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Ford's 2013 Atlas concept provided a glimpse of the 2015 F-150's basic design form. The new truck will not be a radical departure except in its aluminum-body construction. Images of the real thing will be available Jan. 13, 2014. (Lindsay Brooke)

2015 F-150: Ford drops an aluminum blockbuster

It’s one of the auto industry’s most promising vehicle programs—and one of its worst-kept secrets. And on January 13 at the 2014 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit, Ford will finally unveil the 2015 F-150, the world’s first pickup truck featuring an all-aluminum body and cargo box.

With this bold move, Ford leapfrogs its domestic and Japanese competitors in the highly profitable U.S. full-size pickup segment, using aluminum-intensive bodywork and an all-new, lighter steel frame to reduce the truck’s curb weight by approximately 15% compared with the 2014 model, according to Ford and supplier engineers who spoke unofficially prior to the truck’s debut.

(Automotive Engineering will provide more information about the vehicle after its NAIAS introduction.)

Shooting for 30 mpg

The 2015 F-150 will shed 750 lb (340 kg) versus its predecessor, the engineers said, the light-metal body contributing about 450 lb (204 kg) to the total mass reduction. With this dramatic weight loss, along with other technologies, Ford aims to push the base-cab 2WD truck’s highway fuel efficiency significantly toward 30 mpg on the EPA test cycle, they said. Ford’s most efficient 2014 F-Series is rated at 23-mpg highway. The current segment leader is the 25-mpg-highway Ram 1500 HFE.

The U.S. government’s footprint-based CAFE laws currently require full-size pickups to average 30.2 mpg by 2025.

Ford’s Atlas concept truck, shown at the 2013 NAIAS, served as a design beacon for the 2015 F-150. That vehicle highlighted an active-aerodynamics suite including active grille shutters, innovative active wheel shutters, a deployable front air dam, and power retractable running boards. The grille shutters will appear on the production truck in its initial rollout. The entire active-aero suite is said to be good for more than 2 mpg in highway driving. The F-150 also will be the first light truck to feature 100% LED lighting.

Ford has invested billions in engineering and manufacturing resources to develop its thirteenth-generation F-Series, which enters production in 3Q14 at Dearborn and Kansas City. The F-150 is the initial step in a larger strategy by Ford to convert all of its full-size trucks, including F-250/350 and the large Ford and Lincoln SUVs built in Louisville, to primarily aluminum construction by 2017, the engineers said. The plan brings a high degree of process and tooling commonality to Ford’s three U.S. truck plants, which is expected to yield significant economies of scale to the truck production.

The high-volume program is a rousing win for Alcoa and Novelis, the two aluminum suppliers at launch who will supply the program from their Davenport, IA, and Oswego, NY, facilities, respectively. The trucks are said to contain about 1000 lb (454 kg) of aluminum, including cylinder block and heads for Ford’s new 2.7-L Nano turbocharged V6, the main case for Ford’s 6R80 6-speed automatic, and various suspension components. The new V6, equipped with stop-start, will be available on 2WD models only.

F-Series remains Ford’s top breadwinner, accounting for 35% of the company’s North American revenue, according to IHS Automotive. Sales for the 2013 model year totaled 763,402 units, the most since 2006. It has been America’s top-selling vehicle for 32 years.

Another contributor is frame-supplier Metalsa, which will produce the F-150’s all-new, high-alloy-content (approximately 70%) steel ladder frame that itself is 80 lb (36 kg) lighter than the 2014 frame. Magna is understood to have the Super Duty frame business. The 150’s frame employs unique new closed-section front rails made using the roll-forming process, AE has learned. Roll forming a critical structure like the major load-bearing area of a truck’s ladder frame gives it capability to handle “all the load cases of axial strength and stiffness as well as torsional rigidity and bending strength,” at moderate cost with minimal scrap, explained Ron Krupitzer, Vice President of Automotive Applications at the Steel Market Development Institute.

The trucks will use steel door beams for side-impact protection, high-strength steel bumpers, and cast-iron steering knuckles.

Rivet-bonded 5000 and 6000-T4 alloy

About half of the F-150’s body stampings will be in solution-heat-treated 6xxx-T4 (known as 6000 series) alloy sheet in various gauges, favored for its dent-resistance, formability, and class-A suitability, supplier sources reported. Lower cost 5xxx-series sheet, a non-heat-treat alloy popular for structures and other non-class-A applications, will provide about 40% of the body stiffness, AE was told. The body includes up to 70 lb (32 kg) of aluminum extrusions.

Among the various joining solutions in the new truck's body are “many, many lineal feet” of robotically applied adhesive, used to join the cab and box structures, with approximately 4000 rivets replacing about 7000 spot welds. Engineers said the rivets provide some shear strength (adhesives are weak in this area) while serving to locate the parts for the bonding process.

Potential galvanic-corrosion issues between the aluminum front-end assembly, cab, cargo box, and the steel frame will be mitigated by various methods, including special coatings.

Although the 2015 F-150 program has reportedly been delayed two months due to re-tooling issues in the plants (all of which get new body shops and significantly upgraded paint areas), the Ford engineering sources report no major challenges as the company prepares for production in nine months.

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