Ford’s F-Series light-weighting strategy is successful as record sales continue

Ford’s F-Series light-weighting strategy is successful as record sales continue
Ford F-150

Ford Motor Company reported that it sold 820,799 F-Series pickup trucks in 2016, a 5.2% increase for the year, making it America’s best-selling vehicle for the 35th consecutive year and best selling pickup truck for 40 years straight. F-Series sales totalled 87,512 trucks in December, a 2.7% increase compared with the same month a year ago. Strong retail demand for the F-150 especially, but also for the F-150 Raptor (an on-road version of the truck), and the all-new Super Duty F-250 contributed to the best overall sales month for F-Series in 11 years – the F-Series includes the F-350, F-450 and F550 models. Ford does not publish F-Series sales by different truck sizes (neither do GM or Fiat Chrysler), so the exact number of F-150s or F-250s sold is not known.

“This will be quite a year,” said Ford Truck marketing chief Doug Scott: “Our highest volume year since 2005 when we did 901,000. An amazing accomplishment, 40 years as bestselling truck in America. It’s unmatched in the industry.” What’s more, the F-Series is the best selling pickup truck in Canada for the 51st consecutive year, and the best-selling vehicle for the seventh consecutive year. With sales of 304,618 units, a 9.4% increase on 2015, Ford enjoyed its best year in Canada since 1989.

Ford’s success is event greater knowing that its main competitor, General Motors Company, is lagging behind. Chevrolet Silverado sold 245,000 fewer units than the F-Series. The record sales of the F-Series have been achieved despite months of aggressive TV commercials by General Motors Company, showing concrete blocks dropped from a height of five feet into the bare pickup beds of a Chevrolet Silverado and a Ford F-150. The commercials tout the alleged advantages of the roll-formed, high-strength steel beds in GM’s trucks.

Ford can now declare victory and celebrate the success of its lightweighting strategy of switching to aluminium intensive vehicles in 2014. Back then, the media was overwhelmed with reports full of suspicion, calling Ford’s move risky, a gamble, a billion-dollar bet etc, or a ‘’game-changer’’ if successful. To dispel fears, the company resorted to calling the metal used as “military grade” – indeed, the high strength aluminium used in new F-150 trucks to persuade potential buyers is not the same kind of aluminium used in the production of aluminium cans. Actually, the aluminium used in F-Series vehicles is primarily 6xxx series aluminum alloy, heat-treated after formation in order to increase its strength. It is not actually of a different “grade” than the 6xxx series alloys used in other applications and industries. The 7xxx series alloys are actually the strongest alloys, but Ford most likely selected the 6xxx thanks to its corrosion resistance and weld ability.

By adding 1080 lbs. (490 kg) of aluminium – or roughly about ¼ of its total weight – Ford managed to reduce the weight of the new F-150 trucks by some 700 lbs. (317 kg). Ford points out that light-weighting has given the truck owners more of everything they wanted: more payload, more towing, more comfort and accessories, better acceleration, better fuel economy, better vehicle dynamics. Aluminium sheet and extruded products for the body and closures represent over one half of this content. Ford reached peak production in 2016, using roughly 350,000 tonnes of aluminium sheet for the production of 850,000 trucks.

Apart from light-weighting, a set of technical advancements contributed to the popularity of the F-series. These include more fuel-efficient 2.7-liter and 3.5-liter EcoBoost turbocharged V-6 engines, mirror-mounted floodlights, a 360-degree camera, LED box lighting, versatile box cleats and trailer back-up assist.

The new Ford 2017 F-150 model also boasts a 10-speed transmission, which has been jointly designed with GMC, a partnership that was not spoiled by GMC’s destructive TV ads. The gearbox enables a one-mile-per-gallon improvement in fuel economy over comparable 2016 models with six-speed transmissions, according to federal fuel economy data.

The 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 motor generates up to 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque, which together with a 10-speed automatic transmission makes the 2017 F-150 the most efficient high-tech truck on the road. The lighter vehicle enables lighter and smaller motors, for the same performance and more miles passed per gallon.

According to Truck marketing chief Doug Scott, the switch to aluminum has not sacrificed the F-Series’ bottom line. “Overall F-Series transaction price is highest in the industry and Super Duty F-250 is transacting $10,000 a unit higher than the 2016,” he said. “The F-150 transaction price is $1,500 to $3,000 higher than our competitors.” Scott largely attributes the 2016 sales surge, up nearly 40,000 units over 2015, to the introduction of the 2017 F-250 Super Duty which was launched last September and whose sales exceeded expectations.

The prices for F-150 start at $26,540. The F-150 Raptor is in the range $49,520 to $52,500, the Super Duty F-250 will sell for between $50,000 and $68,000, while the most expensive models of upper trim Super Duties are over $90,000. Some 25 % — more than 200,000 of F-Series sales – are over $50,000.

Ford started preparations to switch to aluminium intensive F-Series truck in 2009. Since then, and until it started deliveries to customers at the end of 2014, the F-150 pickup truck has passed rigorous tests, with over 10 million miles of cumulative testing. The most important part is that the truck has received a 5-star overall crash test rating, which Ford claimed has made the F-150 the safest model yet.

What is most important, after all, is that Ford proved that light-weighting was a well planned and carefully prepared project that finally enabled the automaker to rise above its competitors. Ford also proved how risks and unexpected circumstances can be successfully managed. The success of the F-150 has served as an encouragement for other automakers to turn to aluminium for future automobiles. Lastly, this is a big victory for aluminium’s ongoing crusade to replace steel in the automobile industry, a trend that will most likely continue and intensify in the future.