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Slideshow: Why Ford Was Able to Use Aluminum in F-150 Truck

If the aluminum body in the new F-150 pickup is successful, Ford Motor Co. can thank the engineers at Aston Martin and Jaguar.

The F-150, unveiled at last week's 2014 North American International Auto Show, was largely a product of sophisticated computer modeling techniques that the giant automaker learned from the two luxury sports car manufacturers when it owned them from the 1990s to 2007. Without those techniques, Ford wouldn't have been able to build the new truck within a normal three- or four-year design cycle.

"People have asked me: 'Could you have done this 10 years ago?'" Pete Reyes, chief engineer for the F-150, told Design News. "And my answer is: 'Absolutely, but it would have taken us eight years to finish it.'"

Click on the Ford F-150 below to see the ins and outs of the newly designed lightweight truck.

Ford used aluminum alloys in the F-150's cab, hood, tailgate, floor, fenders, doors, front end, pickup box, and numerous other parts. In all, about 95% of the new body is made from aluminum alloys. Ford says the lighter weight translates to better acceleration, stopping distance, handling, and fuel efficiency.

"The group in research got most of their sophistication and expertise when we owned Aston Martin and Jaguar," Reyes told us. "We were able to develop CAE (computer-aided engineering) tools so we could have quick engineering analysis that allowed us to study the feasibility as fast as the design changes."

The ability to make quick decisions is critical in today's auto industry because changes are made to a vehicle's design virtually every day, Reyes said. Good CAE tools enable engineers to do the structural analysis and quickly decide whether a change based on packaging or styling can be reliably implemented. "We certainly wouldn't want to start a truck, style it, and bring it out eight years later, only to find it looks dated," Reyes told us. He added that Aston Martin and Jaguar, both of which had developed aluminum-body vehicles, routinely used computer models for aluminum, similar to those that most automakers have for steel.

The new F-150 uses a 6000 Series aluminum alloy that's commonly employed in aerospace and military designs. The alloy offers a yield strength of about 30 ksi, which rises to about 45 ksi when the material is heat-treated. Approximately 80 percent of the aluminum is 6000 Series and the remaining 20 percent is a 5000 Series, which has a lower yield strength. "Between the alloys and the tempering, our door panels and box panels are more dent- and ding-resistant than they would have been with steel," Reyes said.

Ford also uses a high-strength, dual-phase steel alloy for about 80 percent of the truck's frame. The high-strength steel, which has a yield strength of more than 70 ksi, enabled Ford engineers to cut about 60 lb from the frame. Together, the aluminum alloys and the high-strength steel combined to eliminate about 700 lb from the overall vehicle weight. An F-150 4 x 4 crew cab, for example, drops from about 5,500 lb to about 4,800 lb.

The lower mass also makes the use of aluminum more economically feasible, Reyes told us. Although aluminum and high-strength steels are more costly per pound than mild steels, the 700-lb difference helps minimize any additional costs. The key, however, was the availability of the CAE tools, Reyes said. "In the past, we just didn't have the sophisticated computer models for aluminum that we had for steel," Reyes told us. "Now that we have them, we can be efficient in our timing."

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