This article originally ran in the Jan/Feb issue of Aluminium International Today.
Aluminium has been used in automotive applications for nearly half a century, but only recently has it gained popularity as a material of choice for automakers.
Weight-reduction efforts in automotive design and construction have increased significantly in recent years. This is in large part due to long term economic, political and social pressures to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions around the globe. As a result, manufacturers are turning to aluminium based material solutions to help reduce vehicle weight, provide for better fuel economy and improve overall sustainability credentials.
Strong, durable, lightweight and 100 percent recyclable, aluminium meets the demands of automakers and the governments and consumers they aim to satisfy. Aluminium vehicle structures, body panels and closures enable more fuel-efficient cars that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions without compromising safety, comfort or performance. It is the only material that can provide such dramatic weight reduction across the entire vehicle cost effectively, while providing the same level of quality and durability. For driving dynamics and car agility, automotive designers see aluminium as an opportunity for greater flexibility in optimizing weight distribution and balancing the weight of the car.
As a result, the automotive market is now the aluminium industry’s fastest growing sector. In fact, Novelis projects the use of aluminium in the automotive market will grow by approximately 30 percent each year through the end of the decade.
Impact on suppliers
This is no small shift. And with nearly 40 years of experience in the automotive industry and more than 180 current vehicle models using our aluminium, Novelis is feeling the impact of this market shift in a very real way.
As the global leader in rolled aluminium sheet for the automotive industry, the company has responded to the growing demand for automotive aluminium by constructing new automotive finishing lines in the USA, Germany, and most recently, China. Today, Novelis is the only company with automotive sheet manufacturing capability in all three major auto-producing regions of the world – North America, Europe and Asia – and we’re continuing to expand as a result of increasing growth in demand.
While shipments to the automotive market represent less than 10 percent of Novelis’ total shipments today, we anticipate accelerated progress in all of our global regions and automotive market segments, ranging from compact vehicles to SUVs, over the next decade. By the end of the decade, we expect automotive to represent about 25 percent of our total shipments. Not only do we project a significant shift in our overall portfolio toward automotive, but also we’re already seeing market demand outpacing supply, and expect it to continue on this trajectory for the foreseeable future.
Focus on China
China is the latest auto market to join the industry in this transformational shift to aluminium. Just as their peers are doing in Europe and North America, auto manufacturers in China are transforming their designs and processes to meet the growing demand for fuel efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, a shift that’s being encouraged by the Chinese government’s sustainability agenda.
Novelis’ Changzhou plant is China’s first manufacturing facility for heat-treated aluminium automotive sheet. The new state-of-the-art facility features a continuous heat treatment line for annealing, pre-treating and finishing automotive sheet, supplying customers in China and abroad with high-quality rolled automotive sheet for use in vehicle structures and body panels, such as hoods, doors, and fenders.
The city of Changzhou serves an important manufacturing base in China’s Yangtze River Delta, and a major automotive manufacturing base. It also leads in the production of new energy efficient vehicles, which is aligned with Novelis’ mission to provide lightweight aluminium solutions. As a manufacturing powerhouse, the Changzhou government has provided support at every stage of the plant’s establishment, from site selection to investment and licensing details. The wholly-owned, $100-million plant has a capacity of 120,000 metric tons per year and employs approximately 130 people.
This strategic location also has world-class commercial infrastructure and is close to vital rail lines and deep water ports, so Novelis can efficiently reach its customers in China and abroad. Rolled aluminium coils manufactured at Novelis’ South Korean operations are shipped to the new facility in Changzhou for heat treatment and finishing before delivery to automotive customers within China and other markets.
Current Novelis customers for auto sheet include Audi, BMW, Fiat-Chrysler, Ferrari, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Volvo, Honda and others. The new facility allows global customers to source locally-produced Novelis aluminium automotive sheet in China, as well as source material for production at other sites around the world.
For example, Chery Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Company Ltd. (CJLR) recently announced the grand opening of a new plant in nearby Changshu, China. The new Novelis Changzhou plant will be supplying auto sheet to Changshu for use in production in-country for the latest models of the Range Rover Evoque and the Land Rover Discovery Sport. Meanwhile in Europe, Novelis continues to be the sole supplier of automotive aluminium for Jaguar Land Rover and now has the capability to provide truly global sourcing, as needed.
Sharing global expertise
In order to penetrate the market and establish aluminium as a reliable option for vehicle lightweighting in China and elsewhere, Novelis operates as more than just a material supplier, but a global technology partner. Technologists and engineers in Novelis’ global research and technology organization ensure that all sites around the world receive the benefits of decades of industry expertise in automotive aluminium production.
As China’s first heat-treated aluminium automotive sheet facility, Changzhou has an opportunity to bring best-in-class technical excellence and best practices in aluminium to the Chinese auto industry in the early stages. With the help of our network of global automotive aluminium technology experts, this is already happening. Aluminium application in auto body-in-white and hang on parts is developing quickly in China and Asia, and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are working closely with Novelis to find ways to increase their use and establish new design practices.
As interest continues to grow globally, Novelis engineers and metallurgists are working closely with our customers’ design teams at the early stages of development to help ensure the next generation of vehicles is built to maximize the greatest attributes of aluminium – from strength and durability, to formability and recyclability. Many of the projects at our Research & Technology (R&T) centers around the globe are highly customer specific, focused on developing solutions for customers’ unique automotive challenges and then providing the resulting knowledge base to all of our sites around the world.
Novelis engineers and scientists are continuously working to develop new alloys, enabling technologies and processes that leverage the unique properties of aluminium to meet the demands of the automotive industry not only today, but also well into the future. Seeing how quickly aluminium has penetrated the market, we anticipate plenty more to come.
That’s why our R&T centers in Atlanta, USA and Sierre, Switzerland provide world-leading technical support and development to drive continued growth and innovation in automotive. These facilities include heat-treatment capabilities and our state-of–the art lab technology, which allows our scientists to test alloys for formability, corrosion resistance, bonding, hemming and other properties critical to our customers. At our Global R&T center in Atlanta, we recently commissioned the most advanced automotive pretreatment pilot line in the world, designed especially for automotive applications.
Value beyond fuel efficiency
Supporting our global manufacturing operations is a recycling infrastructure that allows us to partner with customers on closed-loop recycling opportunities and sustainable manufacturing solutions. By focusing on recycled versus primary aluminium production, Novelis recycles scrap material directly back into the molten metal process. We take back as much of our customers’ aluminium scrap as possible, turning it directly back into the same product again – preserving the value of the alloy and achieving the highest level of sustainability. We call this closed-loop recycling, and the supply chain efficiencies of this closed-loop system are unparalleled, providing tremendous advantages to both the customer and Novelis. We have closed-loop recycling systems in place with automotive customers in Europe and North America and are looking at how to bring the benefits of closed-loop recycling to China.
We also collaborate with our customers to facilitate and increase post-consumer recycling – one of the key sustainability challenges facing both Novelis and the auto industry. It can take more than 15 years before an automobile reaches the end of its useful life, making post-consumer automotive recycling a long-term venture. As more and more aluminium intensive vehicles will approach end of life in the coming decade, Novelis is closely examining how to effectively collect, dismantle and separate automotive scrap to bring more aluminium back into the system. This not only aids our customers in lessening their environmental footprint as regulations continue to evolve, but also it provides a future stream of source material for our production operations.
We’re also working closely with our automotive customers to develop products that maintain quality and performance but can be more easily recycled and have a higher recycled content. These advancements enable our customers to make products with a dramatically smaller environmental footprint and further their sustainability goals, as well as ours.
As the market for aluminium in automotive applications continues to grow, so too will all the variables surrounding it – from operational capacity to research and technology support to environmental requirements. Our objective is to match this growth in the most sustainable way possible for our business, our customers and the environment. This means expanding into high growth regions; bolstering our global R&T network as a critical pillar of our business; and identifying sustainable sourcing strategies from the beginning, because fuel efficiency and lightweighting is the trend of today, we have only seen the beginning of this trend and it will become even more critical going forward.