Constellium Advances Aluminum Structures

As designers and engineers look for weight reduction and design flexibility, aluminum can be an option. And this company can provide it for structural applications.

When you’re driving into the industrial-park-in-development where Constellium Automotive USA (constellium.com) has a manufacturing facility on 9.88 acres, a plant that employs some 425 people who are involved in processing aluminum—precision forming, robotic welding, laser cutting, machining—into structural components, it seems pretty much like a facility that is setup in an area almost anywhere in the Midwest, an area where there might have been corn or soybeans planted, were it not that the land is on the edge of development and there’s enough existing ag to go around. On the front of the building, which opened in 2014 and was expanded in 2015, there are offices, one of which is that of Eric Krepps, vice president and general manager of Constellium’s Automotive Structures North America, of which the plant in Van Buren, Michigan, is a part.


And that the business for the structural components that they produce—there is another Constellium business that handles the sheets for things like closure panels (“We make the side-impact beam that would go under a closure”)—has doubled every year since 2009 (actually, Constellium as Constellium didn’t exist until May 2011, as it had previously been known as Alcan Engineered Products and some financial dealings earlier that year led to the creation of the new company that has roots that literally go back to the mid-to-late 19th century (a company named Pechiney, 1855, and another named Alusuisse, 1888; Alcan entered the picture . . . in 1902) and plans call for another doubling by 2020. Good thing that industrial park still has open space.

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Roughly 25 miles east of the building is the Ford Dearborn Truck Plant. It is one of three plants where Ford produces the F-Series. And at Kentucky Truck they also produce the company’s full-size SUVs. (Roughly seven miles east of the building is the Ford Michigan Assembly plant, which is undergoing transformation to build the Ford Ranger mid-size pickup and the Bronco midsize SUV.)


Krepps proffers a long, curved component. “Guys at Dearborn Truck will tell you that’s the most difficult part in the body shop,” he says. It is the windshield header. Krepps explains that before the component was reengineered as an aluminum extrusion—an aluminum extrusion with a 3D bend—it was a steel assembly made out of three stampings that were welded together. “We were able to take cost out because we took out the welding operation,” Krepps says. And undoubtedly the related materials handling and logistics associated with any assembly. (There are some secondary operations after the extrusion and bending are performed: there are lightening cutouts, either via laser or CNC machining.) Krepps points out that the component is critical in the construction of the vehicle, that there are 42 SPC points on it: “If this is wrong, the doors don’t hang right.” About which nothing need be added except, “We’ve never had a quality problem.”


But we’ve gotten way ahead of ourselves here. The driving into the industrial park and into the parking lot in front of the office space at the Constellium facility isn’t just there for narrative color.


Rather, it is because of what’s there out front, something that you might see in the lot of a Whole Foods or a company in Mountain View, but not a building that you drove by a top soil supply company to get to: four electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. There aren’t a lot of those things in the area.


But according to Krepps, who points out that aluminum is an excellent material to manage crash energy as well as for bearing weight, electric vehicles are a “big opportunity for us.” He says he’s finding that some of the non-traditional start-up EV companies are taking a different look at the architecture for vehicles, which can lead to the deployment of aluminum in ways that would increase the overall quantity in a given vehicle.


He talks about the battery enclosure which, in a full EV, is part of the structure. It is something to which the front and rear subframes—also aluminum opportunities—are attached.


To the point of the enclosure, he says the thermal conductivity of aluminum lends itself to providing the means by which, through design and engineering, it is possible to maintain the temperature of a battery so that it won’t get overheated nor excessively cooled, thereby helping maintain the life of the battery. And the fact that batteries tend to be heavy and aluminum is comparatively light vs. other metals, that is another advantage of using it for the application.


However, Krepps acknowledges that most OEMs are taking a mixed materials approach: for EVs it is likely, he says, that the intrusion plate on the underside of the battery container would be made of steel.


All of which goes to explain the charging stations outside of the building.