How Ford is innovating with materials science

Oct 28, 2015

Henry Ford would be proud that his namesake company is leading the automotive industry’s charge to work advanced materials into vehicles and high-tech systems into factories. It was the founder, after all, who in 1941 introduced the Soybean Car, the world’s first plastic people carrier. The prototype didn’t stand up to wartime priorities or crash testing. But it was ahead of its time, as modern materials science proves.

The automaker is the first to use a groundbreaking type of aluminum called Micromill, made by Alcoa. Ford (f) first gained attention last year for making its most important vehicle, the F-150 pickup truck, entirely out of aluminum, which is lightweight but expensive and difficult to shape. Micromill—which debuted in some F-150 components in October—is thinner, stronger, and 40% more formable than today’s automotive aluminum. Rivals like Audi and Jaguar have also invested in aluminum technology, but Ford’s efforts put it at a scale that’s difficult to match.

Ford also won the support of the U.S. Department of Energy to build a “multi-material lightweight vehicle” with auto supplier Magna International that would meet standard crash tests and other safety regulations. The resulting design, based on a Ford Fusion, weighed 23.5% less than a conventional model. “We worked on every material—steel, aluminum, magnesium, composites, plastics—to find the right solution for each component,” says Matt Zaluzec, Ford’s head of global materials and manufacturing research.

Ford Begins Building All-New F-150 A 2015 F-150 on the assembly line in Dearborn, Mich. Photo: Sam VarnHagen—Ford

Driving much of the materials-science effort in the auto industry are looming deadlines to meet corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, which mandate an average fleetwide fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. A 10% weight reduction typically results in a fuel-efficiency gain of between 3% and 4%.

“It’s not only about fuel consumption and emissions,” says Steve Russell, a vice president at the American Chemistry Council, with which Ford is working on polymers. “Light-weighting also improves acceleration, handling, and braking.”

The efficiencies don’t stop at the vehicles. Ford has spent the past decade rehabbing its River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Mich., where F-Series trucks are built, with new robotics, stamping equipment, chemical and heat treatments, and an aluminum-recycling system.

“Be ready to revise any system, scrap any method, abandon any theory, if the success of the job requires it,” Henry Ford wrote in 1923. The maxim couldn’t be more apt today.

A version of this article appears in the November 1, 2015 issue of Fortune.

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