Bertolini shared the story of an OEM that asked Pennex Aluminum to convert a steel chassis to an aluminum one. Afterward, the automaker complained that the chassis was still too heavy and it was expensive. “We told the OEM, ‘You must focus on the design point. You have to start over, design for aluminum and take advantage of the geometry,’” said Bertolini. In addition, automakers will need to change their manufacturing processes to integrate aluminum into the assembly line.
Another hurdle involves the supply of highly-engineered alloys. Bertolini said Tesla pushed the envelope with new alloys, which worked great when the company was building fewer cars. But demand for aluminum skyrocketed for the Tesla Model 3, he said. “We don’t have enough industry capability to provide this exotic material at the required tolerances,” said Bertolini. So Tesla opted for more common alloys to expand its supplier base. “That’s a challenge for the extrusion industry – to bring the tide up so more people can supply more highly-engineered products,” said Bertolini. (For more on aluminum, check out the Aluminum Extruders Council’s website at www.aec.org.)
For now, material selection is often about trade-offs, said Bertolini. OEMs want the ultimate in high strength, the closest tolerances available and the best crash performance. “I tell them to pick two,” said Bertolini. “But that’s what the customer wants, and to move forward we need to learn how to do all three and balance them properly to give the best performance for the dollar and the pound.”
It’s a challenge faced by all material suppliers. “The reality is if we don’t do it on the aluminum side, the automakers will walk over to the next guy and say, ‘What are you going to do for me?’” said Bertolini. “And if the next guy is CFRP or magnesium, then the automakers will get on that horse and ride it. The OEMs are material neutral, as long as it does what they want and it’s cost effective.”
If you’re interested in staying up-to-date on new developments in the automotive industry, then join the Automotive Composites Alliance (ACA), one of ACMA’s Composites Growth Initiative committees. The ACA represents manufacturers and material suppliers who actively promote the benefits and use of composites in the automotive industry. For more information or to join, contact Sarah Boyer at email@example.com or 703-682-1653.