Alcoa Wheel & Transportation Products, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, serves the commercial vehicle, automotive, and defense markets with products used in a range of applications including forged aluminium wheels. In this interview, Matthew Beecham talked with Brian Thomas, Marketing Communications, Alcoa Wheel and Transportation Products.

Could I start by asking if you could sum-up what your North American OEM customers are demanding of Alcoa in terms of wheel styling these days?

Wheel style helps drive and complement overall vehicle design.  Take a look at the creative "sneak peek" drawings that auto manufacturers release in anticipation of the official debut of their new vehicles.  Drawings typically focus on the style of the wheel and disproportionately size the wheel compared to the rest of the vehicle for added impact.  Designers know that the wheel at each corner of the vehicle can add to the overall visual impact of the car or truck.  Alcoa wheel designers work closely with OEMs to provide a finished wheel that complements the overall look of the vehicle, whether to communicate a performance, aggressive or even a "green" theme.  Variations in wheel design that feature thick or thin spokes, intricate detail or even finish options accentuate the overall theme of the vehicle's manufacture is looking to achieve.  These design alternatives allow our OEM customers to fit wheels that complement or add to the overall impact of the vehicle.

In terms of wheel design, what do you see as key new technologies and new product developments for your business?

While extremely important, design is just one component of a three piece equation to wheel development.  Design, weight and durability all factor into the final parameters of a wheel, and manufacturers are including all three when directing wheel development.  A design that offers thicker spokes, for instance, adds metal and weight but may fit the design theme of a rugged truck or SUV.  On the other hand, weight is the enemy of fuel efficiency so alternative (hybrid or electric) powered vehicles often feature thinner spokes or even aerodynamic design elements to improve fuel economy.  Forging all of our wheels from one piece of aluminum allows Alcoa to provide wheel designs that are strong and durable, yet light in weight, to improve efficiency.  Alcoa is seeing increased demand for lighter weight wheels to increase fuel economy, whether for hybrid or electric cars and even larger trucks and SUVs.

For some time, we've seen a gradual decrease in demand for steel wheels for passenger cars and light trucks in favour of alumimium.  Yet now steel industry associations are reporting a steel wheel comeback, pointing to the benefits of high strength steels.   How do you see the market for steel wheels developing? 

The industry now seems to be fully embracing the benefits of moving to aluminum, whether for wheels or on any other components on the vehicle.  Many OEMs are shifting components, body panels and even entire structures.  Jaguar and Land Rover are now launching new vehicles featuring extensive use of aluminum in the body and panels.  Aluminum penetration started in the premium segments but is now finding acceptance in even the most basic, entry level vehicles.  The benefit to changing materials is proven.  Alcoa recently completed a lifecycle analysis (LCA) comparing steel versus aluminum wheels for heavy truck applications and many of these advantages also transfer to the automotive category.  In wheel manufacturing, a comparable forged aluminum wheel will weigh 20-30% less than a cast aluminum wheel, and nearly 40% lighter than a steel wheel.  With stricter CAFE and EU standards approaching, manufacturers are looking at all options to achieve fuel efficiency through lighter weight components.  Alcoa's design and engineering experience coupled with our processes and technologies result in forged aluminum wheels that save significant weight compared to wheels made from other materials, helping OEMs achieve weight reduction targets and improve vehicle efficiency.

What do you see as the main wheel trends?   Is it simply bigger, lighter and brighter wheels? And are there any hard and fast trends emerging with regard to, say, finishes? 

We're seeing two distinct trends; improved fuel economy and offering wheel appearance variety without adding tooling costs.

Wheels and other components near the hub consist of what is commonly referred to as un-sprung weight.  Removing weight from this area has a compounded effect over eliminating weight from any other area of the vehicle since un-sprung weight requires energy directly from the power source (engine and/or motor) to get moving.  Since forged aluminum is lighter than many alternate materials, OEMs are looking to Alcoa to provide lighter weight wheels that improve vehicle fuel efficiency.  Strict regulations coming in the next few years have many OEMs looking at all options.

In addition, OEMs are looking to extend wheel appearance options to drivers.  Alcoa has enjoyed success in launching OEM programs that provide multiple finish options from the same tooling investment.  For example, selectively painting portions of the wheel, like spoke pockets or outer rims, can dramatically alter the appearance of each wheel, allowing the manufacturer to offer additional packages to their customers.  Customers then have the option of selecting from a portfolio of different wheel appearances based on their preferences.

I've heard that 'cladding' is an emerging trend in the US as another way to differentiate cars in a class.  Is that something you are involved in? 

Many of our customers prefer the appearance of polished aluminum or painted finish options for their vehicles while others are looking for alternative options including paint or cladding.  Cladding allows OEMs to meet aesthetic or even aerodynamic objectives.

What's blue sky in terms of research and development into wheels these days?  How much further can wheel design go?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto's QUBE research service

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