Puts the Pedal to the Metal
Constellium and Novelis, two leading players in aluminium Auto Body Sheet, have just launched a non-profit organization called Alumobility. It aspires to bring together the aluminium industry’s top minds, suppliers, and visionaries, including downstream technology partners.
Pierre Labat, VP of Global Automotive at Novelis, will serve as the initial President of Alumobility. He explains that the organization’s mission is to increase the adoption of aluminium automotive body sheet. “Alumobility represents a commitment to further advance the technical capabilities of aluminium automotive body sheet in order to compete with other materials in next-generation vehicle designs,” Labat says.
And so Constellium and Novelis tasked their teams with creating a new non-profit entity that would leverage implementation-ready innovation, consider opportunities for additional partners, and support the global nature of the automotive industry.
What Alumobility is (and what it is not)
Aiming to become a unique ecosystem, Alumobility expects to grow to include other industry leaders. These will be “the best partners that we can find, wherever they are located in the world,” says Jack Clark, Constellium’s Chief Technical Officer and SVP for Manufacturing Excellence, and also Alumobility’s new Vice President.
The members will include companies with downstream expertise (such as forming and joining), universities, and industry players that interface with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) on a regular basis—for instance, equipment builders and adhesive suppliers. Labat says that by bringing these experts on board, Alumobility will “coalesce a number of tiers, which would otherwise have been slower to adopt aluminium, and this will start a virtuous circle ultimately encouraging OEMs to adopt.” Some partnerships and projects will also encompass innovative technologies such as hot stamping to expand the possibilities for aluminium applications.
Alumobility is not a trade association, but will work closely with existing aluminium associations in Europe and North America, in which both Constellium and Novelis remain active members. While associations are usually regionally focused, Alumobility will be global. Trade associations focus primarily on lobbying, public policy, and market development, whereas Alumobility will concentrate on technical research to support the growth of aluminum Auto Body Sheet in the light vehicle market.
There are several other things this association is not. It is not a lobbying, advocacy, or educational service. Nor is it a way to share commercial or production resources. There will be no common sales or manufacturing structures, and company business will remain separate. The members are independent players, doing research and making recommendations to help automakers solve design and manufacturing challenges.
The enormous opportunity of Auto Body Sheet
In recent years, carmakers have increasingly turned to aluminium for its lightweighting and energy absorption capacities. Clark says that over the past two decades, the number of aluminium-intensive vehicles produced annually has grown from less than 100,000 to roughly 2 million. This trend should gain momentum with more stringent emission regulations and a higher demand for hybrid and electric vehicles (which must be lightweight to achieve their range objectives).
But the metal has a lot more potential in this market. “It’s really moving that growth to the next level,” Labat says. “The aluminium industry has to benchmark itself against the current materials that are being used, and show better value and performance. We want aluminium to be the lightweight material of choice for every OEM, regardless of where they are in the world, or what type of vehicles they build.”
Right now, the use of aluminium for Auto Body Sheet is largely limited to closures—doors, hoods, fenders, roofs. Closures get bolted onto the structure of the car, making it relatively easy to transition to aluminium. But for body structures, separate pieces are welded, bonded, or riveted together, and assembling different materials can be seen as a challenge. As a result, aluminium is not yet widely used in the automotive body structure, except in select vehicles such as the Ford F-150 and Jaguar I-PACE.
Recognizing this huge opportunity, Alumobility is conducting studies to explore the most advanced and cost-competitive methods for joining aluminium to aluminium (i.e. sheets to extrusions or castings), and also to steel and other materials used in cars.
Convincing OEMS with real-life solutions
Alumobility’s design solutions will serve as proof that lightweight, sustainable aluminum for mass production vehicles can effectively compete with other materials at an attractive cost to manufacturers—and more sustainably, too.
A technical committee will review potential new projects, choosing those that will be most impactful. Clark says Alumobility’s projects will serve as enabling technology for OEMs to make the transition: “There’s a certain amount of education that OEMs need. They are used to working with the materials they currently use, and they understand them well. Then here comes aluminium, that has the attributes they need—lightweight, strength, formability, corrosion resistance—but could present a couple more challenges, simply because they are not used to working with it. Alumobility can provide better data on how to design aluminium into vehicles.”
Prior to the official launch, Alumobility conducted two technical studies. One was an all-aluminium structural B-pillar, a real-world example of how aluminium can be used for a crash-critical component in an electric vehicle that is currently using high-strength steel.
The other was a next-generation aluminium door. “Doors are obvious targets because they still have a low penetration in mid-size segments,” says Labat.
This study verified a solution for a door that is 45% lighter than steel at an attractive cost. This data will now be shared with OEMs, showing them, says Clark, “what a best-in-class aluminium door looks like, right down to every part.”
The sustainability argument (aluminium is a clear winner)
Sustainability is key to Alumobility’s goals, and an area where aluminium really shines, from its lightweighting properties to its recyclability.
Henry Ford, the first carmaker to produce aluminium cars in significant volume, once said that weight is the enemy of performance. His words still hold true today. Lightweight aluminium reduces CO2 emissions in the use-phase for internal combustion engines, and also has a role to play in electric vehicles, which need lightweighting at a competitive cost in order to gain further traction.
Aluminium also holds a serious advantage in terms of recycling, and Alumobility will make this a priority—developing alloys that can be recycled again and again. “It is the right thing to do,” says Labat, and an advantage over competing materials.
Keeping aluminium one step ahead
The automotive industry is in a period of enormous disruption, both in terms of technology (such as electrification) and new OEMs (like Amazon and its self-driving startup Zoox). “No one knows what the future of transportation looks like,” says Clark. “But it’s certainly going to be more electric, more autonomous, and more connected.” Some traditional carmakers are struggling to embrace these changes and challenges, while others are driving the revolution. In both instances, OEMs need new solutions to fit their particular goals.
Aluminium can provide these solutions, and Alumobility’s mission is to convince carmakers with actual examples. Labat is confident that Alumobility can accomplish this. “OEMs are reacting positively, because they feel that we listened to them. By working together, we can deliver aluminium-enabled mobility.”