Ford Motor Co. drew the attention of truck owners and the automotive industry last month when it unveiled a new version of its best-selling F-150 pickup built largely out of aluminum.
It also drew the attention of some Rhode Island companies with interests in whether the new truck becomes a hit or disappointment.
Chief among them is advanced-alloy designer NanoSteel in Providence, which sees its technology helping maintain steel’s historic dominance as the primary material for making automobiles.
As technology has improved in recent years, aluminum has become more popular among carmakers, especially as manufacturers have turned greater focus to fuel efficiency.
“This discussion of aluminum versus steel has been around for as long as I have been in the business and probably back to my father’s and grandfather’s day,” said Craig Parsons, president of NanoSteel’s automotive division.
What’s drawn so much attention to the Ford F-150 design, aside from the model’s status as the most popular in the world, is that it’s a full-size truck, a conservative market normally focused on strength and durability above all else.
In the past, manufacturers may have never considered using aluminum panels for fear they wouldn’t be tough enough.
The chief benefit of aluminum is its light weight and flexibility compared with steel. In cars reductions in weight contribute to faster acceleration, better braking and better fuel economy.
Ford says the new 2015 F-150 will be about 700 pounds lighter than the current model, with much, although not all, of that weight reduction coming from the use of aluminum.
To add context to the hype surrounding the F-150, Parsons points out that, while body panels and other pieces of the new 2015 version have gone aluminum, the truck’s frame remains steel.
But, perhaps more importantly, it’s not the most advanced steel available.
Each year steel and aluminum makers come up with new advancements in metallurgy and production techniques, but it takes auto manufacturers several years to design, test and roll out each new model.
Along with strength, the primary tradeoff with aluminum is usually cost, roughly two to three times as expensive as steel, according to Parsons.