Steel Wheels Still Worthy Competitor for AluminiumMon, 09/01/2014 - 11:13
The steel wheel versus aluminum alloy debate has been running for sometime, and the jury is still not entirely in on which comes up trumps. Steel rims have long been applauded for their cost, relatively easy manufacturing requirements, and long durability, but alloys offer the driver a customizable product that provides a lighter and more maneuverable driving experience. Unlike steel, aluminum alloys can be cast and worked in varying designs, allowing owners to personalize the appearance of their cars. Alloy wheels can be polished, painted, machined, or chromed, although all of these finishes require specific care since alloys can be more vulnerable to damage from saltwater corrosion and harsh cleaners. The weight of alloys is also considerably less than steel wheels, resulting in less stress on the suspension and better handling. Aluminum rims can suffer more during road impacts, however, with bending and cracking a real possibility. On the other hand, these rims are less susceptible to heat, and this can result in better breaking and less heat damage to both rims and tires.
Despite the many advantages of alloys, rim-maker Maxion Wheels is continuing to increase steel wheel production capacity in Mexico as a direct result of sustained demand. Maxion Wheels is the world’s largest wheel-making enterprise and entered the Mexican market in 2009 with the purchase of a Meritor plant in San Luis Potosi. The company has been growing globally and, according to Regional Operations Manager for North America, José Alberto Enríquez, has seen a major rise in demand in Mexico. Maxion Wheels’ San Luis Potosi plant focuses on steel and commercial wheels, and its plant in Chihuahua produces alloys. “With both plants currently operating at 90%, the company is investing to boost production, with the Chihuahua plant set to double its capacity in the next two years,” says Enríquez. While Mexico catches up on the automation front, the company is also focusing on reducing cycle time and waste, with Enríquez maintaining that Maxion Wheels’ Mexico plants are among the highest rated in the world for efficiency. “Mexico remains a complicated place to get fully automated processes in place and is not at the same level as Brazil, the US, or Europe,” Enriquez comments, adding, “Machinery is expensive, but this is made up for with savings in labor costs. The machinery in our plants has the capacity for about 6.5 million wheels per year, after a total investment of US$100 million. Increasing investment in automation is not easy. Every robot substitutes at least six workers however, and we will keep aiming to automatize some processes.”
Enríquez attributes the continued development of the wheel industry in Mexico to the increased availability of specialized suppliers. Maxion Wheels used to import most of its steel from Brazil, Japan, and Europe, but it is now expanding its Mexican supply base through providers such as South Korea’s Otscon, which has an established presence in the country. Although Maxion Wheels imposes a strict methodology when choosing suppliers that can see a supplier take at least a year to become accepted, the company now sources most of its raw materials locally. Maxion Wheels has been steadily working to reduce the weight of its steel rims. “Over the last three years, we have been able to reduce the weight of each wheel by 450g or more,” Enríquez states. Enríquez does admit however that the tide is turning in favor of aluminum wheels, given the material’s efficiency and weight reduction capabilities, yet he believes the installation of a weight reduction production line in the San Luis Potosi plant sets the company’s steel apart. Maxion is also researching the capabilities of high-strength steel in Brazil. “The steel process is very complex, and our current strategy is to use higher strength steel to reduce weight while maintaining the structural strength and manufacturing process. In order to make steel wheels lighter while maintaining their original qualities, we have designed big ventilation holes in the wheels that help reduce weight. Another benefit of high-strength steel is that it makes it possible to reduce the thickness and add a backbone of aluminum or chrome to improve the appearance of the wheels,” Enriquez explains. Wheel appearance is indeed a big driver of demand, and Maxion Wheels is not sitting back in this respect. According to Enríquez, the company is engaging in aggressive product development in order to create well-defined steel wheels that could be mistaken for aluminum alloys at first glance. Many SUVs and ATVs continue to use steel wheels and by adapting the physical appearance of these wheels and reducing their weight, Maxion’s steel wheels are serious competitors for their alloy counterparts. “We offer very good and innovative engineering solutions for both kinds of wheels, and all those we produce are robust and can stand all types of terrain,” Enríquez asserts. Steel also presents many benefits, specifically in a country like Mexico where road quality and corrosive air pollution must be taken into consideration. One challenge to Maxion Wheels’ support of steel is that clients such as Chrysler and Ford have been reducing steel content in their vehicles. However increased demand is coming from Japanese OEMs like Mazda and Honda. Diversifying the company’s client base to include more Japanese OEMs has created opportunities for the company.