Q&A with ArvinMeritor’s Wheels Group

By Matthew Beecham | 18 October 2007

ArvinMeritor is a major producer of steel wheels for the light vehicle OEM market, principally in North and South America. Continuing just-auto's series of Q&As with automotive component manufacturers, Matthew Beecham talked to Edson Yamashita, Director, Quality, Engineering & Technology, ArvinMeritor Inc and Nelson Gosser, Director, Sales & Marketing, Wheels, ArvinMeritor Inc about how the company's wheels business is shaping up.

just-auto: Could we start by asking if you could give a summary of ArvinMeritor's wheels business, what it offers and to whom?

Nelson Gosser: "Steel wheels is one of the business units within ArvinMeritor's Light Vehicle Systems group.  The wheels business has a 60-year history starting in Limeira, Brazil and specializes in the design and manufacture of steel wheels for passenger cars, pick-ups and SUVs applications.  ArvinMeritor has two manufacturing plants, in Limiera, Sao Paulo, Brazil and San Luis Potosi, SLP, Mexico, which have together a capacity to produce in excess of 22 million wheels per year. 

"These facilities currently produce wheels ranging in size from 13-inch to 22.5-inch with the capability to produce up to 24.5-inch wheels.  This includes standard steel wheel applications as well as dually wheel used on heavy-duty pick-ups.

"ArvinMeritor currently supplies all US, and most European and Japanese based auto manufacturers in the Americas with plans for a future engineering and manufacturing facility in Asia."

just-auto: What are the biggest challenges for ArvinMeritor's wheels group in 2007?

Nelson Gosser: "The biggest challenges for the wheels group is building a customer base in new markets and developing new customers as the company looks to grow globally going forward.  A concerted effort is being put forth to grow outside of our traditional markets.

"Another challenge is continued growth of our product offering, including the application of some of the more stylised, premium appearance wheel designs."

just-auto: What does an OEM stand to gain by sourcing wheels from ArvinMeritor?

Nelson Gosser: "ArvinMeritor offers strong wheel design and validation capabilities with in-house tooling and advanced manufacturing processes which allows for quick changes as required by the customer.  Our expertise in steel wheels provides a competitive alternative to cast aluminium wheel designs and offers a degree of flexibility of styling for different trim levels within a model-range.

"ArvinMeritor's wheel business is known as a high-quality supplier with strong LCC operations.  This is not a new occurrence for the wheel business as it has enjoy a long tradition of producing quality product as is evidenced by being the first Latin American company to achieve QS-9001 certification.  Additionally the facilities are ISO 9001, ISO-14001 and VDA-6.1 certified."

just-auto: In terms of wheel design, what do your OEM customers look for these days? 

Edson Yamashita: "Styling flexibility, reduced weight, high-quality and cost completive product. 

"OEMs offer a number of wheel options and it appears as they will continue this practice.  They are interested anytime we can offer flexible styling options which often results in lower tooling cost, more cost effective and profitable options packages, and reduced design and validation complexity.

"With pending increases in mandated fuel economy and increased fuel prices in North America weight is beginning to have a larger impact in overall wheel design.  With the larger ArvinMeritor wheel design, process and advanced materials capabilities can provide a significant weight reduction over the more traditional steels in use today, especially so on the larger diameter wheels found in the North American market."

just-auto: Do you see any similarities or differences between North American and European markets in terms of what OEMs are demanding?

Edson Yamashita: "Yes, there are a few differences in the wheel market.  The North American market utilises larger wheels for use on pick-ups and SUVs and stylised large diameter wheels for use in large sedans and crossover applications.  Additionally, the North American market requires a higher standard of appearance from steel wheels which is reflected the in the growing number of chrome cladded wheel applications.

"The European market is more driven toward lighter, smaller diameter wheels as vehicles tend to be smaller with more emphasis on emissions and fuel economy.  However, the North American OEMs are becoming more weight conscience due to new fuel economy standards and escalating fuel prices."
just-auto: While wheel size may matter most in terms of design, style must rank a close second.  What are you seeing there in terms of wheel styling?  Is it simply bigger, lighter and brighter wheels?

Edson Yamashita: "No. it is moving beyond bigger, lighter and brighter, they are also looking for scaleable and flexibility in design.  The idea is that the base model will be offered with a painted steel wheel, that same steel wheel will have a chrome and/or painted clad affixed to it for a mid-level appearance on the model, and then a larger, more design intensive wheel for use on the premium level.

"Several vehicle classes in North America, pick-ups and SUVs in particular, are developing a sub-premium or psuedo-premium wheel option.  This is a market between the smaller clad wheel and the large premium chromed cast aluminium wheel.  This niche is not only relevant for steel wheels market as the cast aluminium wheel suppliers are also using a chrome cladding in many cases."

just-auto: In terms of wheel claddings, what are the trends you are seeing in the automotive market at the moment?  Is it more plastic and thin gauge stainless steel?  What about trends in wheel covers?

Edson Yamashita: "Plastic clads are growing as an option mainly due to design flexibility and cost.  They are ideal when used with a HVAW [High Vent Area Wheels].  It provides the popular large opening in the face of the wheel and allows for increased brake system cooling.  When clads are used on this type of steel wheel design, they allow for much more depth and styling flexibility than can be achieved using only steel wheel stamping technology.  Additionally, this allows the OEM to use the same base wheel and apply different cladding designs to cost effectively change the wheel appearance each new model year or provide differentiation between brands while retaining the same wheel under the cladding.

"Stainless steel remains a viable material for cladding.  It is a cost effective alternative to chrome plating the steel wheel, however it is somewhat limited in application due to manufacturing process constraints.  It is usually found on flat, or slightly contoured steel wheel design as it is not practical for designs requiring a high level of detail and depth with tight recesses. 

"The wheel cladding opportunities will continue to grow.  They are also used on cast aluminium wheels as well as steel as the clads provide a savings over chroming or polishing a wheel regardless of wheel material.  Additionally, the level of styling and detail that can be moulded into the cladding may provide added styling opportunities in the future."

just-auto: Are there any hard and fast trends emerging with regard to, say, finishes?

Edson Yamashita: "Environmentally friendly paint is always at the forefront of any painting operation in the industry and applies to our wheels operations as well.  Additionally, the gloss-level and appearance of steel wheels has increased.  The number of colours offered has also increased but not to a significant level of say body-colour matched wheels. 

"There are some exotic finishes available for wheels and cladding, but they are cost prohibitive and really do not have a chance at this time to ever reach production."

just-auto: As we understand it, among the reasons for steel wheels comeback (over alloy) relates to high strength steels and new designs that offer large ventilation openings that mimic the thin-spoke appearance of some alloy wheels.  What are your thoughts on the fortunes for steel wheels making a comeback?

Edson Yamashita: "The use of high strength steel, plus high-ventilation area wheels design, increases steel wheel market opportunities.  You are correct that the lighter weight, high-strength steel has opened up increased opportunity to mimic the thin-spoke appearance of some alloy wheels.  Additionally, the use of high-strength steel has drastically reduced the weight penalty normally associate with steel wheels.  .

Nelson Gosser: "ArvinMeritor's wheels business strives to provide a strong set of solutions balancing cost with benefits in the wheel market.  By utilising our advanced design and manufacturing processes combined with reduced weight and increased design flexibility offered by the new steels, we can  be quite competitive against certain alloy wheels designs."

just-auto: How much further can wheel design go?

Edson Yamashita: "Although the stamping process used in manufacturing steel wheels has some limitations in terms of design, we are working very hard to have aggressive designs that allow us to address wheel designs and styling cue needs.  When coupled with claddings, this adds even more styling options for the OEMs and provides a high degree of flexibility, especially when an OEM approaches wheel design early in the development and decision process.

"ArvinMeritor is investing heavily in engineering capacity to bring more flexibility to steel wheel design.  We also work with suppliers and industry partners investigating new materials and manufacturing processes that allow our customers more design freedom while reducing the design-cost compromise.

"There is no limit to wheel design; the limiting factors are material strengths and the cost of alternatives.  As ArvinMeritor increases wheel design options to meet styling requirements we ensure the steel wheel will continue as a viable option for consideration on he cars of tomorrow."

See also: RESEARCH ANALYSIS: Review of road wheels market