Key to the car

By Lisa Rummler

February 2009- A sporty-looking vehicle turns heads as it cruises down the street, but true car aficionados know beauty is only skin-deep, and it's the stuff under the hood that counts.

This is true for the people at Alcoa Wheel and Transportation Products, Cleveland, a business unit of Alcoa Inc., Pittsburgh. What really revs their engines is a car's spaceframe, especially for Ferrari vehicles, most recently the Ferrari California.

Also known as the body in white, the spaceframe is a vehicle's chassis structure or substructure, says Brian Thomas, marketing communications specialist at Alcoa Wheel and Transportation Products.

The Ferrari California began production in the fall of 2008. Alcoa assembles the aluminum spaceframe in a facility close to Ferrari's production and testing facility in Modena, Italy. The vehicle officially launched in December.

The spaceframe for the front-engine, V8-powered convertible car is made entirely of aluminum, which provides benefits on multiple levels, says Thomas. "Typically, when you produce something out of aluminum, if it's given the same design and the same production parameters, you're going to have something that's lighter weight," he says. "If we can develop a spaceframe that's optimized for weight, then we're going to increase the performance of the vehicle. It's also going to handle better, and it's going to lower CO2 emissions and increase fuel economy or lower fuel usage."

The latter attributes partially stem from tight parameters Ferrari faced as a company headquartered in Italy, a country that's part of the European Union, according to Thomas.

"In the United States, vehicles are regulated by the government for MPG, or fuel mileage, and every couple of years, the government puts in a new target number that the combined manufacturers have to reach," he says. "Europe does it a little bit differently. They think about what comes out CO2-wise: greenhouse gases. So Ferrari, as well as all the other manufacturers, are really looking at that."

The Ferrari California's spaceframe, composed of bonded aluminum extrusions, castings and sheet parts, helps reduce the vehicle's weight, making its horsepower more effective while maintaining high levels of performance, safety, strength and durability, says Thomas. This was especially critical because the car is a convertible.

"When you cut the top off of a vehicle, you need that extra strength of the belly and the underpan of the vehicle so that it doesn't twist and stays firmer on the road," he says.

Historical ties
Alcoa and Ferrari have worked together since the early 1990s, and this partnership contributed to improving production for the Ferrari California, yielding positive results in the short term that will likely continue.

"We continue to work with Ferrari, and the process itself allows us to decrease cycle times," says Thomas. "We can produce more spaceframes in a given amount of time, and we offer processes that provide additional benefits like extending tooling life. Even though a Ferrari is a relatively low-production vehicle, even producing a couple thousand a year, if you can shave a couple seconds off of every process, then you're going to be able to increase throughput."

Additionally, Alcoa and Ferrari's ongoing relationship provides them with a sense of security that they're working with high-quality people who will create a high-quality product. And with every new project, Thomas says both companies learn from each other and further improve their operations--and the end result.

"Alcoa brings a global brand, and we operate throughout the whole process, from taking [aluminum] out of the dirt and mining it, refining it and bringing it into something like a spaceframe or a wheel or a component of an airplane," he says. "What we did with the Ferrari California, we've done in the past for Ferrari, but we continue to learn. And just like every Ferrari or every other vehicle, typically, the engineers and product development folks always want to create the next generation of car to be better--faster, more responsive, improved handling, better fuel economy--and I think we've done all those things." MM












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