Automakers invited to visit Solihull plant in England

Jaguar Land Rover shares knowledge on aluminum with Mercedes, Audi

Automakers invited to visit Solihull plant in England

The aluminum body of a Range Rover Sport is inspected as it moves along the assembly line at Jaguar Land Rover's plant in Solihull, England.

Photo credit: BLOOMBERG
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SOLIHULL, England -- It's the exact opposite of hush-hush corporate security: Jaguar Land Rover wants to share everything it knows about assembling aluminum-bodied cars.

And that has made Jaguar Land Rover's Solihull assembly plant in England a popular destination for manufacturing executives from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Ford and others.

Why is the company so happy to share its patented procedures? Because it hopes that doing so will save the company money in the long run.

Jaguar Land Rover would like the industry to adopt standards for raw materials and tools to assemble aluminum vehicles. These standards would cut production costs, and the changes won't happen unless the big players get involved.

Mark White, Jaguar Land Rover's chief technical specialist for aluminum, says automakers producing vehicles with aluminum -- Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and soon Ford -- each use a slightly different manufacturing system that includes various grades of aluminum and different rivets, glue, robots and measuring systems.

For example, Jaguar Land Rover will buy 353 million rivets this year to assemble all of its aluminum-bodied vehicles. When production of Ford's aluminum F-150 begins in the fall, Ford will be buying about 2 billion rivets per year, assuming each F-150 has roughly the same number of rivets as an aluminum-bodied Range Rover.

To push the idea of standards, White does a lot of entertaining.

"Mercedes-Benz was here [four] months ago, and we are going to see their S class on a return visit," said White. "They were very impressed with what they saw. And they took a lot of things we do away. Audi was here twice so far, and we are doing some work with them. I am going to see the A8 and I have an open invitation to see the Q7."

Ford's aluminum manufacturing executives visited too, White said.

"The only way we think we can drive the cost down in aluminum production technology is to get into mass production," White says. "If you patent everything, then everyone else is either going to find another way of doing it or they are just not going to do it at all."

Ford declined to comment about sharing with competitors the aluminum manufacturing technology it has developed for the redesigned 2015 F-150 with an aluminum body. But Ford does agree in principle with Jaguar Land Rover.

"Ford believes that certain industry standards can provide great benefits in terms of cost, quality, efficiency and innovation," said Ford spokeswoman Kristina Adamski. But, she added, "Each process specification would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with respect to the customer and product benefits."

Industry analyst Emmanuel Rosner, of CLSA Americas, estimates that the aluminum F-150 will cost Ford at least $750 more per unit than the steel 2014 model. Based on that number, with production of around 650,000 F-150s per year, the added material cost to use aluminum would be more than $488 million.

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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