Foxconn, driven by its EV ambition, has started partnering with Innovation Metal Technology, China’s largest manufacturer of aluminum alloy, to set up a Lighthouse Factory for the aluminum industry, targeting its automotive applications.
A Memorandum of Understanding with Innovation Metal Technology is signed by Foxconn Industrial Internet, the smart factory business of Foxconn. It has recently been named by the World Economic Forum as one of the few Industry 4.0 pioneers via its Global Lighthouse Network.
It is not Foxconn’s first move into aluminum for automotive applications. Earlier this year, another Foxconn subsidiary has successfully developed a die-casting technology for aluminum alloys, and subsequently become a supplier of BMW. Taiwan’s main defense contractor and a partner of Lockheed Martin, AIDC, has likewise aspired to enter the automotive business via its expertise in aerospace, using aluminum composite material in its e-bus model.
Lately, aluminum alloys seem to regain traction within the EV industry, spearheaded by Tesla. Ironically, it was also Tesla that surprised the automotive industry in 2017 when its first mass-market model, Model 3, shifted to a higher concentration of steel for its chassis. In contrast, earlier models like Roadster and Model S took an all-aluminum approach. Even though the lighter nature of aluminum was widely considered advantageous for range extension, the lower price tag of steel was an important factor driving automakers like Volkswagen and Nissan to adopt a higher percentage of steel in their new mass market models, such as Nissan Leaf.
Tesla, however, didn’t stop betting on aluminum’s potential: as early as 2016, Elon Musk hired Apple’s aluminum alloy expert, Charles Kuehmann, to lead materials engineering at both Tesla and SpaceX. A primary obstacle to overcome, as reported, was aluminum’s high malleability and repairing costs.
In a patent filed recently, Tesla seems to have reached a milestone in addressing the issue, finding the right balance between the high conductivity and the high yield strength needed for aluminum alloys used in various automotive parts, such as inverters and rotors, while addressing the cost challenges. The patent claims that it can mass-produce the aluminum alloys via die-casting, but without going through the expensive heat treating process that might also compromise yield.