It would have been easy to stand pat with the Ford F-150. The truck has been the best-selling vehicle in America for more than 30 years thanks to its reputation for reliability and durability. But the Ford Motor Co. takes pride in being a leader in the automotive industry and was not content with a merely tweaked version of its iconic truck for its annual release. Nearly a year after the launch of the 2015 F-150, the industry’s first pickup with a high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloy body is making good on the company’s innovative spirit.

The switch to a lightweight aluminum body signals a new direction for Ford trucks – and perhaps the industry as a whole. However, Ford Truck Group Marketing Manager Doug Scott says the decision was fueled by customers who each year demand more productivity out of the F-Series vehicles. “That’s how you get to be the best-selling truck for 38 years consecutively,” Scott says. “You play offense. You anticipate what the customer wants and you lead.”

 

The F-150 has featured an aluminum hood since 1997, but the company began considering an aluminum body vehicle in the late-2000s. In January 2013, Ford showcased the Ford Atlas, a concept pickup truck, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit with styling that foreshadowed the latest F-150. The 2015 F-150 was revealed a year later and launched in November 2014. 

The aluminum alloy body allows for a number of advantages over previous F-150 models, Scott says. The thickness of the aluminum used in the hood, fenders, roof, box and structural support is more than the outgoing steel body, allowing the vehicle to be more ding and dent resistant. Additionally, the 2015 truck frame is made of 78 percent 70,000-psi high-strength steel, more than the 23 percent in the 2014 model.

 

Dropping the Pounds

While increased dent resistance will help keep trucks looking new for longer, the biggest advantage of the switch to an aluminum alloy body is the weight reduction. The average 2015 F-150 is up to 700 pounds lighter than in 2014, depending on the model and extra features. “In the auto business, you’re always trying to take weight out,” Scott says. 

Where lightweighting offers several benefits for smaller cars, those advantages compound for heavier pickups tasked with doing more than getting from point A to point B. By reducing the truck’s weight while maintaining durability, the 2015 F-150 offers increased towing and payload capacity, better performance and increased fuel economy. “It makes trucks almost the ideal vehicle to apply that lightweighting,” Scott explains.

In addition to the body being approximately 400 pounds lighter, Ford also trimmed around 60 pounds from its supporting frame. Other components, such as the engine and seats, can also be made smaller or lighter and more efficient while providing the same performance and saving up to another 260 pounds. 

“When you take weight out, that affords you to take the weight out of other componentry,” Scott says. That leads to better mileage. The fuel economy of the new F-150 improved 5 to 29 percent, depending on the model, according to Scott.

In previous years, Ford offered four engine variants for the F-150: two V6s and two V8s. But lightweighting allowed Ford to add a third, 2.7-liter six-cylinder option to the truck. Scott says the smaller engine performs like a mid-range V8 in terms of acceleration, but with the added benefit of Ford’s EcoBoost turbocharging technology. Now, three-fourths of its engine options are V6s, which Scott says represents progress in how Ford thinks about the vehicles. “No one would have dreamed even as recently as two or three years ago that you would talk about a truck with a displacement less than 3 [liters].”

Thinking Through

Before Ford was confident in making the switch to an aluminum body, the company had to address four areas: customer acceptance, manufacturing, supply and reparability. An aluminum-based truck represented a fundamental change in Ford’s full-sized pickup. The company wanted to thoroughly vet its customers’ perceptions of aluminum to best anticipate reactions to the change. Work into understanding customer perceptions of aluminum and its application on full-size pickups began as early as 2008, Scott explains. 

The average person’s first mental image of aluminum might be crushing a flimsy pop can, but because many F-150 users work in industries that utilize high-strength aluminum alloy, Ford found that 80 percent of its customer base understood that aluminum was valued for strength. “For a lot of them, they said, ‘What took you so long? This is something you should have done a long time ago,’” Scott says of those early studies.

Changing materials was more than a simple matter of swapping out metals. Ford had to understand from a manufacturing perspective whether it could build the massive vehicle volumes necessary to meet customer demand. Assembly required new methods, such as laser welding, to work with aluminum. Production is done out of Ford’s plants in Dearborn, Mich., and near Kansas City, Mo. Obtaining the materials needed to build each truck was also critical, and Ford worked with its supply partners to make sure they could provide the required volume.

On the consumer end, the auto giant needed to solve the maintenance and repair complications of aluminum. “We wanted to make sure from our customer standpoint that the ability to repair their truck would be equal to or better than their current experience,” Scott says.

In the lead up to release, Ford implemented a training program for dealerships and independent body shops to work with aluminum. The company’s goal was to have 1,500 body shops and dealers equipped, trained and ready to work on aluminum-body vehicles by the time the F-150 launched late last year. 

“Our plan was to make sure we had a body shop that was within a half-hour drive of the majority of our customers,” says Paul Massie, Ford’s powertrain and collision product marketing manager. Ford exceeded that goal with 757 dealerships and 800 independent body shops and now aims to add another 750 aluminum-capable repairers to its network in both 2015 and 2016, eventually reaching 3,000 nationwide.

Repairers must take special consideration with aluminum to avoid the cross-contamination that can lead to galvanic corrosion if steel and aluminum particles touch before being painted. To avoid that issue, body shops and repair centers are trained to create a special work area for aluminum vehicles sectioned off by a welding curtain. The work area should also have a wet vacuum with an air-filtration system to capture aluminum particles and prevent them from becoming airborne, where they can make unintended contact with steel-based vehicles. 

Most of the equipment is the same as what’s used on steel cars, Massie says, but body shops need to keep a separate set of equipment that is used only on aluminum parts. “The main thing that we want the body shops to understand is an aluminum body is not more difficult to work on,” Massie says. “It’s just different.”

To help independent body shops, Ford developed the National Body Shop Program, which recognizes repair centers that have gone through training, invested in the equipment and demonstrated the ability to do aluminum repairs. Training is through I-Car, which offers hands-on demonstrations and classroom learning for technicians. Purchasing all the equipment necessary to qualify for the National Body Shop Program can cost $35,000, Massie says.

In addition to helping dealerships and body shops learn how to repair the vehicle, the F-150 was designed to make those repairs faster and less costly for customers. The vehicle uses a modular structure to make repairs easier and to help reduce labor time. The apron tubes that surround the engine compartment were redesigned so the instrumentation panel does not have to be removed during a major repair, saving hours of labor; the floor pans are sectioned so that only an individual section has to be replaced instead of the entire floor pan; cab reinforcement can be replaced without removing the entire roof panel; and the front-end mounting bracket can be replaced without changing the entire frame section.

In July, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) released a report claiming the aluminum-bodied F-150 took longer and cost 26 percent more to repair than the 2014 model – which could eventually lead to a hike in insurance premiums for F-150 owners. However, Ford has disputed that claim. The company points to a study conducted by Assured Performance Network, an independent body shop certification company, that estimates real-world repair costs on the 2015 F-150 are $869 less than the 2014 model on average. Further, insurance giants State Farm and Allstate have both made statements confirming that premiums on the aluminum-body F-150 were comparable to previous models.

 

Testing Toughness

Repair costs and durability are important for those F-150 buyers who push the trucks to the limit every day. Through its F-Series vehicles, Ford owns 47 percent of the commercial truck market, and the company had to ensure an aluminum body would uphold its motto of “Built Ford Tough.” “Most heavy-duty users have come to expect a Ford vehicle will hold up better than any other truck,” Scott says.

No test would better determine the strength of aluminum than getting trucks out in the field and on job sites. As Ford was refining the design, the company provided new F-150s to Walsh Construction, Duke Energy and Barrick Mining Company. Ford did not tell the companies that the trucks had aluminum boxes and urged them to use the vehicles as normal. Ford engineers then visited work sites each quarter for about a year to see how the vehicles handled real-world abuse. 

By the end of the test, Scott says the three companies were pleased with the performance. Barrick Mining was so impressed that the company took delivery of 35 aluminum-body F-150s earlier this year. “There’s probably no better endorsement than that,” Scott says. “They followed up on the testing that we had and went on to buy the trucks.”

With some key commercial clients on board with the switch, Ford turned its prelaunch efforts to persuading the rest of the market that aluminum was the future. “For us, a successful launch is fully dependent on convincing our current owners,” Scott says.

Between the January 2014 reveal and the November 2014 launch, Ford tried to make aluminum synonymous with “strong” by bringing to light the military and industrial applications of the alloy. Ford partnered with John Brenkus, host of ESPN’s Sport Science, to create Web videos in which pro athletes drove golf balls into aluminum and steel truck beds and compared the resulting dents. Scott says the pre-launch marketing successfully addressed the 20 percent of F-150 customers who had doubts about the aluminum body. “It’s not an issue on the showroom floor,” he explains. “The customers understand that this is the best truck. That’s what they’re interested in: the truck that’s going to be the best tool.”

After nearly a year on the market, Scott says Ford is being rewarded for taking a chance on aluminum. The company is still ramping up production. “Customers are loving the truck,” Scott says. “[They are] really excited about all the new technology and the advantages of lightweighting.”

Ford’s competitors, such as Chevy, have taken shots at the new F-150 and worked to raise doubts about the repair cost of aluminum, but Scott dismisses the talk as “product envy.” “We’ll own the innovation high ground and stay focused on what our customer is looking for,” he says. Ultimately, Scott believes competitors will follow suit with their own aluminum-body trucks. “This is what our customers expect from us as the leader,” he says. “They expect us to be out in front and innovating.” 

Digital Edition


View our Digital Edition!

 

Subscribe