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Alcoa To Make Aluminum Automobile Frames for Audi

October 24, 1991

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Aluminum Co. of America hopes it is laying the framework for a revolution in car manufacturing.

The world’s largest aluminum producer said Wednesday it will build a $70 million plant in Germany to make aluminum automobile frames for Audi.

″This is about a design concept,″ said Alcoa Chairman Paul H. O’Neill. ″We view this as the dawn of a new era in the way automobiles can be manufactured.″

The use of aluminum in automobiles has been growing for decades. O’Neill noted that the average car contained about 160 pounds of aluminum in 1990, more than triple the 1957 amount.

″Today’s announcement is not so much about the novelty of the use of aluminum in automobiles but more importantly about the creation of a new technology that provides an infinitely better way to use aluminum in automobiles than simply replacing parts that have in the past been made out of some other material,″ O’Neill said.

Construction of the plant in Soest, Germany, will begin later this year and be completed in 1993. The plant initially will employ 180 people and eventually will be capable of making parts for more than 100,000 cars a year, O’Neill said.

Alcoa said the aluminum frames, called spaceframes, will mark a significant departure from the traditional way of making a car’s primary body structure. Instead of spot welding as many as 300 stamped steel components to form the car’s structure, fewer than 100 aluminum parts are robotically welded to form the frame. Some aluminum sheet parts, such as inner fenders and the floor pan, are attached to complete the body.

Cars built with aluminum frames will weigh at least 35 percent less than conventional cars made of steel, said Dave W. Schlendorf, manager of the company’s Aluminum Intensive Vehicle program.

The new design will improve fuel economy and reduce emissions without shrinking the car and compromising safety and comfort, Alcoa said. Aluminum costs more than steel, but Schlendorf said producing the spaceframe car will cost less than assembling conventional cars.

Engineers from Alcoa and Audi worked seven years to develop the spaceframe. In Pittsburgh, new aluminum alloys and advanced die casting, production and robotic welding techniques were developed.

Alcoa said it has agreed to initially exclusively supply Audi, based in Ingolstadt, Germany, with the frame components for a new model. O’Neill declined to discuss specifics of the model, and no one answered the telephone at Audi headquarters in Germany immediately following Alcoa’s announcement.

Schlendorf said besides the aluminum frame, the Audi model will have aluminum panels, such as the roof and floor pan, making it somewhat comparable to Honda Motor Co.’s Acura NSX sports car. Honda unveiled the $60,000 model in July 1990, billing it as the world’s first aluminum production car.

Alcoa has formed a wholly owned subsidiary, Alcoa Automotive Structures & Technology GmbH, to make the frames. The company hopes to eventually supply frames to other automakers and build similar plants in the United States and around the world.

″We have great expectations for what this is going to do to reshape the industry,″ O’Neill said.

Schlendorf said the interest in the new design is not as high among domestic automakers as it is in Europe, where fuel is more costly.

″It’s our expectation that automakers around the world will see the benefits and virtue of this technology,″ O’Neill said.

He said the company is willing to negotiate with automakers to set fixed prices for aluminum that do not fluctuate wildly with spot prices on the commodity market.

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