Ford Motor Co. (F:US)’s plan for F-Series pickups to lose as much as 750 pounds seemed like a long shot when the company said it was putting its entire lineup on a diet in 2011. The version of its best-selling truck that’s debuting next week should weigh in close to the goal.
Under Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, trained as an aeronautical engineer, Ford designers have mirrored planemakers in using aluminum components to take an estimated 700 pounds (318 kilograms) out of the four-door, crew-cab F-150, according to consultant Ducker Worldwide. Aluminum will represent about 20 percent of the pickup’s weight, up from about 5 percent to 6 percent today, said Richard Schultz, a Ducker managing director.
“It looked like a tough putt three years ago, but they’re getting pretty close,” said Schultz, who leads Ducker’s automotive materials practice in Troy, Michigan. “Everything you can see when you look at the truck, with the exception of the front and rear bumper, is aluminum.”
The lean F-150 will be unveiled at next week’s Detroit auto show, people familiar with the plans have said, as Ford prepares for one of the biggest challenges in its 110-year history, making sweeping factory-level changes to produce its most profitable line and the industry’s best-selling pickup. The introduction will also serve as a bookend to Mulally’s career at the company, which he plans to leave as soon as 2015, the next-generation truck’s first full year on the market.
The F-150 “will become the poster child for what can go right” when automakers switch to aluminum to meet tougher miles-per-gallon regulations, Schultz said, “and also a learning experience on maybe what needs to be fine-tuned.”
The second-largest U.S. automaker has asked Alcoa Inc. (AA:US), which makes aluminum blast shields for battlefield-bound vehicles, to lend some of its military-grade metal for its display at the North American International Auto Show to demonstrate the material’s toughness, a person familiar with the request said last month.
Alcoa and Novelis Inc., which both have recently expanded capacity in U.S. aluminum factories, are the major suppliers to Ford’s F-150, Ducker’s Schultz said.
Nexteer Automotive Corp., the Chinese-owned maker of the current F-150’s steering column, was scheduled to begin production of its Rack Assist Electric Power Steering system for the redesigned pickup in April of this year, according to a presentation to its direct material suppliers in September 2013. Production of the steering column for the redesigned pickup is set to begin in July, according to slides from the meeting.
Researcher IHS Automotive last year projected that Ford’s large pickup output would drop about 8.5 percent in 2014. The truck plant near its headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, will shut completely in June as it transitions to make the new F-150, according to IHS. Ford’s other F-150 plant in Claycomo, Missouri, probably will prep for the transition in March and April and complete the switch in November.
Ford “is just going to take a breather to get the vehicle launched, but then in 2015 we’re looking at a real big bump to get them back over 700,000 units for F-150 alone,” said Joe Langley, an IHS Automotive production analyst.
It’s common for automakers to have extended changeovers when they overhaul full-size pickups. General Motors Co. (GM:US) intentionally built up its truck inventory in 2011 because it expected downtime at its plants the following year would lead to production falling almost 18 percent short of its capacity.
The anticipated drop in output could help explain why Ford last month projected that it will earn $7 billion to $8 billion this year, down from an estimated $8.5 billion pretax profit for 2013. Automakers book revenue when they ship vehicles from their factories to dealerships.
Keeping the cash-generating pickup plants churning will be complicated by the switch to aluminum from steel in the next F-150’s body. Factories will need to be retooled with new dies and robots, and riveters will replace welders because of the differences in the two materials.
“It’s going to be difficult and I would be surprised if Ford pulls it off without a hitch, but it’s also the way you have to go” to meet stricter fuel-economy regulations, said Kevin Tynan, an auto analyst for Bloomberg Industries. The U.S. is requiring that automakers reach a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles (88 kilometers) per gallon by 2025.
The upcoming F-150 will push Ford’s pickups closer to a 30 mpg highway rating, two people familiar with the truck have said. The top-rated pickup in the F-150 lineup for the 2014 model year has a 23 mpg highway rating.
Ford’s suppliers have told Ducker’s Schultz that the automaker plans to take it slow with ramping up of production for the new trucks.
“They want to move carefully,” he said. “They want to give the suppliers a chance to catch their breath, too. You just don’t want a false start here.”
Ford will use about 600 pounds of aluminum in the body of the new F-150 to shed about 400 pounds from the outgoing model, which mostly uses steel, according to estimates by Schultz, a former director of worldwide automotive products for Alcoa. The only use of aluminum in the truck’s exterior now is in its hood, which weighs about 23 pounds, he said. Today’s four-door, crew-cab F-150 weighs about 5,100 pounds.
The next-generation F-150 will offer a new 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine, part of a family of powertrains that Ford has code-named Nano, two people familiar with the truck have said. The smallest available engine in the outgoing model is a 3.5-liter EcoBoost. The smaller engine probably will save Ford 100 pounds or more, Schultz said.
A move to an aluminum body isn’t unprecedented in the industry. Tata Motors Ltd.’s 2013 Land Rover Range Rover was the first sport-utility vehicle to go to an all-aluminum unibody structure, cutting about 700 pounds, according to the company.
Tata’s Jaguar Land Rover unit honed its aluminum joining methods so that it needed about 3,800 rivets, down from the 6,000 spot welds required with the steel-bodied Range Rover. That hastened the build process and reduced the company’s cost by about 30 percent.
Even with those kinds of savings, base material prices add to the expense of building vehicles with aluminum. It costs about $2.75 for every pound automakers reduce from their vehicles by switching to aluminum, John Surma, former CEO of U.S. Steel Corp., told reporters in April.
Ford hasn’t said how it will price the new F-150.
“There’s no question this is a cost hit,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with LMC Automotive. “I would expect to see a price increase. The question is how much, and how much would the consumer be willing to bear?”
The scale of F-Series production separates Ford’s move to aluminum from Jaguar’s. Ford sold 763,402 of the pickups last year, according to Autodata Corp., making it the industry’s top-selling truck the last 37 years and the No. 1 model among all vehicles for 32 years. By comparison, Range Rover deliveries increased 56 percent to 12,221 last year.
GM and Chrysler Group LLC (CGC:US) are unlikely to criticize Ford’s decision to change materials, Bloomberg Industries’ Tynan said. If they do, they probably will couch their comments because of the likelihood that they’ll need to follow Ford by making expanded use of lightweight materials in their pickups.
“They will be waiting and watching and learning,” Tynan said. “They’re going to school on Ford’s putt. They all get that this is going to happen, and they’re going to have to be involved with it and catch up pretty quick.”
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