Beyond aesthetics

By Gretchen Salois

Automakers are more confident than ever in aluminum’s abilities

November 2012 - The pressure is on the auto industry as it must meet environmental regulations as well as achieve improved fuel economy. Without sacrificing strength, more companies are turning to aluminum to bear the weight of large truckloads and also meet the average driver’s needs.

Reducing the carbon footprint of commercial vehicles is needed, as CAFE and EU standards call for significant reductions. Recently, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa Inc., released a study stating switching one truck from steel wheels to Alcoa forged aluminum wheels amounts to the same carbon footprint of one American household. “While evaluating the carbon footprint impacts of our product, we realized how significant the use phase is compared to other facets of the life cycle [of a wheel],” says Tim Myers, president, Alcoa Wheel and Transportation Products. Alcoa teamed up with PE International Inc. and Five Winds Strategic Consulting to prepare the study.

Overall, aluminum is gaining wider acceptance in the auto industry because many car manufactures already are using the alloy for a wide spectrum of vehicles. “In wheel manufacturing, a comparable forged aluminum wheel will weigh about 20 percent to 30 percent less than a cast aluminum wheel and nearly 40 percent lighter than a steel wheel,” Myers explains. 

Myers says switching an 18-wheel truck with steel dual wheels and tires to Alcoa’s aluminum 14-inch-wide base wheels and tires, saves nearly 1,400 pounds. “In addition, fleets switching to wide base applications improve tire rolling resistance and qualify for EPA SmartWay certification,” he adds.

The value in resale, new sales

Alcoa interviewed scrap yards, truck dismantling companies and other metal recyclers and found that unlike traditional steel wheels that often are scrapped at the end of a life cycle, aluminum wheels are recovered. The wheels command a price near that of a primary metal, approximately $1 per pound; are sold as a mono scrap stream; and are frequently recycled without having any changes to the inherent properties of the recycled material to make new aluminum wheels, Myers explains.

With resale being an important consideration, Alcoa’s wheels return 75 percent of the initial purchase price even after 10 years of use, according to the NADA Official Commercial Truck Guide. “Steel wheels are often scrapped at the end of vehicle life,” Myers says. “Aluminum wheels generate $1,500 of additional value at end of life and enter back into the recycling stream to be used again in future products.”

“Aluminum wheels have a higher financial value and environmental benefit than steel wheels,” he continues. “The recycling of aluminum wheels provides a great benefit even if the steel wheels are recycled at the same rate.”

Car makers, such as Jaguar and Land Rover now are launching new vehicles that use more aluminum than previous models. “Aluminum penetration started in the premium segments but is now finding acceptance in even the most basic, entry-level vehicles,” he says.

The study also suggests the benefits aluminum wheels have for OEMs requiring the use of trucks with large payloads. According to the study, for mass restricted vehicles in North America, using Alcoa forged aluminum truck wheels allows trucks to carry 414 pounds of additional payload per haul with the same fuel consumption. 

The process of forging the aluminum plays a large part in the alloy’s makeup. It aligns the grain of the metal to conform to the shape of the wheel. “The uniformity of the metal grain coupled with heat treat properties provides a stronger, more durable wheel,” Myers says. 

According to the study, although aluminum wheels require more energy to manufacture than steel wheels, the light weight and recyclability of aluminum allow for a net energy savings throughout the life cycle of an aluminum wheel. “Alcoa invented the forged aluminum wheel in 1948 and our customers are still rolling on forged aluminum wheels,” Myers says. “Many wheels are still out in daily use with hundreds of thousands of miles and with little or no signs of wear-and-tear.” MM




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