Steel goes into skyscrapers, tank armor, the little metal cutting clips on dental floss containers and – up until now – the body of the best-selling pickup truck in the country.
But the Ford F-150, which has reigned as the top-selling vehicle in America for 32 straight years and the best-selling pickup for even longer, now has a body that is made mostly with aluminum, the same material that's used in foil, pop cans, takeout containers and Reese's Mini Peanut Butter Cup wrappers.
In a setback for the steel industry, Ford switched to the lighter metal to cut 700 pounds off the F-150 in order to improve gas mileage and comply with stricter federal emissions standards. The truck has high-strength steel in its frame and parts, but is the first mass-market vehicle to consist of so much aluminum. The metal that is used in Reynolds Wrap generally costs three times as much as steel, so it has mainly been used in expensive luxury cars like the Jaguar XJR and the Telsa Model S.
Most vehicles are made with about 60 percent steel, and much of that metal is made in Northwest Indiana mills, who count both foreign and domestic automakers as some of their biggest customers. Engineers at ArcelorMittal's Global Research and Development Center in East Chicago and others in the steel industry have been investing in and promoting lighter advanced high-strength steels and new lightweight car designs in a bid to maintain steel's market share in the automotive business.
Steelmakers have new resolve to continue efforts to develop lighter advanced high-strength steels for cars and trucks, said Ron Krupitzer, vice president of automotive applications for the Steel Market Development Institute, a trade group.
"We're pushing the envelope further and further into more weight savings," he said. "In the end, this is a motivation to provide car companies with better and better steel solutions, to make vehicles thinner and lighter."
The Ford F-150 had accounted for a lot of the steel shipped out of the mills, Krupitzer said. A single truck had as much as 3,600 pounds of steel, and the automaker first needed to order 5,000 pounds of steel to winnow it down to that amount during production. Ford sold more than 760,000 F-Series pickups last year, and aspires to sell a million annually.
Steel Market Update, a trade publication, estimates that the Ford F-150 alone had used 380,000 tons of automotive galvanized sheet steel a year.
Beyond the lost business, there is the possibility other automakers will follow Ford's lead down the path of alternative metals. The aluminum industry has been trying to wrest market share away from steelmakers, the way they did with beer cans after brewers starting switching to aluminum in the 1950s and 1960s. Automakers are under pressure to cut weight, because a federal mandate requires their fleets reach an average of 54.5 mpg, nearly double what it is now.
"It could be revolutionary in the industry," said Tim Roper, president of Smith Chevrolet, which has dealerships in Hammond and Lowell. "Automakers have to make these emissions standards, and are looking at lighter metals as a way to get there."
But Ford is making a huge gamble on the alternative metal, Krupitzer said. The automaker could face production delays because the aluminum body will change the whole production process. The aluminum could be less durable, harder to repair and more expensive to insure. The new Ford F-150 likely will cut into the company's profitability, since aluminum costs about three times as much and Ford is not raising the retail price of the pickup, though it may have a special arrangement to buy aluminum in bulk below cost, he said.
A consumer preference for steel also could affect sales. MindClick Global performed a study commissioned by the Steel Market Development Institute of more than 3,000 truck and SUV owners in the United States, and found that steel is far more strongly associated with strength, safety and protection of the family than other automotive materials. They told pollsters the strength of material would affect purchasing decisions as much as brand and cost, and that they felt safer in steel vehicles than they did in ones made with the same metal they wrap their leftovers in.
"Based on the brand analysis, awareness of the use of advanced high-strength steel directly correlated to an overwhelming amount of consumers, 90 percent, citing a strong preference for and likelihood to purchase brands that make use of advanced high strength steels," said Jo Anna Abrams, CEO of MindClick Global. "Approximately half of participants surveyed agreed that replacing steel with other materials would undoubtedly lead them to question how the vehicle handles normal wear and tear, and raises concerns about the potential cost of vehicle insurance and repair."
The survey found that 58 percent of respondents said alternative metals would make them question a vehicle's safety, while 93 percent said they strongly preferred steel over aluminum in fenders, hoods and door panels.
"We were aware that people appreciate what steel does in a vehicle in terms of added safety and durability," Krupitzer said. "But we were taken a little by surprise by how overwhelmingly they prefer steel."