As corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) requirements become more stringent, automakers have turned to aluminum as a key strategy for stripping weight out of vehicles to boost overall fuel efficiency, with aluminum content per U.S. light vehicle expected to increase by 60 percent between 2012 and 2025, according to a 2011 study by market intelligence company Ducker Worldwide.
A similar trend seems to be occurring in the truck and van upfit market, as more fleets demand “greener,” lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.
“[Fleet managers] are increasingly sensitive to overall vehicle weight and fuel efficiency, so we’re seeing about 35-percent penetration [of aluminum bodies relative to steel products],” said Craig Bonham, director of business development for Reading, Pa.-based The Reading Group. “That’s up to a 45- to 50-percent increase in our aluminum truck body production since five years ago.”
Ross Haith Jr., president of the Masterack and FECAP Divisions at Leggett & Platt Commercial Vehicle Products, said his company has also seen an uptick in requests for aluminum van interiors from its distributors.
“The main reason is weight reduction versus steel. It may also be because some customers are more familiar with aluminum, compared to our composite material offerings,” Haith said.
Cutting Weight to Slash Costs
How much weight does aluminum save, compared to a conventional steel upfit?
“You can reduce the weight of our van interiors by 35 to 45 percent with aluminum versus steel,” said Haith of Masterack, which designs and manufactures van interior storage systems from a wide range of materials, including conventional steel, aluminum, and composites.
Bonham provided this frame of reference: “If we compare our standard 8-foot aluminum service body to our comparable steel body, we’re looking at 1,100 lbs. for steel versus 540 lbs. for aluminum, or approximately 45 percent in weight savings.”
To put it another way: “A [steel] pickup bed we would strip off of an OEM chassis weighs almost twice as much as the service body [including all the shelving] we install on that chassis,” Bonham said.
This all translates into fuel savings. “The rule of thumb [according to the U.S. Department of Energy] is that with a 10-percent reduction of body weight, there is about a 6- to 8-percent increase in fuel economy,” according to Nikki Kyle, marketing manager, Truck Bodies & Equipment International Inc. (TBEI), parent company of truck body manufacturers Crysteel, Ox Bodies, Rugby, Duraclass, and J-CRAFT. “If you take 2,000 lbs. out of the body, it equals 2,000 lbs. more weight that can be put in the body. Hauling 2,000-lbs. more means the driver can make fewer trips. Fewer trips means less fuel used. Also, when the truck is empty, it’s even lighter, which again is using less fuel.”
The lighter weight also impacts maintenance costs. “Because [the truck body] is lighter, tires and brakes don’t wear as fast,” Kyle said. “The lighter the weight, the less braking and take-off force required.”
Another benefit of aluminum: “You’re able to do more with less truck,” Bonham said. “In some cases, you can spec an under-10,000-lb. GVW truck, which requires less money to register the vehicle and lowers the driver cost because you’re avoiding [commercial driver license] requirements.”
There’s also the “green” angle to consider when light-weighting with aluminum.
“If you can haul 2,000 lbs. of product from point A to point B using less horsepower and less fuel, because the truck body is lighter, then you’ve done yourself and the environment a favor,” said Charlie Horton, vice president of business development for Morgan Olson, a manufacturer of aluminum walk-in van bodies.
Recyclability + Longevity
Another environmentally friendly aspect aluminum proponents point to is the material’s recyclability.
“Few materials are as recyclable and reusable as aluminum,” Horton said. “It can be melted down, reheated, and reused. Every bit of material that is a by-product of our manufacturing goes back to a manufacturer for reuse and recycling. There’s nothing new about that. It’s been a factor of the business for years. It’s a material that is very easily recycled.”
Aluminum also tends to last longer than steel, requiring fewer bodies to be built over time— and, thus, producing fewer emissions to build them.
“We run a refurbishing program where we’ve found that aluminum bodies hold up so well that we’ve had to replace the steel chassis because it wears out sooner than the body itself,” said Kenn Klein, marketing manager, Morgan Olson. “These aluminum bodies have a lifecycle of 15-20 years [compared to less than 10 years for steel], which reduces the total cost of ownership.”
The key reason for aluminum’s longevity is its corrosion resistance, with “resistance” being the operative term.
“Aluminum is not corrosion-proof, because of the road salts [used in harsh winter climates],” cautioned John Marshall, vice president, sales and marketing, Utilimaster, a subsidiary of Spartan Motors Inc., a manufacturer of walk-in vans and commercial truck bodies for the delivery and service market place.
Kyle of TBEI agreed. “Up here in Minnesota, many of the municipalities use stainless steel because the road salts are very corrosive to aluminum. So, you need to do a lot of work to protect aluminum when harsh chloride is applied on the roads,” he said.
Bonham of Reading Body noted his company applies the same anti-corrosion to its aluminum bodies as it does its steel upfits to address this concern.
“Whether the product is aluminum or not, we still e-coat, under-coat, and powder coat it,” Bonham said. “We put multiple levels of protection in the product because, although aluminum won’t rust, it will corrode if not protected.”
Sweet Spot for Aluminum
What fleet applications benefit the most from aluminum bodies?
“The markets best served by an aluminum service body are typically those where the application requires increased legal payload,” said Bonham of Reading Body, which builds both steel and aluminum service bodies. “It’s also appropriate for vehicles that operate in an environment where there’s a great need for corrosion resistance.”
However, not all types of cargo are a good fit for aluminum.
“You’re not going to sell an aluminum body to a contractor who is going to dump 3,000-lb. pieces of concrete in them,” Bonham said. “You don’t want to use aluminum if there is a tremendous amount of load drop that causes deformation [of the aluminum]. There is no stiffness advantage in using aluminum over steel.”
Steel can handle large boulders better than aluminum, as far as denting goes, according to Kyle of TBEI. “So, if you’re not hauling materials that would be damaging to the body — large boulders, etc. — the weight savings allows a savings on fuel, as well as offering higher payloads. Aluminum will be frequently used in applications that haul smaller, crushed materials, such as sand and gravel,” she said.
There are also acquisition-versus-lifecycle cost considerations, with aluminum upfits priced approximately 30- to 35-percent higher than conventional steel.
“If planning to run a vehicle for a relatively short period of time, there will not be much opportunity to recoup the additional cost of aluminum,” said Matt McGowan, director of sales, eastern region, Auto Truck Group, which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of truck equipment for a wide range of fleet applications.
“The longer the vehicle is run, the more the fleet will be able to amortize the additional cost over the life of the vehicle,” McGowan continued. “If acquisition cost is a primary driver, then steel is going to make the most sense. But, if looking at lifecycle costs, aluminum starts to make more sense.”
Peering Through the ‘Aluminum’ Ball
What does the future hold for aluminum in truck and van upfits five to 10 years out?
“I think the trend toward weight savings is going to continue to grow,” said Mario Greco, director for the ground transportation market sector team for Alcoa, one of the world’s largest producers of aluminum. “And, aluminum will be a key player in achieving that weight savings because of its cost competitiveness. I can see aluminum playing a key role in more efficient truck bodies. And, since producing with aluminum is well known, it’s not something that requires a paradigm shift for how manufacturers create product.”
According to Kyle of TBEI, “In my opinion, aluminum is really catching on. We’re seeing it in all aspects of new regulations for cars and trucks, taking out weight by substituting aluminum for steel.”
McGowan with Auto Truck Group agreed: “Assuming that everything stays on the course it’s on right now, I think you’re going to continue to see growth in aluminum products — and it could be substantial. Back in 1970, about 2 percent of materials in a vehicle were aluminum, and by 2015, we’re looking at [aluminum content] of just under 10 percent.”
Horton of Morgan Olson noted the advancements in technology, stating that, due to such advancements, aluminum has become more consistently formable and easier for manufacturers to use.
“Aluminum continues to be user-friendly for body manufacturers,” Horton said. “Because of its lightweight, high-strength, and corrosion resistance, aluminum will continue to be a key part of truck bodies. I see it continuing to be a linchpin material for the truck body world, and advancements in riveting technology enable a super strong panel to be easily manufactured at a low cost.
While the core business of Reading Truck Body is still steel, Bonham noted the growth side has been with aluminum.
“We’re actually seeing blends of extruded copolymers that are married up to aluminum products that will maximize life expectancy and lower operational cost. We’re seeing an uptick in demand, year over year, and we don’t see the demand slowing down at all,” Bonham said.
Marshall of Utilimaster, which manufactures both aluminum and lightweight composite bodies (such as the Isuzu Reach van), tempered his outlook on aluminum.
“In the walk-in van market, we’re actually seeing a greater transition from aluminum to composites, which offer an additional 600-lb. weight savings relative to aluminum.”
Will aluminum emerge as the “winner” of lightweight material technology in truck and van upfits? Or will other materials, such as lightweight composites, carbon fiber, or fiber composites, become the preeminent material?
Haith of Masterack doesn’t foresee a clear “winner” in the near future.
“It’s much like the alt-fuel market. There are some that feel that fuel-cell technology will be the wave of the future. There are others that look to the electric vehicle as the wave of the future. And, yet others feel that compressed natural gas (CNG) or propane autogas is the wave of the future,” Haith said. “I think that in the van interior upfit market, there will be a blend of lightweight material offerings, just as we’re seeing in the alt-fuel market. There will still be customers that desire the standard steel interior because of their familiarity with steel. Others will desire aluminum where they can garner weight savings while still having a rugged interior. And, there will be others that will prefer a composite, including hybrid materials to achieve even greater weight savings to allow them to meet the needs of their drivers and technicians.”