The Aluminum Difference

What's Iowa Got To Do With It?

by Jason Bartanen

We've seen a lot of changes in vehicle technology over the years. With each of these changes come new challenges and new opportunities. When the unibody vehicle was introduced, repair professionals were required to change their approach to collision repair, from damage analysis through the repair process. With the introduction of GMA (MIG) welding, additional requirements for repairs included new training and equipment. And passive restraints systems presented a completely different type of challenge, involving electronics and diagnostics.

Since then, we've seen advanced braking systems, advanced high- and ultra-high-strength steels, new types of plastic and composite parts, and a plethora of advanced safety systems. With each new advancement, collision repairers have been continuously challenged to adapt; and it's time to get ready to adapt again. High-production vehicles with extensive use of aluminum are coming; it's time to acknowledge the reality of this imminent change and get ready to tackle it as another opportunity. "Aluminum isn't difficult; it's just different." We first heard this statement in the 1990s during the development of the Ford P2000 concept vehicle; a collaborative effort between the Aluminum Association and Ford Motor Company. Many collision repair professionals began to look into the impending challenges we'd soon be facing, I-CAR expanded its aluminum course offerings, and started to see an expansion in the availability of automotive aluminum MIG pulse welding equipment. However, when the steel manufactures recognized the charge that aluminum was about to make, they acted quickly and formed the UltraLight Steel Auto Body (ULSAB) consortium; that led to the creation of the ULSAB vehicle structure. The infusion of aluminum into the automobile design and development industry had been slowed; temporarily.

So, "what's Iowa got to do with it?" In March of 2012, Alcoa executives, along with the Governor of Iowa, broke ground in Davenport on a $300 million dollar expansion at their Davenport Works facility to "meet rising demand for aluminum from the automotive market."While there isn't a shortage of aluminum-intensive vehicles (Jaguar F-Type, XJ and XK, Land Rover Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, Audi A8 and R8 are just a few examples) and there are a lot of aluminum closure panels, the Iowa expansion is a strong indicator that we will soon see more aluminum than ever. The new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray is built on an all-aluminum space frame and rumors are running rampant about other potential high-volume vehicles that will employ aluminum-intensive body structures. At a minimum, we will see more aluminum hoods, doors, and other closure panels. According to the latest Ducker Report, a survey of auto OEMs and their planned use of materials, the amount of aluminum used in cars in North America "“ already the #2 material in a car "“ is going to nearly double by 2025.

So what does it all mean to collision repair professionals? It's time to adapt, again. Much like shops had to "find a place" to install a three-dimensional measuring system, they'll need to develop an isolated area to repair aluminum-intensive vehicles, to avoid potential galvanic corrosion issues. Similar to making investments in GMA (MIG) and squeeze-type resistances spot welding (STRSW) equipment, they'll need to invest in GMA (MIG) welders capable of aluminum pulse welding and in rivet guns to properly repair tomorrow's aluminum-intensive vehicles. There will also be a number of vehicles that will be built with a combination of aluminum and steel structures (Audi TT and Porsche 911, for example) that will require repair professionals to ensure they're using the proper adhesives and techniques to minimize the potential of galvanic corrosion.

Aluminum-intensive vehicles will also force professionals to adapt their approach to damage analysis "“ no different than as with high-strength steels. Identifying castings from stampings and extrusions, and knowing the repairability limits of each, will be essential to writing a complete and accurate damage assessment. Proper identification of parts and their repairability limits will minimize supplements and improve cycle time. Technicians will also have to be able to identify the types of aluminum and choose the proper attachment method, based on the vehicle maker's recommendation. Proper electrode selection is essential for performing welds that will stand the test of time, and proper rivet removal and installation are paramount to a complete and safe repair. Having the proper tools, equipment, and materials, along with the knowledge gained from understanding proper training and repair techniques, are the only way to achieve complete and safe repairs.

The technologies found in today's vehicles are evolving at a record pace and collision professionals must continuously adapt to meet the opportunities. More aluminum-intensive vehicles will be on the road in the next 12 months and the time to start adapting is now. Fortunately for all of us, aluminum isn't difficult; it's just different.

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