When you think of Pittsburgh you might think steel, but one company is accelerating a regional shift from steel to aluminum.

Known as the world’s largest aluminum producer and one of America’s oldest companies, Alcoa is going through a major transition to reassert its position as a key player in the 21st Century economy.  The Alcoa Technical Center (ATC) located in New Kensington, is the world’s largest light metals research, development, and applied engineering facility. There on the 40-acre campus Alcoa is developing big changes–in materials, methods, and new products that are altering what the company is known for.

Combined with recent partnerships. investments, and contracts in automotive and aerospace, a new fast-paced and youthful organization in Pittsburgh is beginning to evolve.

On July 14, Alcoa announced they had completed a 10-year, $1.1 billion contract with Pratt & Whitney to provide the first advanced aluminum alloy fan blade technology for Pratt & Whitney’s PurePower® Engines. And two weeks ago, Alcoa spent $2.85 billion to acquire Firth Rixson, a U.K.-based maker of jet-engine components, in an effort to grow Alcoa’s aerospace capabilities. Much of the work for these will be performed at Pittsburgh region facilities.

“The transformation of Alcoa as a new innovation company is truly in high gear and accelerating,” said Klaus Kleinfeld, Chairman and CEO of Alcoa in his quarterly shareholder presentation on July 10. “Our strategy of building a lightweight multi-material innovation powerhouse and a highly competitive commodities business is working.”

Last year ATC finalized  ‘Alcoa 951’ an aluminum pretreatment process that creates adhesive bonding durability and overcomes previous challenges with joining aluminum to itself or other materials. The new process is disrupting the entire transportation sector and has positioned Alcoa as a leading supplier to transportation giants Ford, GM, and to other automotive manufacturers.

“Because of Alcoa 951, we’ve been able to move from aluminum in luxury cars and defense applications – which it has played a part in for decades – to high-volumes of mainstream products where millions of vehicles are produced,” says Sherri McCleary, director of Materials and Process Technology at ATC.

Klaus Kleinfield, Chairman/CEO Alcoa discusses how Alcoa's transformation is accelerating.

Klaus Kleinfield, Chairman/CEO Alcoa discusses how Alcoa’s transformation is accelerating.

Everyone is looking at aluminum as the most viable alternative to decrease weight and increase fuel efficiency without compromising safety, according to Kleinfeld.  This is “driven by regulations that require cutting carbon emissions and increasing overall fuel economy to 54.5 mpg for autos by 2025, and combining that with higher fuel prices that have shifted priorities and preferences.”

“What we are seeing today is a broad-based transformation of the transportation sector from using steel, to using aluminum. That is the big difference,” says Kleinfeld.

Alcoa is also producing developments in battery technologies for electrical vehicles. It just demonstrated an electric aluminum-air battery vehicle that could drive from Pittsburgh to Disney World in Florida on a single charge.

Kleinfeld calls these game changers that open the door to safer, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Alcoa’s experts continue to expand the bounds of aluminum applications. Through our latest breakthrough technology, Alcoa is capturing growth in the auto and aerospace industries as more manufacturers shift to making fuel-efficient vehicles with a low-carbon footprint,” he says.

Alan Mulally, outgoing President and CEO of Ford Motor Company, who turned the company over to Mark Fields on July 1 agrees. “With my background in aerospace and commercial airplanes, aluminum is the material of choice for advancing manufacturing of cars and trucks at Ford,” he says.

Mulally, now a transportation expert who also continues in an advisory role with Ford, decided in 2011 to swap out some of the truck assembly lines at Ford,  to switch production from primarily steel to aluminum from Alcoa in preparation for the 2015 models, arriving in late August. It was a move that frightened some of the more staid Ford board members at the time.

The goal was to design and build a lightweight vehicle that could be produced in high volume while meeting new fuel standards, says Matt Zaluzec, Ford technical leader, Global Materials and Manufacturing Research.

At the same time, Ford needed to adhere to safety and durability standards of its existing vehicles. “We’ve been able to do that,” Zalusec says.  “What we’ve discovered though, is that manufacturing in the 21st Century needs to move away from the mass manufacturing ideals of the last century — the one-size-fits-all approach because things have changed. Our lightweight approach on this platform gives us the ability to continue to explore the right mix of materials, methods, and applications for future vehicles.”