Last year we told you about Alcoa's new manufacturing and materials technology for making aluminum sheet. Called Micromill, it sounds like a major breakthrough especially for automotive engineers: a mind-boggling speed difference of 20 minutes to turn molten metal into aluminum coil using continuous casting, from 20 days for conventional rolling mill, plus better formability and strength than traditional automotive aluminum.
Now, Ford says it will be the first automaker to commercially use Micromill technology, which will debut on several components of the 2016 F-150 truck. Ford engineers have already validated the alloy produced with Micromill to make sure it meets stringent quality requirements for the F-150. The first components will appear during the fourth quarter of 2015, and additional parts will transition to the new material in 2016. Ford also plans to use the materials and process on several other vehicle components and future vehicle platforms, projecting to at least double its use between 2016 and 2017.
Using the Micromill process and materials, Alcoa and Ford will also collaborate to jointly develop new alloys for automotive parts that are easier to form and more design-friendly, including increased design flexibility.
Alcoa's Micromill alloy targeting automotive applications is 40% more formable and 30% stronger than traditional aluminum. Compared to high-strength steel, it's twice as formable and 30% lighter. Its increased formability makes it easier to shape into more complex forms like inside door panels and external fenders, as well as critical structural components. The material's higher strength makes it possible for engineers to use thinner aluminum sheet without compromising dent resistance, helping vehicles shed more weight.
In a separate deal, Alcoa has signed a letter of intent licensing some intellectual property of its Micromill alloy and process technology to the Danieli Group, which supplies plants and equipment to the metals industry. The two companies will work toward an agreement that gives Danieli the exclusive right to sell Micromill equipment for a limited period. It will also license the patented Micromill process technology and alloys to potential customers around the world, initially those in Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia.
The agreement is expected to help Alcoa fast-track the commercialization of Micromill. "Our partnership with Danieli will move this proprietary technology from pilot plant to full-scale production," said Alcoa chairman and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld. Although Ford is the first to commercialize the technology, Alcoa has qualification agreements in place with eight other major automotive customers on three continents.
Alcoa also anticipates growing demand for its traditionally-produced aluminum sheet supplied to automakers. The company has completed an expansion at its Tennessee facility, which began customer shipments in September, The expansion there will provide automakers including Ford, Fiat Chrysler, and GM.
The Tennessee facility's rolling mill technology lets its plant managers switch production, moving between automotive and can sheet production, depending on changing demands of the market. It also has a large facility for recycling automotive scrap to eliminate waste and cut operational costs.
The $300 million project in Tennessee follows an earlier expansion project in Davenport, Iowa. That one reported a record volume of automotive sheet shipments in the second quarter of 2015, an increase of about 200% over the second quarter of 2014.
Ann R. Thryft is senior technology editor, materials & assembly, for Design News. She's been writing about manufacturing- and electronics-related technologies for 27 years, covering manufacturing materials & processes, alternative energy, and robotics. In the past, she's also written about machine vision and all kinds of communications.