Current Trends in Aluminum Extrusion
The extrusion process of aluminum allows to take advantage of the qualities of aluminum and offers a larger number of design options. The use of aluminum alloys in the extrusion sector has grown annually by 6 % during the last 5 years.
The extrusion process of aluminum is a robust process that consists of heating and forcing the softened metal through an opening in the shape of a die until the profile emerges. This process allows to take advantage of the qualities of aluminum and offers a larger number of design options. The range of shapes that can be produced by extrusion is almost infinite. This is the reason why there is a variety of general rules that detail potential solutions and applicable tolerances. Aluminum extrusions are increasingly used in end-user sectors, such as construction, transport, electricity, machinery and consumer goods due to the strength, flexibility, durability and sustainability they offer.
The use of aluminum alloys in the extrusion sector has grown by 6 % annually during the last 5 years. It is estimated that 28 million tons were processed in 2017 worldwide. Despite this consumption volume, it remains below the total processing capacity of all the companies combined in the sector, which surpasses 40 million tons per year. However, trends indicate that the demand moves in such a way that it can reach that total of the current capacity in under 5 years. Unlike the rest of the countries, the German industry has achieved a utilization rate of its total installed capacity of around 90 %, becoming one of the largest production centers of the European aluminum extrusion industry. This is driven by the country’s total demand of around one million tons per year, which is relevant outside Asia where the numbers that China throws on the market exceed 50 % of what is used in the world. The extrusion industry keeps increasing its productivity and competitiveness. Plants are betting on modernization and use presses with higher pressure forces, replacing old and weak systems. The evolution of the market requires bigger presses because nowadays more resistant and difficult to press aluminum alloys or larger parts are processed.
The Construction Sector Leads the Demand
The construction sector consumes about 62 % of the global extrusion production. The housing market in the United States maintains a positive momentum and demand is slowly increasing. In Europe the housing market is regaining momentum and a gradual improvement is expected. In South America it is returning to positive from low levels. Weak construction activity has affected China's demand in the past year, however, it is slowly recovering after environmental reforms have been concluded. However, in the rest of Asia, demand is constantly increasing. It is expected that more than 70 % of the world's population will live in urban areas by the year 2050, leading to increasing demand on part of the building sector and to investments in road infrastructure, electricity and water distribution, sewerage, communications, and transportation. The trend of the new cities will be dominated by a vertical expansion rather than a horizontal one. Jean-Marc Luvisutto of Hydro expresses in his article "Materials for supertall buildings" that the design of buildings is evolving due to the growing use of computer programs in design and architecture. He claims that extruded aluminum makes it possible to construct complex buildings, with shapes that meet specifications for the facade in terms of aesthetics and performance. Due to the combination of different mechanical characteristics, this material ensures the ability of the facade to resist stress factors such as wind pressure, the weight of other components as well as a capacity to accommodate possible movements of the structure. These movements may range from small natural thermal or structural movements to large displacements when the buildings are exposed to earthquakes.
End users profit from the increased comfort offered by these facades, with regard to external conditions, such as temperatures, sun, rain and wind. In addition, the High-Tech trend has a strong influence on how interior spaces are perceived, with ventilation grids, lighting, information and other systems controlled by computers. Aluminum used as a material for coatings and parts makes it easier to harmonize elements such as window frames, rails, doors, gutters, elevator cabins, shelves, lamps and blinds.
A further area of application are kitchens, where aluminum is widely used in base profiles, extraction hoods and other pieces because this metal facilitates cleaning and the transfer of kitchen modules. This applies to the tallest skyscrapers in the world just as much as to office buildings, houses and shopping centers.
The third group of Aluminum consumption is the preparation and conservation of food where it is used for pots and other kitchen implements, food and beverage containers (cans and packages). Even electrical appliances, such as refrigerators, microwaves and ovens are offered in aluminum because its appearance transforms them into beautiful interior design complements.
Extrusions and aluminum laminates are extensively use in the aerospace industry. Its strength increases at low temperatures — a useful quality at high altitudes. By anodizing the main parts of an aircraft, its resistance to corrosion can be increased, protecting it from the weather. This includes the structures of wings, the fuselage and deflector engines. Aluminum laminates are used in both military applications in combat aircraft (the fuselage of the F-16 is 80 % aluminum) and in commercial aviation, where its use is driven by the mechanical requirements of the new generations of aircraft such as the Airbus 350 or the Boeing 787. Recently Arconic, with corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, signed a multi-year contract with Boeing Commercial Airplanes for the supply of aluminum for the wing coatings on all Boeing 737 aircraft, including polished fuselage skins and wing ribs. The aerospace industry has been extensively using this metal in the space shuttle program, and NASA chose a high strength aluminum and lithium alloy to manufacture the new Orion spacecraft.
As noted by Ken Hocke in his article "Austal USA christens 16th littoral combat ship", the US Navy is using aluminum as a construction material in its new coastal combat vessels. The naval industry in general uses aluminum because of its greater resistance compared to fiberglass. Aluminum makes it possible to produce boats with sturdy and rigid structures. Thanks to its ductility it has a greater capacity to absorb deformations without breaking or cracking in case of impacts. If breakage occurs, it can be repaired by being welded. It is also possible to join the different accessories of the cover or the interior directly to its structure without having to drill holes into it, achieving better sealing properties. In addition, aluminum parts suffer less wear and abrasion during transport, launching maneuvers or cleaning. Due to the weight savings, less propulsion is required to achieve the same performance, going easy on engine, consumption and emissions and resulting in economic-environmental advantages.
In the automotive industry, the weight has a significant impact on the performance of the car. In the development of electric cars, it allows the construction of light body frames, and at the same time offers the strength and rigidity required to counteract the weight of the batteries. Aluminum alloys simplify assembly processes while providing better energy absorption properties in case of accidents than any other material. Furthermore, it facilitates the realization of shapes that respond to the growing demand of "sharp edge" designs in automobile exteriors. Goran Djukanovic in his article; “Latest trends for the demand of aluminum in the automotive industry”, says that although aluminum in cars has been used for several years, the volume used in new vehicles is constantly increasing. However, the use of aluminum in cars and demand for it varies from one country to another for several reasons. Regardless, the cars of the future must meet strict emission standards. In fact, according to CRU metals consultants, the sales of electric and hybrid vehicles will reach 30 % of the global automotive market by the year 2030.
The electronics and IT sector has also started to use laminated and extruded components. During the first half of 2018, Apple used more than 4,000 tons of lightweight metal in its aluminum-coated iPhones. The electrical industry uses aluminum in high voltage towers, where the power line should be light, flexible, and as economical as possible. In this area, it also offers a high resistance to corrosion and ease of welding, making electrical installations more durable and easier to repair.
Geographical Expansion of Extruders
The leading global extruders are Hydro Extruded Solutions based in Norway, China Zhongwang and Guangya Aluminum Industry, based in China, Press Metal Berhad based in Malaysia, Bonnell Aluminum, Arconic and Cuprum in North America. Companies such as Gulf Extrusions, Talco, Zahit, Balexco, Qatar Aluminum Extrusion Company and Aluminum Products Company (Alupco) dominate the market in the Middle East and North Africa. The major European extrusion plants have been implementing a greater degree of automation to keep up with the competition in low-wage countries. Automation has also made the processes of the production chain more flexible. The technology leaders of extrusion plants such as Costellium based in the Netherlands, have a fully automated production flow, where the conditions for Industry 4.0 have largely been met. Initial approaches have resulted in several of the production and transport systems to coordinate themselves independently and thus an optimization of the process in line with the desired result. However, not all extrusion plants have achieved this standard yet, either because they have not been able to make the necessary investment or because the layout of the plant does not allow complete automation.
Latest official data on the aluminum extrusion industry (2015) in Spain show that there are around 45 active companies in the country. These companies combined have more than 100 extrusion presses, with a theoretical production capacity of more than 600,000 tons per year (calculated for 3 shifts of 8 hours, 5 days a week). In South America, production capacities are lower. Major companies are Fisa and Cedal in Ecuador; Alucol, Alumina and Arfel in Colombia, Furukawa in Peru, Alpros, Amex and Acemar in Argentina, Aluminios del Uruguay, Euroaluminios de Bolivia, Alukler in Paraguay, and Aldoca in Venezuela. However, the market is dominated by Hydro of Norway and Veka of Germany.
The Different Aluminum Extrusions Respond the the Needs of the Final Consumer
The aluminum industry has been increasingly focusing on downstream sectors, which are in contact with the final consumer. Al-Circle, which provides reports on specific issues in the aluminum industry, announced the launch of a new sectoral focus report in 2018: "The world of aluminum extrusions: an industry analysis with forecasts up to 2025". Norwegian Hydro compiled an advisory section regarding the type of alloy that should be used for the specific design of a product — whether it is a frame for a bicycle or a solar panel. Rik Mertens in his article “How the design can influence the quality of the surface clarifies that " if the application has decorative purposes and the product has to be anodized, then the obvious choice is the aluminum alloy 6060. This alloy has a relatively low silicon (Si) content, which is important to obtain a smooth surface. If the profile also has a structural or weight-bearing function, most likely people opt for a 6063 alloy, because of its higher mechanical values.
Several of the major producers have been completing Greenfield and Brownfield projects in the extrusion sector and mergers and acquisitions have been carried out to ensure business growth. Dominating extruders like Hydro Extruded Solutions (Sapa), have acquired Tubatinga Extrusora in April this year, which belonged to the Arconic Indústria e Comércio de Metais Ltda in Brazil. More recently in July, Novelis has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Aleris Corporation. China Zhongwang , Arconic, UACJ Extrusion and Gulf Extrusion are constantly exploring new markets to develop their businesses.