Alcoa Aluminum Wheel

In the Walter Brooke line from the 1967 movie “The Graduate”, Dustin Hoffman’s character is advised to pursue a career in plastics. Today, the same line might have been about aluminum, as vehicle manufacturers strive to reduce weight and raise mileage.

Alcoa announced in a January 23 press release the latest version of its Dura-Bright® wheel for commercial trucks. Compared to its predecessor, the Dura-Bright® wheel with XBR® technology, the new surface-treated Dura-Bright® EVO wheel is ten times more resistant to corrosion caused by salt-treated roads and weather.

Tim Myers, president of Alcoa Wheel and Transportation Products, headquartered in Cleveland, explains that “the Dura-Bright® EVO wheel is Alcoa’s easiest-to-maintain wheel yet, meaning it can stand up against the harshest weather, road salts, grime and cleaning agents that can corrode and dull standard commercial truck wheels.” According to Alcoa’s press release, the EVO is also three times more resistant to the chemicals used in truck wash cleaning solutions, including hydrofluoric acid, allowing a wider variety of choices when cleaning the wheels.

Made from a single piece of forged aluminum, Alcoa’s wheels are lighter and five times stronger than steel wheels. Because Dura-Bright® is surface treatment rather than a coating, it penetrates the aluminum, becoming a part of the wheel.

Currently the Dura-Bright® EVO wheel is produced in Alcoa’s Hungarian plant and is commercially available in Europe. Alcoa expects the EVO to be available in all other markets in 2015.

Alcoa credits emissions regulations and maintenance costs for driving up the European demand for lightweight and easier-to-maintain aluminum wheels. With its high fuel prices, Europe’s history of aluminum car parts dates to the 1930s Bugatti. But the push to reduce vehicle weight is being felt in the U.S as well, and not just by commercial carriers.

One of Alcoa’s customers was the talk of the North American Auto Show in Detroit in early January. Ford’s 2015 F-150 domestic pickup is 97 percent aluminum. Ford took a calculated risk with one of its best-selling models because small business owners called for a more fuel-efficient pickup, while government requirements on fuel economy tightened.

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford emphasized the fuel savings, saying that “for our customers, gasoline is a cost. This is a work truck. Fuel costs are a very important part of their overall equation.”

The new F-150 is expected to be competitively priced. Aluminum costs more than steel, but the current price is relatively cheap. However, independent auto industry analyst Bertrand Rakoto warns that aluminum’s history of big price swings could be a problem, if other auto manufacturers follow suit.

“… It is new and ambitious on a work vehicle, because it will be dented and is more expensive to repair,” said Rakoto. “You have to have a service network equipped with special tools and forms.”

Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of auto sales forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm, sees the new F-150 as a bad omen for the steel industry, as it marks the trend toward lighter materials.

Improvements in aluminum are making it an even more attractive choice. Three years ago Alcoa developed a way to pretreat aluminum, to make it more durable when parts are joined. Alcoa spokesman Kevin Lowery said that with improvements in aluminum, automakers can use three or four rivets for bonds between parts that once needed ten rivets.

Other auto manufacturers at the Detroit show use aluminum as part of a weight-loss plan for domestic vehicles, as well as titanium, magnesium, Kevlar, fiberglass and carbon fiber. According to Art St Cyr, American Honda’s vice president for product planning. Honda uses magnesium for steering beams and aluminum for hoods, depending upon the model.

“There are a lot of approaches to light weight,” said St. Cyr, “We have used aluminum in hoods, fenders. But we have been able to achieve weight reduction with ultra-high strength steel.”

General Motors spokesman Dan Flores said “carmakers are leaving no stone unturned while looking for ways to take weight out of the vehicle.” GM product development chief Mark Reuss says lightweight materials will be used mainly on bigger, heavier vehicles, but does not expect aluminum to replace steel on a large scale.

“There is no silver bullet. It’s not all about substituting a material for another… it’s also about engineering,” said Reuss. GM trimmed 110 pounds from its Corvette supercar by replacing rivets with spot-welding on its aluminum parts.

If the F-150 is a success, will commercial trucks follow suit? Aluminum is widely used in dump truck bodies, flatbeds and other cargo areas. http://www.drivealuminum.org/vehicle-uses/commercial-vehicles offers a diagram of aluminum truck parts that are currently available. Aluminum-clad carrier vehicles are nothing new to the American road. The U.S Postal Service has employed a fleet of aluminum-bodied Grumman Long Life Vehicles (LLV) to deliver mail since 1987. About 160,000 LLVs are still in service. But it remains to be seen, how big of a truck, and how much of a truck, can be made from the miracle metal.