It’s no secret that the automotive industry is vital to the U.S. economy. And it’s no surprise that this market plays a significant role in the success of the thermal-processing industry – from aluminum and steel suppliers to equipment manufacturers to heat treaters. All that said, it’s a good thing all signs appear to show that the U.S. automotive industry is heading toward a strong 2015 and beyond.

 

January 2015 marked the best January in terms of U.S. vehicle sales in nine years. General Motors, Toyota, Ford and Nissan all reported at least a 15% increase in sales from January 2014. Auto sales were on pace (as of this writing) for their best February since 2002. More importantly, February marked the 12th consecutive month of year-over-year gains. A broader outlook is even more positive. U.S. vehicle sales in 2014 increased nearly 6% from 2013, marking the fifth consecutive year of growth, and North American vehicle production increased 5.5% to slightly more than 17.4 million units.

 

Automotive Industry

So, what does the future hold? Well, at least one report predicts sales of more than 17 million this year, with the potential of 20 million in 2018.

Let’s take a quick look at one of the “Big Three” automakers. Ford reported a 15% sales increase in January 2015 compared to January 2014. January’s performance was the company’s best since 2004. Ford’s success selling cars is having a positive impact when it comes to adding jobs and investing in its facilities. Early last year, Ford invested $500 million to upgrade its Lima Engine Plant in Ohio, a project that added 300 new jobs. The company hired 300 new employees and invested $129 million in its Louisville Assembly Plant in August 2014. More recently, Ford announced that it will ramp up production of the all-new F-150 and add 1,550 new jobs across four facilities in the first quarter of 2015.

These types of investments ultimately have a direct impact on the thermal-processing industry. A look at news from around the industry last year sheds some light. Chrysler, for example, installed a continuous-belt copper brazing and bright-annealing furnace line in October. An automotive parts manufacturer in Mexico ordered three temper ovens; a Canadian parts supplier ordered a universal batch-quench heat-treatment facility; and a supplier of engine and chassis components ordered an induction hardening system.

The bottom line is this: Good news from the auto industry is good news for heat-treat equipment manufacturers. But that’s not all. The surge in auto sales and vehicle production is also a boon for aluminum and steel companies.

Perhaps the biggest news of 2014 came from American Specialty Alloys, which plans to build a $1.2 billion, state-of-the-art, aluminum mini-mill in the southeastern U.S. It would supply more than 600,000 tons per year of aluminum, flat-rolled product to the automotive industry. Aleris is investing $350 million to upgrade its Kentucky rolling mill, which will produce 480 million pounds of aluminum auto-body sheet annually when fully operational. Meanwhile, the SMS Group partnered with Big River Steel to build a steel mill in Mississippi County, Ark., that would supply advanced high-strength steels (AHSS) for the automotive industry.

While we’re on the topic, aluminum has been playing a prominent role in the auto industry as of late. As you have no doubt heard, Ford released its aluminum-body F-150 this year. It’s a big gamble for the company, mainly because the F-150 is its top-selling vehicle. Ford’s all-in, though, as evidenced by production starting up in December 2014 in Dearborn and by the end of 2015’s first quarter in Kansas City. The decision appears to be paying off, as the truck recently won the prestigious Truck of Texas award. Since May 2013, more than 8,000 skilled-trades and production workers at Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant and Kansas City Assembly Plant have undergone an intensive training program to support production of the all-new Ford F-150.

AHSS, on the other hand, is another fast-growing automotive lightweighting material. Lighter and stronger than conventional steel, this material helps automakers meet safety and efficiency standards. ArcelorMittal and ThyssenKrupp have invested heavily in research and development for AHSS. More importantly, carmakers have incorporated AHSS into their vehicles, including Honda and BMW. General Motors has used a significant amount of AHSS for its Chevrolet Silverado truck.

When it comes to technologies impacting the auto industry, 3D printing is clearly at the top of the list. Sintering – ancient when compared to 3D printing – is still playing an important role.

 

3D Printing

3D printing is, without a doubt, the hottest technology on the market. The process of “printing” solid objects through progressive layering was first called stereolithography (SLA), and it was invented and patented by Charles W. Hull in 1983. Today, 3D printing is a fixture in manufacturing-related news, and it has found a home in the automotive industry.

One of the early adopters taking advantage of 3D technology was Hendrick Motorsports in the world of NASCAR. They utilize the technology to “make mistakes in plastic” to cut down on cost and also produce some non-essential equipment (such as mirror mounts) for use directly on the cars.

More recently, ExOne Company announced that six additional materials are now printable in the company’s printing systems: cobalt-chrome, IN alloy 718, iron-chrome-aluminum, 17-4 stainless steel, 316 stainless steel and tungsten carbide. This new group of printable materials is available to a range of industries, most notably automotive.

If you needed further proof of 3D printing’s role in manufacturing, look no further than Alcoa. The company announced in November 2014 that it was working to implement 3D printing in the manufacture of certain parts in an effort to cut product development costs. One of the world’s largest producers of aluminum cited the automotive industry as one of 3D printing’s biggest businesses.

3D-printed cars are quickly becoming a reality. Local Motors used a 3D printing process to manufacture all of the Strati’s body parts. The two-seat electric vehicle was assembled over six days at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in September 2014. The car, which takes 44 hours to print, is made from ABS plastic that has been reinforced with carbon fiber. Another vehicle, Urbee, utilizes 3D-printed body panels.

Equus Automotive partnered with Solid Concepts to build its model 770 muscle car. 3D-printed components were used as master patterns for casting. Other components were 3D printed and then chromed or simply assembled on the car after post-processing.

 

Sintering

The sintering process is also alive and well when it comes to manufacturing automotive parts in North America.

Miba Sinter USA invested $8 million in its McConnelsville, Ohio, production facility in July 2014. The project will created 100 new jobs over the next three years. The company, a subsidiary of Austria’s Miba group, produces high-precision parts – including synchronizer hubs, high-strength gears, chain sprockets, belt pulleys and electronic power-steering components –
for the North American automotive industry. According to the company, which has invested $51 million in the McConnelsville plant since 2010, sintering technology allows resource-friendly production of heavy-duty, dynamically stressed components.

Why the investment in the U.S.? Miba says the increase in production is a direct response to the positive developments of the auto industry. The company sees the U.S. as one of its greatest opportunities for growth, mainly due to the auto and heavy-truck markets.

American Fine Sinter, meanwhile, invested $16 million and created 24 jobs at its Tiffin, Ohio, plant in November 2014. The company needed additional capacity because of contracts for transmission and shock-absorber parts from multiple carmakers.

   

Conclusion

It’s hard not to be optimistic about the U.S. automotive industry. Sales are up, and signs appear to show a bright future. This is undeniably good news for the heat-treatment industry, as evidenced by recent furnace sales and investments in manufacturing facilities. 3D printing is a technology to keep an eye on, whether it’s used in the prototyping of parts or for manufacturing entire cars. Sintering, meanwhile, is still being effectively used by the auto industry. Look no further than Ohio for proof.