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.
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.”

Ford engineers took a more holistic approach to weight reduction for the F-150 truck. They incorporated materials into the entire design of the vehicle, including powertrain, chassis, body, battery and interior features, and even used advanced 3D printing technologies from another Pittsburgh area company, ExOne, to create some of the parts.

The new F-150 is being touted as “a giant leap forward in truck technology,” according to Ford. While the 2015 model is still mounted on an exceptionally strong and well-proven high-strength steel frame, it incorporates the latest high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloys in a bonded structure made of Alcoa 951 to form the body and cargo box.

Because aluminum recoils better than steel, it provides the consumer a more durable vehicle. It’s the best of both worlds, says Ford.

Still, the move to aluminum initially frightened some of Ford’s more staid  board members. It caused new problems in the assembly plants, forcing challenges in new dies on which the metal is formed, creating requirements that altered and slowed assembly speeds to compensate for unique attributes of aluminum.

But the new methods have actually lowerd some the production and supply costs and Fords’ engineers explain that it is possible to produce vehicles in the same, or even higher volumes as those they had been producing with steel bodies. And with all the new methods it has actually lowered some of the production and supply costs. (Ford produced over 700,000 F-150’s in 2013.)

Beyond improved production efficiencies and vehicle design, the 2015 aluminum F150 opens the door to other changes. Fuel economy is the biggest boon. A government-regulated design requirement mandates that trucks in this class reach over 55 mpg by 2025. The current version of the F120 which is the company’s most popular pickup in the U.S., now averages 17 mpg combined city and highway. The aluminum alloy used in the 2015 model cuts the weight of the new F-150 truck by about 700 pounds, roughly a 15% reduction that should also improve fuel consumption by as much as 10 miles per gallon more.

In addition, it will forward new designs that will help stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at around 450 parts per million–the level many scientists, businesses and governmental agencies believe may avoid the most serious effects of climate change.

All this innovation means a promising future for Alcoa. Transportation experts at the National Transportation Advisory Board of the National Research Council predict that the amount of aluminum in North American vehicles will quadruple by next year, and increase tenfold by 2025.

Frank Sowa

Strategy consultant, writer, business and tech researcher and entrepreneur