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Steel versus Aluminum
A frequent question about structures generally and truck decks specifically is:
“Why don’t you make it out of aluminum, so it’s lighter?”
The short answer for a truck decks is:
“It wouldn’t be any lighter, but it would be much more expensive.”
The short answer for structures generally, is:
“It wouldn’t necessarily be any lighter.”
The aluminum-vs-steel, strength-vs-weight issue is one that is commonly misunderstood, especially among
truck deck makers, sometimes even among engineers.
The misconception arises from the partial truth that there are aluminum alloys that are as strong as, or
stronger than, steel. It’s more accurate to say that there are some aluminum alloys that are stronger than
some steel alloys.
One of the most widely used high-strength aluminum alloys is alloy 6061 with T6 temper. Pound for pound,
6061-T6 is stronger than some steel alloys, but not as strong as others. The fact is, for any given high-
strength aluminum alloy, there are higher-strength steels that outperform aluminum in strength-to-weight.
Factors other than strength and weight eventually dictate which material is a better choice for a particular
For truck deck design, another of those other factors, a very important one, is stiffness. And as we will see:
There is no stiffness advantage in using aluminum over steel.
Strength refers to the maximum load that a material can be subjected to without yielding.
Stiffness refers to how much a material bends when a load is applied.
Stiffness is quantified by a parameter called Modulus of Elasticity. Without getting overly technical, we can
look at the relative stiffness of steel versus aluminum by comparing this parameter:
Aluminum’s modulus is about 10 million psi.
Steel’s modulus is about 3 times that: 30 million psi.
That means, for a common structural shape used in a sled deck design, (for example, a 2-inch square tube),
and for the same limit of bending with the same load, the wall thickness of an aluminum tube would need to
be more than 3 times the wall thickness of a steel tube.
Steel is about 3 times heavier than aluminum. (Steel is about .3 pounds per cubic inch, aluminum is about .1
pounds per cubic inch.) So the aluminum tube with the thicker wall ends up weighing the same as the thinner-
walled steel tube, for the same length.
This means: For a typical truck deck design, it will not be any lighter if it's made of aluminum than if it's made
Note that this is regardless of the alloys chosen--the modulus is pretty constant. For steels, it varies from
about 28.5 to 30 million psi; for aluminum it ranges from 9.9 to 10.3 million psi. So “high strength alloys” offer
no stiffness advantage.
Clearly, the choice of steel or aluminum for a particular application requires engineering scrutiny beyond the
misleading "aluminum is lighter" assumption.