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Alcoa unveils major advance in aluminum manufacturing technology

Alcoa’s Micromill has a much smaller footprint than conventional direct casting technology, and produces automotive aluminum alloys with 40% greater formability and 30% greater strength.

Alcoa has developed new manufacturing technology—the Micromill—that will produce what the company says is the most advanced aluminum sheet on the market. The Micromill will enable the next-generation of automotive aluminum products, and equip Alcoa to capture growing demand from automakers for lighter-weight, yet durable and formable materials.

The Alcoa-patented Micromill process significantly changes the microstructure of the metal, allowing the production of an aluminum alloy for automotive applications that has 40% greater formability and 30% greater strength than the incumbent aluminum used today while meeting stringent automotive surface quality requirements. The Alcoa Micromill technology and the differentiated metal it will produce are covered by more than 130 patents around the world.

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Additionally, automotive parts made with Micromill material will be twice as formable and at least 30% lighter than parts made from high strength steel. The Micromill alloy has formability characteristics comparable to mild steels.

Micromill aluminum sheet that is 40% more formable is easier to shape into intricate forms, such as the inside panels of automobile doors and external fenders, which today are generally made of steel. The 30% increase in material strength will improve dent resistance, enabling the production of automotive sheet that is thinner and even lighter than previous generations. Automakers will also benefit from reduced system cost by streamlining the number of aluminum alloys used in their manufacturing process.

It will also be the fastest, most productive aluminum casting and rolling system in the world, Alcoa claims. A traditional rolling mill takes around 20 days to turn molten metal into coil; Micromill does it in just 20 minutes.

The Micromill also has a significantly smaller footprint than a traditional rolling mill, at just one quarter the size, and lowers energy use by 50%.

According to Ducker Worldwide, North American aluminum automotive sheet content per vehicle is expected to increase eleven-fold between 2012 and 2025 as consumers demand cars that are lighter and more fuel efficient. The Micromill continuous casting technology is designed to meet that growing demand for automotive sheet, with the flexibility to serve the industrial and packaging markets as well. The mill can easily shift product mix, and transition to different alloys without ever stopping a cast.

Alcoa has secured a strategic development customer, and from its pilot Micromill facility in San Antonio, TX, has also conducted successful customer trials. Those trials have validated the Micromill material’s unique characteristics, surface quality for exterior panels and overall performance. Alcoa is qualifying the material for use in next-generation automotive platforms.