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Should we expect to see cars made of more lighter-weight aluminum?

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The feds recently announced that the fuel efficiency ratings for passenger cars and light trucks must reach 40 miles per gallon minimum by 2012. Does this mean that we should expect to see cars made of more lighter-weight aluminum, instead of the steel that can weigh a car down and increase its fuel requirements? And if we do see an increase in aluminum, will that mean added cost for retooling?

It is possible that we will see an increase in aluminum usage on cars and trucks as vehicle manufacturers move toward compliance with the increased miles-per-gallon minimum. One concern the industry seems to have is that more outer panels would be made from aluminum. And if you recall attending the aluminum classes held back in the late 1980s, the memory is probably a less-than-desirable one.

I recently read an article about aluminum that advised “different doesn’t have to mean difficult.” Thanks to lessons learned about how to work with aluminum since the 1980s, I think that’s accurate advice. When outer panel are made from aluminum instead of steel, the metal characteristics are different and therefore, the theory of repair is different, too.

For example, with steel panels, we tend to work on “popping” the dent and then continuing with the repair process from there. Aluminum is more temperamental and has to be approached with more finesse and patience. “Popping” a dent on an aluminum outer panel would probably require the panel to be replaced because the metal would be stretched out or, by the time the repair process was completed, the panel would show cracks.

However, I do expect to see increased use of aluminum in subframes and other underbody applications, where the aluminum can be designed for structural usage. Manufacturers are more likely to be at ease with that kind of application, and repair facilities are far more likely to embrace it as well. In this scenario, such panels would be replaced if damaged. The recycling for aluminum is environmentally friendly. And this is an overall wiser usage in vehicle design.

For repair facilities, the biggest downside of working with aluminum has to do with the work space. The work area has to be kept free of steel particulates, which means separately assigned tools for working with aluminum to avoid potential corrosion exposure due to contaminates. A shop must also have a designated “clean of steel” area. Because most shops cannot afford to keep a stall idle, just waiting for some aluminum to show up, this continues to be a challenge for repair acceptance and feasibility.

While we’ll probably see an increase in aluminum usage, don’t rule out steel counterparts. We continue to see an increase in the use of advanced steels by manufacturers. This metal continues to meet all criteria for strength and fuel efficiency, with the least amount of repair training required in comparison to aluminum. Advanced steels are providing lightweight, crashworthy compliance at a low production cost, and greater use of these materials is increasingly accepted domestically.

As we continue into the future of new materials and more stringent environmental and safety regulations, continued training, current equipment and proper procedures are a must for any repair facility. We will see more specialization tomorrow as OEM’s demand that their vehicles be returned to pre-accident condition. There’s no need to be afraid of the changes; just be informed!

Ray Fisher is the president of ASA-Michigan. This article represents his opinion and does not reflect the views of ASA-Michigan.

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