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OEM Report: Automotive
Tuesday | 22 May, 2018 | 11:45 am

Winning Wrangler

Written by By Corinna Petry

From initial sketches to full production, aluminum producer stays in step with automotive customers

May 2018 - Unit sales of Jeep Wrangler jumped 34.4 percent during the first three months of 2018, compared with the same 2017 period. That’s good news for one of the primary material suppliers for the platform: Novelis North America.

Ganesh Panneer, vice president and general manager for automotive at Novelis North America, describes its design partnership and supplier relationship with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and other automakers, using the Wrangler as an example.

Novelis supplies several grades, says Panneer: “5000 and 6000 grades are customary in automotive applications while the 7000 series is being developed.” For Wrangler, Novelis produces several grades from the 6000 series of alloys. “Some of the specifications are proprietary to this customer.”

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Novelis works with automotive engineers to describe which alloys work best to create lightweight parts and components that meet crash safety standards.

It’s a process

One of the first steps toward symbiosis is “getting materials data to customer engineers. If you are an automotive OEM engineer, you have to know the basic properties of aluminum to design the part,” Panneer says. “We work from that stage to share with them how to use different grades and  the properties of each. Based on the performance requirements, our customers work with us to choose the [materials].”

Once the part is designed, “we work with customers on trials and testing to make sure the part meets requirements, then go through qualifications.”

Alloys must be qualified to automotive standards starting with the melt shop, from where Novelis must “lock down process parameters to ensure the product meets final testing. Then it is ready for production.”

For the Wrangler, starting with model year 2018, Novelis supplies the aluminum for the windshield surround and the doors. “When we worked with [Fiat Chrysler] design engineers, we shared the properties of the 6000 series alloys. They started using it to design doors, fenders and windshield surrounds, and found significant weight savings with aluminum versus steel,” says Panneer.

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Cold-rolled coils enter a continuous annealing solution heat treating line, which gives the material a thermal profile so it can be readied for stamping.

Using the new grades, Novelis and the automaker also worked on stamping methods and formability trials. “Once they were convinced the product worked for the application, the aluminum-intensive 2018 Wrangler hit the assembly line.”

According to Panneer, “OEMs have been shrinking the timeline; the cycle goes anywhere from 18 to 30 months for a vehicle you design from the ground up.”

Shorter cycles are desired by OEMs, he says, because “they want to capture the most recent market sense and bring it out as soon as possible.” Automotive aluminum manufacturers aim to develop alloys as quickly as possible as well. While the average timeline for bringing a new alloy to market is 12 to 24 months, Panneer says Novelis has successfully introduced a new alloy in as little as five months.

“Cost is a function of time, so we want to reduce development time. We want to be the market leader for automotive aluminum sheet and bring new products to the market quickly to sustain that lead. We like to see alloys gain new applications.”

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Jeep models, like the Rubicon above, are off-road vehicles, so they go through tough testing situations. The aluminum has to resist corrosion, weight and load impact, says Ganesh Panneer, vice president and general manager for automotive at Novelis.

Closed loop

Panneer describes the in-house production cycle for Novelis for finished products that end up in passenger vehicles. The aluminum that goes into the Wrangler is produced in Oswego, New York, and Kingston, Ontario. “Everything starts with remelt. We take scrap from customers through closed-loop recycling programs. We also buy third-party scrap and raw aluminum ingots. We mix all three in our own furnaces to get to the exact alloy and cast it into an ingot that has a specific composition of aluminum and alloys, like copper and zinc.”

The next step is to take the ingot into the hot rolling mill, reheat it to a specific temperature and roll it to reduce the slab to a thin-gauge coil. From the hot mill, the coil goes to a cold mill, which takes further reductions until the material gets down to the final gauge. “It can be one step or multiple steps to get to the desired gauge,” Panneer notes.

To get the cold-rolled coil ready for the stamping press, it enters a continuous annealing solution heat treating (CASH) line. The heat treating gives the material a “thermal profile so it can be stamped when the automotive customer receives it.”

On exiting the CASH line, the coil gets surface treatments, then is straightened and trimmed. When the coil arrives at the stamping plant, blanks of different dimensions are produced, then loaded into presses to make parts that become part of the body in white; the body is painted, then moved into final assembly.

“We have excellent technical engineers to ensure the quality in our plant and avoid defects,” Panneer emphasizes.

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Novelis has unveiled plans for a $300 million plant expansion in Guthrie, Kentucky, where it will perform heat treating and preheating of grade 5000 and 6000 series coils. The producer has similar facilities in Oswego, New York (below).

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Tough testing

Jeep Wrangler is an off-road vehicle, says Panneer, “so it goes through tough testing situations. The aluminum has to resist corrosion, weight and load impact. After all the testing, the Wrangler they put together was 200 pounds lighter” than the previous model, which contained more steel, “and the gas mileage improved by 3 mph.”

Regarding features, the aluminum doors, which many off-road driving fans lift out, are lighter and the aluminum windshield can be folded down,” Panneer remarks.

“Aluminum, when applied to automotive body in white, is better on fuel economy. It also performs better, brakes well, and the other aspect is safety. Aluminum absorbs energy well. The all-aluminum Ford F150, the Tesla Model S, the Jaguar Range Rover—all have five-star ratings for safety performance,” he says.

The material is sustainable, he adds, “when you can create a closed-loop system. You continue to use the material again and again.”

Novelis is confident in the continued growth in aluminum demand from automakers and expressed this with a planned $300 million plant expansion in Guthrie, Kentucky.

The new addition will house heat treating and preheating. The facility is close to Logan Aluminum, a joint venture with Tri-Arrows Aluminum Inc. located in Russellville, Kentucky. Novelis will source cold-rolled sheet from Logan and heat treat it to finish for automotive customers.

“We haven’t stated [the added] capacity publicly, but that capacity will be consumed based on demand projections by Ducker Worldwide,” a consultancy that forecasts strong growth in automotive aluminum applications over the next 10 years.

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For the Wrangler, starting with model year 2018, Novelis supplies the aluminum for the windshield surround and the doors.

Innovation

Quizzed on whether Novelis is taking automotive market share from other aluminum producers or whether a bigger pie is being created for everyone to share, Panneer responds, “We already have a significant automotive share. This is about capturing growth in the market. We see it with more programs consuming aluminum.”

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this past January, he says, “SUVs from Ford, like the Lincoln Navigator; Chevy with the Silverado; and a lot of other vehicles incorporated aluminum sheet.”

There is more on the horizon, says Panneer. “In the area of innovation, new products will be even more formable, even stronger, and [the industry] will develop new joining methods to fasten aluminum to other materials.

“Those areas are getting R&D attention. One example is the S200 product, a formable application available today.” Novelis proved its Advanz 6HF—e/s200 aluminum alloy in Europe and brought it to North America last November. In addition to formability, the heat-treatable alloys offer strength performance and weight savings for outer and inner applications. MM

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