2/16/2011 | 2 MINUTE READ

The Road Ahead

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Alcoa bets its latest business model eliminates OEM roadblocks to greater aluminum adoption.


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From pushing aluminum-intensive vehicles to retrenching toward parts and pieces, the aluminum industry has had difficulty laying out, much less following, a coherent roadmap. "It's been a problem," admits Robert T. Alexander, vice president, Alcoa, "within the industry and even within Alcoa. We have a compelling story to tell, but we've had trouble telling it."

Alcoa has united it various North American automotive operations under one roof at the Alcoa Automotive Center (AAC) in Farmington Hills, MI. It increases the opportunities for Alcoa's business units to talk to one another about the best way to meet a customer's needs, and doesn't rely only on providing an OEM with individual parts or radical vehicle structures. Everything is on the table.

"There is no single answer for the industry or even for a single automaker," says Allen Zwierzchowski, president of Alcoa Automotive Castings. "Sometimes our brief is to develop a bake-hardenable alloy for closures, or pushing casting spindles with precisely engineered voids to remove weight without compromising strength." That's the "parts" exit of the aluminum roadmap, an area that remains comfortable for many automakers.

The next stop brings disciplines together to create components. Like a sliding minivan door nearly half the weight of its steel counterpart, built around an extruded frame to which are attached sheet aluminum inner and outer panels. "The door is half the thickness of the steel unit, which increases interior room without affecting crash performance," Zwierzchowski says. By determining the needs of both the vehicle buyer and OEM, Alcoa says it can create added value for both. "It's not possible to create these synergies if everyone is in their own facility and not talking to one another," he says. But another stop along the road is necessary before the ultimate destination comes into view.

Alcoa's Advanced Transportation Systems (AATS; Cleveland, OH), is that stop along the way, and its capabilities are shown through its partnership with Ferrari. Alcoa partnered with Ferrari and Pininfarina to create Ferrari's F360 Modena, a vehicle that had to be stronger, lighter, and quicker than its predecessor. It was a perfect opportunity for Alcoa to highlight both the advantages of aluminum construction and its capabilities. AATS helped design and develop, and assembles it on-site at Ferrari's Scaglietti body plant. AATS's area is run as an Alcoa facility and those working there are considered Alcoa employees. Completed assemblies are rolled through a curtain and ownership passes to Ferrari. So successful is this relationship that Ferrari has turned over spaceframe design and assembly for the F360's replacement (the F430) and the 612 Scaglietti to AATS. "Ferrari has learned to trust our judgment," says AATS president Marta Riveros-Jacobson.

That trust has brought a new, as yet unnamed, project to the AATS facility, one that increases spaceframe production capacity above its current limits. "There is no space for expansion," says Riveros-Jacobson, "so we are outsourcing some of the processes to local suppliers and acting as the integrator for the production process on Ferrari's behalf." This has liberated space within the Scaglietti facility, while placing complete responsibility for quality, logistics, and meeting cost target in the hands of AATS.

"For most automakers," she says, "it will take time for them to move from our current relationship–supplying parts and components–to becoming consultants and supplying services. Yet with the AAC, we now can provide those services and consult more effectively everywhere along the value chain." This, it's hoped, will increase the adoption of Alcoa products and solutions. "Ultimately," says Zwierzchowski, "these changes are the difference between marginalization along material substitution lines, and being involved every step along the way."