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  • Arconic Davenport Works: Touring an Aluminum Production Plant

Arconic Davenport Works: Touring an Aluminum Production Plant

Touring an Aluminum Production Plant

Tim Esterdahl
May 25, 2017
Photographers: Tim Esterdahl
Along the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa, sits an enormous 6,500,000-square-foot structure filled with massive machinery. It is home to the Davenport Works plant owned by Arconic (formerly Alcoa), which produces part of the overall order of aluminum Ford requires for its vehicles, like the F-150. A recent tour allowed us to see how the aluminum sheeting is manufactured and look back on how the automotive world has changed since the aluminum Ford F-150 was unveiled. Alcoa Inc. split into two publically traded companies near the end of 2016—Alcoa Corp., the commodity side, and Arconic Inc., the manufactured-products side. We will refer to the new name, Arconic, over Alcoa.

The Davenport Works Plant

While the Mississippi River may be a stone’s throw away from the plant, inside the nondescript building—which is large enough to completely cover an 18-hole golf course—the smells and visuals of aluminum production dominate the senses. It is like walking into a different world.
Photo 2/19   |   Arconic Davenport Works
Underneath the roof of the 400-acre facility sits a variety of aluminum production equipment, including an oven to melt down the aluminum ingots and add in a secret makeup of other metals. Several large hot and cold presses send large sheets of aluminum of varying lengths (including 10 to 20 feet long or longer and weighing hundreds to thousands of pounds) down conveyer belts to flatten them like pancakes. These presses, standing stories tall and driven by operators in computer-laden control booths, use the conveyer belts to send the aluminum in and out until the right thickness is obtained.
Finally, another machine rolls up the flattened aluminum for transport. The rolled aluminum can sit for days until it is cool enough for transport. Held in place by large metal straps, the spools are then shipped by truck to the stamping plant in Michigan. Upon arrival, the metal strips are cut and the aluminum lays flat again by itself.
The process of sheeting the aluminum is done in a matter of minutes and is an incredibly simple system in theory, yet getting the right thickness and chemical compound in each sheet is complex and challenging.
Photo 3/19   |   Arconic Davenport Works Monitor

Aluminum Changes Ford and Arconic

It is hard to truly understand the importance of the relationship between Ford and Arconic without going back in time to 2009. Back then, Ford was just starting the aluminum build plan of its new F-150. Mark Fields spearheaded the plan, knowing the future of trucks revolved around meeting fuel economy standards. While Fields may not have known much about aluminum at the time, then-CEO Alan Mulally sure did, thanks to his days at Boeing. Arconic and Alcoa have been leaders in aluminum production for aerospace, and the Davenport plant plays a big role in producing material for airplanes. The fact that Mulally knew about aluminum usage, combined with Field’s need to drop weight, couldn’t have been better news for Arconic.
In 2009, times weren’t exactly rosy for the aluminum producer. Like Ford and other businesses, the recession had taken a toll on the company. In early 2009, Arconic announced it was cutting its global workforce by 13 percent and publicly said it made the move to “hold on to cash and cut costs,” according to a 2009 CNN.com story. It also planned to cut its aluminum output by 750,000 million tons per year, and it planned on reporting a loss in the fourth quarter of that year.
The next few years weren’t much better for Arconic. In 2013, it reported a $2.3-billion loss, and the company was delisted from the Dow Jones Industrial Average in September for the first time in 44 years. Thankfully, a decades-long glut of aluminum was coming to an end, partially due to Ford’s new F-150 coming to market.
While business was tough, Arconic kept investing in innovations, like a new bonding treatment for aluminum called Arconic 951. This treatment, applied to rolls of aluminum, creates a bond tougher than welded steel and is the secret behind how Ford was able to use the material for its trucks.
Armed with this new technique, Arconic invited Mark Fields (now Ford’s CEO) to visit the Davenport plant in 2013 to showcase its ability to meet Ford’s large demand for the metal. This was after Ford showed the Atlas concept at the 2013 North American International Auto Show. Satisfied with its ability to meet demand and after the success of being able to build a concept, Ford moved forward with the F-150. In January 2014, Ford unveiled the aluminum ’15 Ford F-150 at the North American International Auto Show, sending shockwaves throughout the industry.
Photo 4/19   |   Arconic Davenport Works Fire Dept F150

Three Years Later

From the onset, Ford’s aluminum F-150 faced criticism and concern over the massive use of aluminum. No manufacturer had tried to use the metal on such a massive scale before. There were concerns about reparability, durability, and consumer demand. Looking back at these issues now, none have panned out to be major problems. The fact is, repair and collision centers have adapted to the truck, and the way it was designed for easier repair (swapping out entire sections) has been without issue. While Chevrolet’s infamous dropping of bricks and the toolbox into the bed of the F-150 might have made for good theater, the reality is the trucks seem to be holding up without massive consumer concerns or recalls. Finally, consumers haven’t lost their desire for the F-150. Strong sales continue, and Ford has expanded its use of the metal to several of its products.
Arconic was able to rebound from the recession, recently introducing a new Micromill process that turns aluminum from liquid to solid in seconds, cuts down the production process from 20 days to 20 minutes, and requires one-quarter the floor space and half the energy. Plus, the resulting metal is 40 percent more formable and 30 percent stronger. This will allow Arconic to meet Ford’s increasing need for the metal as well as improve the durability of the ’16 Ford F-150 and all future generations.
Overall, the move to aluminum seems like an all-around win for both companies and consumers. This isn’t just our conclusion. One look at the sea of Ford F-150s in the employee parking lot outside of the Davenport Works plant—along with our own driving impressions—confirms our conclusion.
Sources:
money.cnn.com/2009/01/06/news/companies/alcoa/
qctimes.com/business/davenport-works-celebrates-new-arconic-name/

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