new automotive sheet capacity may prove premature if new sales to automakers don’t materialize, he argues.

His criticism extends to the auto companies, as well. “Ford Motor Co. made a huge mistake going to the all-aluminum body on its F-150,” he told attendees at Harbor Aluminum’s Summit in Chicago last month. Ford committed to the aluminum-bodied truck in 2009, well before the new federal fuel efficiency requirements were announced, assuming a move to aluminum parts would be necessary no matter what the final mileage standards.

In fact, contend steelmakers, vehicle designers can meet their weight-reduction goals with a combination of lighter high-strength steel parts and powertrain improvements. Many of those advanced high-strength steel alloys have been developed over the past five years and did not yet exist when Ford made its move.

Marcus predicts aluminum’s market share will rise dramatically over the next three years, but at that point will level off as further use of advanced high-strength steel gains traction among the auto brands. The cost differential between the two materials will be too compelling. Aluminum may be inherently lighter, but steel is inherently cheaper, even after all the R&D, Marcus says. He estimates the cost for stamped dual-phase steel at less than $1.30, versus over $4 for 5182 and $5 for 6111 series aluminum, in a comparable part.

As convincing as Marcus’ arguments appear, other analysts offer a much different view. Ducker Worldwide’s Richard Schultz estimates worldwide use of aluminum sheet in auto production will jump twenty-fold by 2025. He credits the aluminum producers with more market savvy than Marcus. “They wouldn’t be investing this much in aluminum projects if they didn’t have a user,” he says.

Lloyd O’Carroll, at Northcoast Research, notes that aluminum makers’ conversions of can sheet mills to automotive sheet mills are economical and produce a high-quality product. They have been burned in the past by carmakers promising purchases that never materialized, so they are wary. “Aluminum companies are not putting projects in place without long-term contracts and minimum buys. If you see an announcement, it’s pre-sold,” says O’Carroll.

Observers from both sides of the automotive materials debate point to the possibility that “us versus them” may well turn into an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” proposition. “You’ll see one or two steel companies buying up some of these aluminum assets in the next decade,” predicts Schultz.
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Wednesday, July 26, 2017