Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Ford F-150: A cost analysis of moving to aluminium

Ford has surely started a trend in a shift from steel to aluminium for its F-150 pick-up truck. But how does the cost-benefit stack up for Ford?

Forbes Magazine in the US has been looking at the economics behind Ford’s new aluminium-intensive F-150 pick-up truck as automakers face tough new fuel-economy laws that will require them to almost double average figures to 54.5 mile/gal by 2025.

Forbes reckons tweaking engine performance with turbochargers, advanced transmissions and start-stop systems might get automakers to the first milepost of 34.1 mile/gal fleet-wide by 2016. But the steep climb to 54.5 mile/gal by 2025 looks “insurmountable” without forcing consumers into “high-priced electric cars they don’t want”, notes Forbes.

Ford, with one-third of its business coming from “gas-guzzling” pick-up trucks, has taken the unusual step of “ripping up the formula for the top seller and started all over again”.

Ford has completely overhauled its F-150 pickup for the 2015 model year, replacing the truck’s steel body panels with lightweight aluminium, and shedding 700lb in the process. It was a bold move that many would call it risky.

The big question – did it move the needle on fuel economy? Today’s F-150 averages 19 mile/gal in combined city/highway driving, but under the new law, it needs to reach 30.2 mile/gal by 2025.  

According to the latest EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)-estimated ratings figures for the new F-150 4x2 with Ford’s 2.7-liter EcoBoost engine, the truck has an economy of 19 mile/gal City, 26 mile/gal Highway and 22 mile/gal Combined. That is 5 per cent to 29 per cent better than current F-150 models, depending on engine and driveline configuration on the combined cycle, according to Ford.

Motor Trend  in the US has published some numbers of its own for a new F-150 with a 2.7-litre EcoBoost engine. The SuperCab Larait 4x4 vehicle returned 16.6 mile/gal in City, 21.5 mile/gal on Highway and 18.5 mile/gal Combined.

The 2014 baseline engine is the 3.7-litre V6. This turbocharged engine, which will be discontinued for 2015 in favour of the slightly smaller 3.5-litre V6, returns a fuel economy in city of 16 mile/gal and 18 mile/gal overall. So users can expect the more spritely 2.7-litre EcoBoost to make a gallon of “gas” go noticably farther than with the outgoing F-150.

The F-150 is without doubt Ford’s crown jewel. It is the best-selling vehicle in North America, worth some US$30 billion in revenue and 40 per cent of Ford’s annual profit. So investors might fear Ford’s margins will suffer by substituting higher-priced aluminium for relatively low-cost steel.

To some extent, these fears have already begun to materialise. In the third quarter, Ford’s net income dropped 34 per cent to $835 million, largely due to launching the new pick-up.

And Ford has warned investors of difficult time ahead as it launches a record 23 new models worldwide as well as five new plants in Asia on top of introducing the Lincoln luxury vehicle in China. The latest Mustang has also just appeared. Investors remain nervous of Ford’s pick-up truck “gamble”, noting that while the technology could be a “game-changer”, it could hurt the company’s reputation if the new material causes quality issues or does not meet buyers’ expectations.

Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas estimates F-Series account for 90 per cent of Ford’s automotive sector profits. Even Ford has admitted it will not be making the kind of margins it has been in the past, although margins tend to improve during the lifetime of the trucks.

But present Ford chief executive officer Mark Field down plays these concerns with comments like “We are on plan. We are exactly where we expected to be.”

However, cutting back on sales of F-150 while readying the new F-140, has hurt pre-tax profits in the quarter in North America by 39 per cent while sales have dropped 8 per cent. The Dearborn plant was closed for five weeks yielding $700 million in negative operating cash flow. Cash flow within Ford has not been negative since 2010.
                                          Multi-billion-dollar gamble

A probe by Forbes into the economics behind Ford’s multi-billion-dollar gamble suggests the business case for aluminium is less risky than many might think. However, the aluminium body has created controversy as some people have questioned how the material will stand up to the abuse that pick-up trucks often have to endure.

According to Forbes “It may well turn out to be one of the smartest moves in the company’s 111-year history, establishing a new cost structure and giving Ford a huge lead over competitors, most of which are watching from the side-lines.”

Aluminium costs more than steel – at least three times as much – explaining its use in high-priced cars sold in small numbers. Aluminium also requires different manufacturing process because unlike steel, aluminium bodies are not easily spotwelded, as JaguarLandRover (JLR) discovered, forcing the UK automaker to adopt Henrob’s self-piercing rivet technology, specialised arc welding and advanced technology boding. This has required JLR to source new equipment, processes and suppliers. Ford has done the same.

Ford has also taken the added and unusual step of introducing a new 2.7-litre gasoline EcoBoost engine with a compacted graphite iron (CGI) cylinder block which other members of the Big Three have yet to do, although the Dodge Ram 1500 V6 engine from VM Motori in Italy uses CGI – but it is a diesel. Ford does not often launch a new high-tech body and a new engine in the same vehicle at the same time - not only that, but it has launched the first vee gasline engine with a CGI cylinder block. That, and the aluminium truck body make the F-150 a real "game-changer". Indeed, Steve Dawson, chief executive of Sintercast has said on 14 January 2014 of the 2.7-litre EcoBoost that its "introduction demonstrates the downsizing capabilities of CGI and confirms the first-ever high-volume application of CGI". However, the name of the foundry supplying Ford with the vee-block castings has never been disclosed although on 29 October 2012 Tupy SA of Joinville, Brazil announced it had received an order for a "new high-volume CGI passeger vehicle cylinder block to be produced at its North American base in Saltillo, Mexico". Production was due to start in 2013 with the order calling for "a ramp up to more than 300,000 cylinder blocks a year making the new programme the highest volume CGI cylinder block in the world." Tupy uses SinterCast's CGI foundry technology - in this case its System 3000 fully automated process control system.

Forbes estimates Ford will lose 90,000 units of truck production this year as it guts and retools its F-150 factories in Dearborn, Michigan and Kansas City, Missouri. At an average transaction price of $40,000, Forbes estimates the lost business at $3.6 billion in lost revenue. Effects of the production ramp-up are likely to linger into early 2015, until both plants are fully operational; this is not expected until well into second quarter.

      “I’ve never heard anyone ask for an aluminium truck,” said Bob Hegbloom, president of Ram Trucks, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, introduced earlier this year, is the reigning mileage champion at 28 mile/gal highway, 23 mile/gal in combined city/highway driving.

But Forbes sees Ford looking further out on the horizon, with a plan to switch many of its largest (and most profitable) vehicles to lightweight aluminium. Given the tougher fuel economy rules and the limitations of other solutions, analysts say it is only a matter of time before other automakers follow suit.

According to Forbes, General Motors says it plans to move to an aluminium body on its Chevrolet and GMC pick-ups while Toyota’s next Camry will also be made of aluminium. By 2025, seven out of 10 pick-up trucks will be aluminium-bodied, and every major automaker will have an aluminium body programme in place.

                                              Scrap Metal vs Jewellery

Ford has studied aluminium as an alternative to steel for 20 years. In the mid-1990s, it came very close to introducing an aluminium-bodied Ford Taurus, but the plan was scrapped on fears that consumers would balk at the $500 price differential.

Instead, at the time, Jaguar and Land Rover, Ford’s European luxury brands, became the guinea pigs. Jaguar introduced the aluminium XJ in 2003 under the leadership of engineers such as Mark White who became a champion of aluminium body-in-white (BIW). This move allowed Ford to try out new processes (like Henrob’s self-piercing rivets and other technologies including arc welding and adhesive bonding) off-scene and on low-volume vehicles far away from the gleam of executives at the company’s Dearborn headquarters in the US. (Below: F-150 body-in-white production)

By the time Ford sold Jaguar-Land Rover to Tata in 2008, the development work had progressed well with the groundwork already in place. Even new Schuler stamping presses were installed to handle the almaterial uminium sheet cleanly and kindly, but firmly. However with the price of aluminium, Ford found it hard to make a business case for a mainstream Ford model to adopt the material. However, Tata continued with the crusade which Ford established, no doubt aided by JLR executives (grounded in Ford disciplines), and has expanded significantly the UK company’s use of aluminium to the extent that both have now established a lead over Ford.

Back then, Alan Mulally, however, introduced a different perspective when he joined Ford. A new broom sweeps clean.

The former Boeing executive led the engineering team that developed the aluminium-bodied 777 airliner so when he became Ford’s chief executive officer in 2006, he was already comfortable with aluminium.

According to Forbes, Mulally saw a problem in Ford’s approach. According to metallurgist Richard Schultz, a managing director at Ducker Worldwide, “He told them, ‘You have to get more money for your scrap. Think of it as jewellery. You’re spending a couple of bucks on this stuff and you’re throwing one-third of it on the ground. You need to keep the alloys separate and protect their value.”

It was an epiphany of sorts that suddenly changed the business equation. If Ford could maintain its aluminium scrap in pristine condition and sell it back to its suppliers at favourable prices for re-processing, it could recoup some of its aluminium outlay.

Novelis, the world’s leading aluminium recycler, helped Ford develop an innovative closed-loop recycling system that Forbes estimates will save the automaker as much as $280 per truck.

Instead of collecting mixed metal scraps in its stamping plants, Ford installed $60 million worth of pneumatic scrap-handling equipment from Ohio Compass Systems that separates the aluminium alloys on conveyors and deposits them in separate containers to avoid contamination by other grades of metal. It is known that JLR in the UK takes even more care of its aluminium scrap – not even allowing it to be contaminated at all by steel scrap. Jaguar, and latterly Land Rover have come to know the importance of keeping body-in-white shops clean, tidy and well organised, and the scrap metal well segregated wherever aluminium is involved.

Every 22 minutes, a trailer aluminium is filled with aluminium and shipped back to Novelis or Alcoa, another supplier, for reprocessing. Those companies melt it, add ingredients as necessary to rebalance the alloys, then roll it again and ship it back to Ford.

Instead of the usual 15 cents/lb that scrap steel fetches, Ford will receive about $1/lb for its aluminium scrap.
                                         Metal mathematics

Based on interviews with insiders at Ford, its suppliers, and multiple metal and automotive experts, Forbes Magazine reckons the following is happening.

Aluminium is nearly three times lighter than steel. But because Ford has to use heavier gauge sheet to maintain the same strength and handling characteristics of the previous steel body, the replacement ratio is closer to 1.7.

So Ford has to purchase about 855lb of aluminium sheet for each F-150, replacing 1,455lb of steel, according to Schultz.

Virgin aluminium prices vary on the London Metal Exchange, but currently run about $2,050/tonne, or 93 cents/lb. Add the required “Midwest premium” plus the cost of additional processing to transform it into coils of high-strength aluminium sheet and the total cost is about $2.19/lb. Automotive steel, on the other hand, costs about 55 cents/lb.

In either case, when body panels are stamped, about one-third of the sheet could be scrap. Thus, a net 575lb of aluminium replaces 975lb of steel. The net weight saving of 400lb costs Ford an extra $725 per truck.

It is at this point that recycling comes into play. By selling the shredded and segregated scrap back to suppliers for about $1/lb, Ford can recover about $280 per truck, narrowing that cost considerably.

What about the rest of the equation? According to Forbes, replacing the truck’s steel body panels with aluminium accounts for a little more than half the F-150’s 700lb weight loss. Aluminium extrusions save an additional 50lb and a new high-strength steel frame saves 70lb. The rest comes from smaller engines, like the precious new 2.7-litre EcoBoost (the development of which – like the switch to aluminium – has also added to Ford’s near-term woes, but unlike the truck body its costs can be spread across more vehicle ranges once production ramps up) and other lightweight components.

In fact, Forbes thinks the switch to an aluminium body has created a domino effect that freed Ford to make other once-unthinkable changes to the F-150, like a smaller-but-surprisingly powerful 2.7-liter Ecoboost engine option with its ground-breaking CGI block, smaller brakes and a lighter suspension, all of which were cheaper than previous versions and provided secondary weight benefits that further enhanced fuel economy.

More important, according to Ford, there was no trade-off in performance. The end result is a more efficient truck that’s 700lb lighter, and more capable, too, with a towing capacity of up to 12,200lb, best in the industry.

                                                Rising truck prices

“When you start to peel it back, they’ve done a lot of really good things to de-risk this whole proposition,” says Novelis’ Martens, a former Ford executive.

The question is whether Ford can convince consumers to pay a little more for a much more capable and efficient truck. The starting price of the 2015 XL model, $26,615, is less than $400 above the model it replaces, adjusting for new standard equipment.

The top-of-the-line Platinum SuperCrew, will cost $52,155, or $3,055 more than its predecessor after adjusting for equipment.

The 2.7-litre EcoBoost will cost only $495 more than the base engine and give more performance. When the introductory offer slides quietly way the price will rise to $795.

With the success of its existing 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6 (almost 50 per cent of all F-150s) Ford has already shown that consumers will pay for improved efficiency and premium features. The average transaction price on the current F-150 is just shy of $40,000. Luckily for Ford, its main rivals, Chevrolet and Ram, have new truck models that are fetching higher prices, too.

If truck prices stay firm, the long-term economics behind the aluminium F-150 could easily work in Ford’s favour, according to Forbes Magazine.

Ford’s biggest concern, however, might be whether its factories can ramp up quickly to an annual rate of 750,000 trucks a year.

“Every unit lost, every day production is down for that vehicle, is catastrophic to revenue,” said one former Ford official. “We will not really know how this plays at Ford until we see their margins a year from now,” added Schultz.

The last word is with Ford. Ford’s chief financial officer, Robert, Shanks sought to reassure analysts on a recent conference call. “Everyone knows how profitable the F-150 is to the company…and we expect that to continue going forward. We’ve got lots of things planned on the F-150…that will be very exciting. Consumers are going to respond positively to that. And we expect it to be a huge success for us and to contribute very significantly to the bottom line.”

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