I just want to say one word to you. Aluminum.
It may not be the plastics of the 21st century, but aluminum demand is growing along with the need for lighter, more fuel efficient cars, lightweight laptops and tablets like the iPad I’m writing this post on as well as futuristic products such as self-cleaning, smog-eating building panels.
Which is, of course, good news for Alcoa, one of the world’s biggest aluminum producers and a century-old, old-school manufacturing giant that, in the public imagination at least, might seem an odd fit in the post-industrial, Internet-age U.S. economy.
“We’re all over the automotive sector,” said Kevin Anton, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer, who dropped by Forbes’ offices on a recent visit to San Francisco. “Every OEM has called us up and said, ‘What can you guys do for us?’ ” (OEM are original equipment manufacturers, aka, the automakers.)
Driving the move to aluminum fenders, hoods, roofs and other automotive body parts are new federal fuel economy standards that require carmakers to achieve a 54.5 miles per gallon fleet average by 2025. That means a race to shed steel and incorporate lighter-weight materials into cars that can boost fuel economy.
“Today the average car has 340 pounds of aluminum; by 2025 that will grow to 550 pounds,” says Anton. “The biggest growth will be in aluminum sheet. For every pound of aluminum you can take out 21 pounds of steel and 20 pounds of carbon over the life of the car.”
(Steel makers, of course, are not sitting still. As my colleague Joann Muller wrote in a recent Forbes Magazine story, companies like Severstal are developing lighter-weight steel that they’re betting can beat aluminum on price.)
The nascent electric car market is another potential boom for Alcoa. Tesla Motors’ Modes S – the first cars were delivered on Friday – boosts an aluminum body to help offset the weight of its battery pack and help extend the range of the all-electric sedan.
Alcoa also has moved into consumer electronics, profiting from the trend to make laptops, tablets and other gadgets out of sleek and stylish aluminum. (Anton said confidentiality agreements prevented him from identifying specific consumer electronics customers. But take a guess.)
The challenge that demand poses for Alcoa is filling the high-tech manufacturing jobs at plants in Iowa and elsewhere needed to produce its advanced aluminum products. For all the hue and cry over the offshoring of manufacturing, Anton says the U.S. is short workers for such jobs.
Twenty-first century factory workers need computer and problem solving chops as well as communication skills in an interconnected era, he notes.
“We don’t have quite the workforce but we’re reaching out to returning veterans and doing a lot of work with community colleges to train people,” he says.
Link to original story on Forbes.com