Novelis

Ford's aluminum secret weapon

February 12, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

The CEO of aluminum supplier Novelis is a familiar face to the auto maker: He used to be a senior Ford executive.

By Doron Levin

A roll of aluminum at a Novelis plant in South Korea.

A roll of aluminum at a Novelis plant in South Korea.

FORTUNE -- Ford Motor Co.'s gutsy decision to build its next-generation F-Series pickups, starting this summer, from aluminum instead of steel prompted whistles of amazement across the industry.

The leap is a huge one, which Ford (F) is prepared to make because it sees the virtue in added fuel economy and believes aluminum -- better known for foil wrap and beer cans than pickups -- can be fabricated to be as tough as steel.

Ford's lead aluminum supplier is Novelis, an Atlanta-based subsidiary of an Indian conglomerate. Resassuringly, perhaps, the CEO of Novelis is none other than former senior Ford executive, Phil Martens, the automaker's group vice president in charge of product development, which would have included pickup trucks. He left Ford in 2005.

MORE: Execs get the ax as car sales slow

Due to increasingly stringent fuel economy regulations, vehicles will have to pull off a "triple play," Martens said in an interview: "One, lightweight. Two, advanced powertrain (engine and transmission) and three, maintaining product attributes." Automakers have been told they must achieve a 54.5 mile-per-gallon fleet average by 2025.

Novelis belongs to Hindalco Industries Ltd., a subsidiary of Aditya Birla Group, a multinational conglomerate based in Mumbai.

Martens said Novelis will supply roughly 550 pounds of aluminum per pickup truck out of about 900 pounds of the metal used for each truck body. It will come from a plant in Oswego, N.Y. Ford has said the switch from steel will save about 700 pounds in the overall weight of the vehicle.

"There are other suppliers of aluminum with differing levels of competence," he said, "but we are the only one that has produced an entire body."

Martens recalled that during his tenure at Ford the company built, for demonstration purposes, a Ford Taurus from aluminum. During the period when Ford owned luxury carmaker Jaguar, the 2003 XJ was built from the metal. Novelis aluminum is used in the current model Range Rover.

Steelmakers, naturally, are none too happy about Ford's decision. General Motors (GM) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which builds the Ram pickup, are watching. If the new F-Series pickups are a smash, they may try aluminum bodies as well.

MORE: Will aluminum lighten Ford's load?

The Steel Market Development Institute, a research group for steelmakers, asserts that new lightweight, high-strength steel matches aluminum in terms of weight, strength, and cost -- which aluminum industry representatives dispute.

"I've said all along that steel and aluminum will continue to coexist," said Martens. Another presumed apostle of aluminum, inside Ford, is CEO Alan Mulally. In a previous job as head of Boeing's commercial aircraft, Mulally was quite familiar and comfortable with the metal. Mulally predicted at last month's auto show that automotive use of aluminum will grow.

Martens said he didn't know whether Mulally championed the material innovation for the new pickup: "But I can tell you the way big companies work, and there's no way this wouldn't have happened unless Mulally played a big role in making it happen."

Doubters may recall that when Ford promoted more fuel efficient, six-cylinder, turbocharged engines for the current F-Series pickup as an alternative to larger and more powerful -- and heavier -- V-8s there were questions whether consumers would buy. They did.

The rollout and consumer reception to Ford's new trucks will be one of the big and most watched events for the automotive industry this year.

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