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Will the Radical New F-150 Be a Crisis for Ford Motor Company?

Ford unveiled the all-new 2015 F-150 in Detroit this past January, and plans to put the truck into production this fall. The new F-150's aluminum body panels represent a big change for Ford, and a big challenge. Source: Ford Motor Company.

Ford's (NYSE: F  ) all-new 2015 F-150 pickup is seen by many as the biggest risk that the company has taken in years.

Why? Because of the pickup's aluminum construction.

By making much of the new truck's body out of aluminum instead of steel, Ford is running the risk that skeptical truck-buyers -- who value ruggedness and longevity very highly -- will accept the new trucks as readily as they do Ford's current, proven steel-bodied F-150s.

Ford has done plenty of durability testing with their new trucks, and they're very confident that pickup buyers will find the new F-150 to be as rugged as the current trucks -- and that they'll be even more pleased when they see that the lighter weight will improve fuel economy and towing capacity, among other things.

But Ford is also running another risk: Aluminum vehicles are harder to manufacture than steel ones. In fact, no automaker has ever tried to make an aluminum-bodied vehicle in the kind of volumes that Ford will need with its new truck.

Given the troubles that Ford has had with some of its other new-product launches in the last couple of years, that raises a huge question:  Will Ford be ready when production of the 2015 F-150 starts this fall?

A manufacturing expert with the best inside view
To find out, I spent some time this week talking to the man who knows better than anyone else: Ford's Joe Hinrichs.

Hinrichs is Ford's President of the Americas, running the company's North American and South American divisions. He's one of Ford's top leaders, and he's often mentioned as a possible future CEO.  

But Hinrichs is also -- maybe first and foremost -- an auto-manufacturing expert. Hinrichs spent years running factories and related operations for both Ford and General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) , and was previously in charge of all of Ford's global manufacturing.

Ford's President of the Americas, Joe Hinrichs, with F-150s at Ford's Kansas City factory. Hinrichs spoke to The Motley Fool about Ford's all-new 2015 F-150 this past week. Source: Ford Motor Company

Nobody is better-positioned to know (and explain) the challenges Ford is facing with the new aluminum-bodied F-150 than Hinrichs, in other words. And while he's very confident that Ford's new truck is on-track for a smooth rollout this fall, he explained that there are some big challenges involved.

Nobody has ever done anything like this before
As Hinrichs sees it, there are two key challenges involved in producing the new truck.

The first is simply production speed. As I said above, no automaker has ever tried to make aluminum-bodied vehicles at the rate at which Ford's assembly lines produce F-150s: 60 trucks an hour, 22 hours a day. (This is America's best-selling vehicle, after all.) 

Here's why that's an issue: Unlike steel, aluminum vehicle-body panels are riveted and bonded -- glued with high-tech glue, essentially. Those processes require special machines and procedures. It's different from what Ford has always done. But it can't be any more time-consuming, or Ford's assembly lines will fall behind.

Ford worked with tool suppliers to create new types of riveting machines that could handle the speed and precision required on the F-150's production lines. (Ford builds the F-150 in two factories: One in Dearborn, Mich., the other in Kansas City, Mo.) 

Hinrichs told me that Ford actually changed one joint in the current F-150 about a year ago to a riveted design, so that they could test the new equipment on the actual F-150 production lines. (It has worked just fine, he said.) 

He said that Ford has spent "an enormous amount of time" developing new production processes for the 2015 F-150, and testing them, over and over. He's very confident that Ford's production lines will be ready to go when it's time to start production.

Can Ford's aluminum suppliers keep up with demand?
And that second issue? Making sure that Ford's suppliers can deliver enough aluminum. 

Hinrichs didn't confirm this, but it's well known that Ford worked closely with aluminum giant Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) on the special sturdy aluminum alloy that will be used in the F-150. Alcoa is believed to be a key supplier of metal for the new trucks, but it's probably not the only one.

What Hinrichs did tell me is that getting sufficient quantities of aluminum has been "another challenging part" of the race to get the new F-150 into production. 

The concern isn't just about getting enough metal to get started, he explained. It's about ensuring that the supply will be steady over the model's entire lifetime. Ford's suppliers also need to make sure that the specific aluminum alloy that they supply is the one that meets Ford's strict requirements. 

Those are risk points, and they're ones that investors should be aware of. But again, Hinrichs expressed confidence. He said that Ford's aluminum suppliers have been expanding their own production capacity and hiring and training more workers in order to be ready to go when it's time to start building the new truck.

The upshot: The boss thinks they'll be ready
Even if Ford was behind schedule on the F-150, I wouldn't expect Hinrichs to have told me so. But he sounded very confident about Ford's ability to launch the new truck successfully.

Hinrichs has been personally involved in the preparations to build the new F-150s. He told me that he went over to the Dearborn factory this past Wednesday to look at the latest pre-production 2015 F-150s, and he went through the issues with the manufacturing team and engineers himself, something that he has been doing regularly for months. 

And what was his take? "They look great and everything is on plan," he said. 

Will that plan work out? We'll find out this fall.

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Read/Post Comments (37) | Recommend This Article (34)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 12:52 PM, eschadler wrote:

    Wait until you have an accident with one of these. Repair costs will go through the roof. Might get used to having the insurance companies total these out on a fender bender. Aluminum is expensive and takes a detailed person to get it right. Worked with this stuff for many years. You would be surprised at how temperature will effect sturdiness of the body. The higher the temp, the weaker the body. Hope no construction crews want to use them in the south. The beds will get major dents in them during the summer.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 1:09 PM, hunter3203 wrote:

    @ Eschadler - Ford has obviously done their homework on this. They built aluminum versions of the current pickup and put them in service with commerical operators for years. They're also using the same alloy that's been used in the Army Hummer for decades, it's plenty strong and durable enough.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 1:11 PM, hunter3203 wrote:

    Ford is going to redefine the light truck market with the new F150. Their lighter weight is going to allow better fuel economy, more payload and even greater towing capability. GM and Chrysler will eventually do the same thing but Ford is probably 6+ years ahead of the other truck makers.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 1:24 PM, btc909 wrote:

    How stupid expensive will this be?

    If I were Ford i'd make it very difficult to get anything close to a base model.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 2:07 PM, oldpapajerry wrote:

    Change the blue Ford oval on the grill to a yellow bow tie and it would look just like a Chevy PU.

    Come on Ford you can do better. You had a winner with your sleek styling, why give it up?


  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 2:19 PM, inspectormatt38 wrote:

    I agree with the person who said that these will be expensive to fix and most likely will be even more expensive to insure. But here is a radical idea, why not make a much smaller truck? You can only go against the law of physics so much. Why is Chrysler, which still has massive issues with reliability, the only one to use a small turbo diesel in a truck? Imagine how good of mileage that Ram could get if it weighed 4900lbs instead of 6000lbs.

    I have not owned a full size since the late 90's because I hated how big the new models were and gas started to get expensive. They drive like crap, even more truckish, and are massively overpriced, a big ripoff. At least you can park those 90's trucks unlike todays behemoth POS's.

    My point is, stuff needs to get smaller, turbo diesels (smaller V6) are a good fit for a truck because of high low end torque. They need to be adopted across the industry. Bigger is not better, look it up, a lot of trucks are rated lower on crash tests than cars or SUV's. Sorry that was long, but to sum up, the current truck is a massive failure and a massive waste of money. Most people I know, stupidly, buy a truck and never use it for work, which is a massive waste. I would not mind having a smaller truck if they did their best to make it safe, fuel efficient and fun to drive. The current trucks do not meet all these standards.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 2:23 PM, geneo wrote:


  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 2:28 PM, geneo wrote:


  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 3:19 PM, gtdetri wrote:

    As we all know that trucks are very poor in the snow unless in four wheel because of the light back end. My question is how bad is this super light truck going to be even in four wheel drive. Do you need to add 400 pounds of sand bags? If weight needs to be added for snow driving what will this do to your improved fuel economy?

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 3:49 PM, FREDMACK99 wrote:

    another big ole beer can. I'm a big ford guy,but this just gives ammo to ford critics.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 3:50 PM, Jason87467 wrote:

    I think Ford will be surprised when GM's new 2015 truck will weight about the same as a Ford w/o going to the extreme Ford is going through. Already the Silverado weighs 300 lbs less then the Ford, and It would not surprise me a bit if GM can shed 400 lbs more. They have a patent in welding aluminum to dissimilar metal and that's a great advantage over what Ford has. Watch! And in 8 months from now I'll tell you, I told you so.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 4:14 PM, fpl1954 wrote:

    When Ford started mass producing stamped steel bodies, everyone said the same thing, but actually the Model T did OK.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 4:19 PM, fpl1954 wrote:

    Aluminum is more common than steel on the planet, though it does cost a bit more, but that will change as use increases. They may have to use solar power for refining the aluminum to keep the cost down, but again that is already proven in Spain, where cheap electricity is a major contributor to the slow Spanish economy - thousand of high paying fossil energy related jobs disappeared overnight when Spain switched to clean cheap solar power. My Dodge truck has an aluminum hood, and it's superior in every way to the fiberglass hood on my previous truck.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 4:26 PM, fpl1954 wrote:

    Land Rovers have been made with aluminum bodies since - well since Land Rovers were first made in 1948 by bolting an aluminum body to a surplus WWII Jeep frame. They seem to do OK in aluminum, in fact I wouldn't want any other body.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 4:28 PM, fpl1954 wrote:

    There are a number of COUNTRIES that are essentially cities build on aluminum ore. There is no shortage of aluminum ore, though they may have to add a furnace or two to make more metal.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 4:38 PM, TruckU3 wrote:

    Aluminum has been used in the heavy duty truck industry for decades. Truck makers have built cabs, hoods, fenders and sleeper boxes out of aluminum for decades, although the trend is towards fiberglass and plastic composites these days. Back in the 1960's through the 80's, the truck builders offered aluminum chassis options for weight savings. Peterbilt still builds a truck with an aluminum hood, fenders and cab - you probably see it on the road all the time - and you don't see the cab and hood distorting or being troublesome to repair after a crash.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 6:36 PM, MaxxTheKatt wrote:

    This is aircraft grade aluminum. It last just about forever. But it is more expensive. It will require auto body shops to spend about $50,000 on new equipment to do the body repairs. A lot of body shops can't hack that kind of expense.

    Don't know why they don't come out with a light 1/2 ton or a 1/4 ton pickup with front wheel drive. With a small V6, fuel economy would gain big. Most urban/city dwellers don't need that much truck just to run to Lowes/Home Depot for some fertilizer and plants. Front wheel drive would give the pickup some much needed traction and cost of the pickup would be lower. You could still pull a fishing boat with it.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 6:43 PM, McSniperliger wrote:

    They delt with the same BS back in the 1990s when they went from the OBS to the 1996/97 model year. They took a bit of a hit then but they recovered.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 6:44 PM, bobert wrote:

    Aluminum have been used in all cars and truck with no problem for years. Nissan, Subaru, GM, VW. Ford, what about Boeing and Airbus, Space X, NASA,. This I know because I work for ALCOA. So when you Full size Ford 4X4 gets over 28 mpg, time will tell

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 7:12 PM, manabiker wrote:

    Fords CL 9000's were made of alum, Peterbilts, Kenworth, Freightliners, an many other big trucks are made of alum and have been for many years.

    How can they run out of alum with all the beer Ford pick up drivers drink, just melt down the beer cans.

    Turn in your beer cans for a discount on the price of the truck.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 7:15 PM, tb603a wrote:

    Hawai Airlines has had problems with corrotion in a lot of their airplanes, remember the one where half of the PAX cabin popped away taking one of the Flight

    attendants to her death?, the reason is the high ratio of humedity in the islands, we will see later on what is going to happen with the trucks at the east coast where humidity is normally high.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 9:07 PM, djcr2014 wrote:

    All of the UPS Trucks are aluminum bodied. As well

    as Freightliner and Peterbilt trucks. All these truck have aluminum bodies on steel frames. They all have held up quite well with over a million miles during their life cycle.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 9:11 PM, bigmike32172 wrote:

    It's about time!

    All in all, besides the "What if's", after being in and around drag racing for over twenty years every hundred pounds in the quarter mile is approx. a tenth of a second so by Ford knocking off around 700lbs from an F150 along with us/the customer getting rid of the spare tire and some other odds and ends, the potential for a much faster truck is a definite. And lets not forget about being lighter will handle and stop much better and faster.

    Of course fuel economy can and will only get better.

  • Report this Comment On May 25, 2014, at 11:37 PM, tstorey1 wrote:

    The federal CAFE requirements are why Ford is doing this. It is not an "option" for the company. They sell more trucks than anything else, thus, to meet the law, fuel economy is about weight, the trucks must weigh less...and they do.

    My college buddy's 1967 Land Rover didn't warp and peel, my guess is Ford will be able to get this right eventually. GM and Chrysler will follow choice in the matter really.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 2:33 AM, Jso223 wrote:

    Buy a Toyota tacoma and it won't let you down. Why buy a vehicle to trade in buy one to last.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 7:28 AM, F250 wrote:

    Chevy will have the same AL body in 2016, Ford is ahead of the game, everyone take a deep breath the sky is not falling!

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 8:30 AM, Mask wrote:

    I think this that has been miss reported about the new F150 Ford Truck. From what I have read in the past it is the FRAME of the truck that is to be aluminum and that is the real change of the new truck. Aluminum has its advantages as it is lighter weight and will not rust. So Ford is attempting to gain better gas mileage advantage by taking some of the weight off the truck with the use a aluminum frame. But from what I know about the use of a aluminum alloy frame that it may not be as strong as a steel frames so it remains to be seen what the trade off my be with the new F 150 Ford truck. That is what is so risky of the use of a aluminum frame plus the expense in the event of a major accident. All of the body shops will now have to make changes to deal with the newer technology as well so there will be some ramp up time for that. Gas mileage and or tow capacity might be the only trade offs or will the aluminum frame really be able to hold up like the ole tried and tests of a steel frames has been in the past. It is a fact that Steel is stronger then aluminum so it remains to be seen as this might be the wavy of the future or be a bust for Ford. Time will tell us....

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 9:13 AM, dtownrebel2 wrote:

    Correction to the above post from Mask. The article was correct, the frames are still made of steel and it's the box and cab which are made of aluminum. Also, Ford is already using aluminum hoods on many of their models, the Mustang, Fusion and current model F-150 to name a few.

    Don't forget Fords CEO Alan Mulally ran Boeing, so it's not like he has not done his homework on the pros/cons of aluminum.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 9:29 AM, Dragonarse wrote:

    I can get my son-in-law's 2013 F-150 in my garage only if I fold in the mirrors, and not close the garage door, but then can't get out the driver's side door. Love the concept of the aluminum truck, but I'll stick to my 1997 Ranger 4 liter v-6, 4wd, get 24 MPG in town, and can haul 3 dead cow elk in the bed at once. Don't need to spend $30k+ to replace it, and then have to add on to the garage too.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 10:15 AM, BBXTRAD1 wrote:

    Buy a Tacoma, that is your response? These are people on here discussing adult sized trucks, not a foreign toy. Another on, paint won't stick to aluminum. Never heard of this before. Many cars in the industry use aluminum now, so what is the difference.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 5:35 PM, honky wrote:

    Inspectormatt38, the reason for bigger is payload. Some people have more to haul than others and smaller would mean more trips, resulting in more time and fuel spent to say the least.

  • Report this Comment On May 26, 2014, at 5:37 PM, honky wrote:

    Jso223, keep buying foreign junk and supporting other governments than your own.

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2014, at 12:35 AM, Dinnycar wrote:

    You know, as a simple consumer of Ford products, I am willing to give it a go. If aluminum is good for and safe for airlines, good for the military, and so forth, why not a pickup truck too? It makes sense. All the above criticism sounds reasonable, but yet, with the government so involved it seems to leave fewer and fewer choices for car companies and other industry. That's the wild card and not the aluminum if the truth be known. I have already asked my insurance agent about the increased costs and he feels that insurance companies can't afford to go to high because of the nature of that industry. Since aluminum is used in other great motoring products, I am sure many body shops will be ready. So let Ford give it a go. I am in for the change. Even to the point of buying the first year model. Since it is one of their most important products, I am certain that they have considered everything except Murphy's law, which no one can plan on.

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2014, at 3:39 AM, Cobra11Murderer wrote:

    I'm mixed after reading this, I was considering one day in the next year or so to get a ford f150.. "upgrade" from my 98 triton lariat, extended longbed, 4.6... but I don't feel like aluminum would be safe enough nor last near as long as my 98 has... might just be better to hold out and see how everyone plays there cards

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2014, at 10:51 AM, TMFMarlowe wrote:

    I've talked to a lot of Ford executives about this truck -- not just Joe Hinrichs, but other people within the company, and even Hinrichs' boss, incoming CEO Mark Fields.

    My conclusion: There's always a chance it could go off the rails, but I think it's a very bad idea to bet against Ford on anything related to pickups.

    If anybody can make this work, Ford can -- and they're really, really confident about this, and these are folks who tend to be pretty careful about making big bets.

    John Rosevear

  • Report this Comment On May 27, 2014, at 2:07 PM, JHBoricuamn wrote:

    honky, don't let nationalism blind you to the fact that the Tacoma has been manufactured in the US since it was introduced in the mid 90s.

  • Report this Comment On May 28, 2014, at 11:32 AM, jmoral2k wrote:

    How about everyone go to Ford's website before posting comments- All Questions are answered on the link below..I will be the first to purchase one!

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John Rosevear

John Rosevear is the Fool's Senior Auto Specialist. John has been writing about the auto business and investing for over 20 years, and for The Motley Fool since 2007.

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