The 2015 Ford F-150 may be a lightweight, but the automaker has gone to extremes to ensure the aluminum-bodied successor is more durable than the steel-bodied pickup it will replace.
When the 2015 model goes on sale in the fourth quarter, it will continue to have a steel frame, but the entire body will be made of lighter-weight aluminum. The truck sheds 700 pounds, which will contribute to better fuel economy.
Ford engineers recently offered a behind-the-curtain look at the development and testing since the 2009 decision to incorporate materials never before used in a pickup.
The truck, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. for the past 32 years, was put through torturous paces, says Raj Nair, global product development chief. Ford built 11 prototypes and increased durability testing to withstand 10 million cumulative miles.
"Engineers tried to break it in testing," Nair says.
Tested in the real world
Ford went beyond its labs to test a key part of the 2015 Ford F-150. In 2011, the company embedded six prototype pickups at some of its fleet-customer job sites. Then Ford evaluated the design and engineering of the pickup in real-world conditions.
Denis Kansier, F-150 prototype lead engineer, visited the customer sites every three months to check on the integrity of the vehicles and identify possible adjustments to the design.
"This secret testing almost immediately yielded results and lessons we have rolled into the all-new F-150," says Kansier. "For example, we made the cargo box floor thicker to improve strength, and we made modifications to the tailgate based on lessons we learned through customer usage."
-- NWautos staff
One prototype competed in the grueling Baja off-road race. The race team did not know their truck had an aluminum body or a prototype of the new 2.7-liter turbocharged EcoBoost engine under the hood. They did note the engine was quieter than usual and that lights in the cabin signaled when to shift gears. Other prototypes were put in the field, where mining, construction and utility companies unwittingly tested them.
"They abused the truck," says engineer Bruno Barthelemy. "It's kind of sad when you're the engineer. But we wanted a tough truck, so we developed special tests so it performs better than the truck today."
Engineer Pete Friedman says the team has worked on better materials and processes for years to troubleshoot possible problems.
For example, though aluminum does not rust, areas where aluminum is bonded to steel are very susceptible to rust. Rob Starbowski, corrosion protection supervisor, worked on an adhesive bonding agent to prevent corrosion on joints where aluminum parts attach to the steel frame.
Materials specialist Glen Weber tested fastener finishes and found a rust solution in a painted adhesive with flakes of aluminum or zinc to prevent corrosion.
John Caris worked on taking weight out of the frame. The curwrent frame is 40 percent high-strength steels, while the new truck boosts that to 77 percent.
Some parts were designed to be smaller and lighter: side rails incorporate thinner gauges of steel in portions, and there are now aluminum cross members. Those changes amount to a 60-pound weight loss.
But 70 percent of weight reduction is from increased use of aluminum, says quality engineer Mark Keller.
Other engineers simulated fingertip smudges on interior surfaces and redid some graphics to make sure they would not rub off over time. Artificial light simulated fading of fabrics, leather and plastics because of sunlight.
A group of 10 men wearing dusty jeans climbed in and out of seats 10,000 times to test the fabric, says chief engineer Peter Reyes.
For 2015, Ford adds a new EcoBoost engine to the lineup: the 2.7-liter turbocharged engine that is more compact and weighs about 370 pounds.