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Risks of delay loom as Ford rolls aluminum dice on new F150

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Ford is rolling the dice big time on the use of significant aluminum body panels in their new generation F-150 (reported to be the 2015 model) and some of those risks are beginning to loom large on the horizon as a target date for introduction gets closer.

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Based on reports circulating out of Detroit this week, Ford is planning to show the new generation 2015 Ford F-150 at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit in January with aluminum as a significant component that will likely includes hoods, door and other body panels.

The gamble on the aluminum was taken with considerable risk and (unfortunately) there are now reports that prototype parts from aluminum in pre-production are not meeting expectations and that the new 2015 F-150 may be delayed as result while Ford and its material supplier resolve the manufacturing and engineering issues.

The F-150 is a significant element (some look at it as the heart) of the Ford business model with over 750,000 likely to be sold in 2013 and a larger number projected in 2014 that would include some of the new generation F-150.

The profitability of the current F-150 and a smooth transition to the new generation will have major implications on the financial performance of Ford during 2014.

A looming challenge for Ford is that the current generation F-150 is considered long-in-the-tooth by many and sales may begin to stagnate with any delays in the new truck much as they did for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra while they waited for their new trucks that finally came in mid-2013 for 2014.

Ford urgently - we will not call it 'desperately' yet - needs this new 2015 F-150 with its significant fuel economy and other competitive advantages to hit the market as early in 2014 as possible to minimize negative financial impacts for Ford.

The new F-150 will need to offset quickly and significantly the advancements in the trucks now being offered by the competition including the 2014 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra (GM also has new and smaller mid-size trucks coming in 2014 for 2015 - with a 2.8L Turbo Diesel in 2016); the Motor Trend Truck of the Year Ram 1500; plus the new Nissan Titan and a reported 5.0L Cummins diesel power plant coming in 2015 - all that are going to challenge Ford's sales leadership in the segment through 2014 and on into 2015.

Aluminum presents a wide range of technical that translate to cost challenges including pressing and forming, bonding and welding along with the development and operation of robotic equipment that does not rely on magnetic properties (as do steel parts) to facilitate the manipulation of the parts by the machinery on the production line.

An unspoken additional challenge is consumer acceptance of a vehicle made of mostly aluminum. No one is speaking to that as a risk, but it is there.

All of these elements present major start-up (including massive retooling and training) costs for Ford along with ongoing production costs (that include the higher cost of aluminum) and production line equipment that cannot be leveraged to manufacture other steel-based vehicles in the designated F-150 assembly plants.

A delay in market introduction to the latter part of 2014 (or worse, later yet) would have significant negative financial implications for Ford as they incur a those heavy start up costs getting this vehicle into production plus stagnating sales of existing product - all while the competition increases their challenge of Ford's market share leadership during 2014 and into 2015.

Ford's stock price has not been performing well in 2013 in spite of Ford leadership in the truck segment and overall profitability. It could reasonably be inferred that concerns by institutional investors about a future successful introduction and transition to the next generation F-150 may be a driver of some of that.

The Ford stock price will almost certainly continue to be battered by any delays with this new truck including the rumored delays as 2013 ends.

The new 2015 F-150 is said to be based on the Atlas Concept truck that Ford showed at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show which garnered lots of attention with its advanced design and functional concept elements.

This aluminum material change development has been in the works for some time. Ford actually built some aluminum prototypes as early as the 1990's for testing and evaluation.

The current development of aluminum in the next-gen F-150 was reported on in July 2012 by the Wall Street Journal citing that the change to aluminum was a strategic gamble by Ford to take their global market leading vehicle to the next level of fuel efficiency by stripping upwards of 750 pounds from the body weight.

The reported fuel efficiency target for Ford on this new aluminum F-150 is 30 mpg and the 750 pound weight reduction would be a major contributor to that fuel economy.

Ford, is likely also looking to rely on the development of a ten-speed automatic transmission (in a joint venture with General Motors) as a power train enhancement for the F-150 that will also improve fuel efficiency and allow them to challenge the surging 2014 Ram 1500 and its advanced power trains.

The Ram is already equipped with an eight-speed transmission and delivering up to 25 mpg with its V6 gasoline engine and its new 3.0L Turbo V6 EcoDiesel -mated to the eight-speed automatic transmission - is reported to be achieving 26 to 28 mpg (in our test drives, we have averaged 26.8 mpg with the EcoDiesel).

The recently new EcoBoost power plants have been a significant element in the success of the current F-150 for Ford - actually enabling it to become the fuel economy segment leader until the new Ram 1500 trucks and power trains entered the market.

Ford is reported as going to offer the current 3.5L EcoBoost V6 in the new F-150 along with a new 2.7L EcoBoost engine that is part of a new generation of engines that have been code-named Nano.

The success of a new generation 2015 F-150 pickup truck will depend heavily on all of these elements to come together successfully to deliver a significant raising of the bar for the segment by Ford in fuel efficiency, functionality and performance along with consumer convenience and comfort.

The reports of the problems with the aluminum components are alarming and present a significant challenge for Ford and put into some question the decision to move to aluminum in order to cut weight from the new F-150.

We expect there will be more information coming on this developing situation between now and a NAIAS Ford press conference scheduled for Jan. 13 in the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit that is expected to introduce the 2015 F-150.

Sources include Wall Street Journal, Kansas City Business Journal, Bloomberg News, Autoblog.com, Autoguide.com

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