Unconventional steel wheel designs

  • 21-Mar-2012 09:30 EDT
Levich (steel wheels).JPG

Second-place finisher Michael Levich (shown with his design) and several other competition participants toured U.S. Steel's Great Lakes Works facility in Ecorse, MI. The steel mill visit and one-on-one time with auto industry professionals were a prelude to the judging event. (Kami Buchholz)


The drawings done by collegiate students for a steel wheel design competition had industry professionals thinking about future production possibilities.

"Some of the technical innovations needed to produce the designs really aren't there yet for wheels. But that's not a bad thing," said Todd Fletcher, the Chairperson of Lawrence Technological University's (LTU) 2012 Steel Wheel Design Competition, sponsored by the Wheels Task Force of the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI) and Michelin.

The automotive industry professionals who evaluated student submissions in the third annual event judged the concepts on various criteria, including material celebration, changing customer perception by communicating environmental benefits and performance, and creativity through a unique and innovative design that maintains functionality.

Fletcher was intrigued by a design proposal that would necessitate bending steel at a tighter radius than what is currently possible with a conventional stamping process.

"As professionals, we know what's production-feasible. But even when students describe something that isn't possible with current processing methods, it gets you thinking, 'How could we make that feasible?'" said Fletcher, Senior Application Engineer for Maxion Wheels, a division of Brazilian-based Iochpe-Maxion, the world's largest producer of light-truck and passenger-vehicle wheels.

Jeff Gale, a competition judge and the design lead for Challenger, Charger, Durango, and Dart vehicles at Chrysler Group LLC's Dodge design studio, appreciated that many of the design concepts were tethered in production reality.

"It's very impressive to see the students demonstrating knowledge about the different fabrication possibilities. They're proposing using new technologies on wheel applications, and they're showcasing different finishes for wheels. It's all just very encouraging," Gale said, adding tongue-in-cheek, "And selfishly, there are some ideas that I'd like to bring back and use at work."

LTU's Jacob Lanyon found a clever way to use less material without sacrificing wheel strength. During the design phase, Lanyon tested the strength of corrugation by putting accordion folds in drafting paper. "The folded paper was able to hold up a steel plate that weighed approximately 30 lb," Lanyon said.

His design features corrugation down the middle of each wheel spoke as well as the hub's center bowl. To increase durability, the high-strength-steel wheel would undergo a case-hardening process for the outer surface.

"Four different elements—case hardening, corrugation, high-strength steel, and no back surface—contributed to an overall theme of less material, strong wheel," said Lanyon, a freshman studying transportation design.

Greg Vandervoord wanted his wheel design to convey a strong visual statement with a two-tone effect.

"A controlled heat-treatment would be applied to select wheel surfaces to darken the steel in those locales, giving it a rugged look," said Vandervoord, a freshman studying transportation design.

Competition judge Gale said using a heat-treatment on the wheel vs. painting the wheel in specific locations "was very ingenuous. It's not anything revolutionary, but I haven't seen that done on a wheel before. This is an example of using an existing technology in a new way."

Michael Levich, an LTU freshman studying industrial design, nabbed second place with his padlock-inspired design.

"A padlock has individual plates of steel and when compressed together and riveted, it makes for a very solid piece. So no matter where you apply pressure it's made to withstand that pressure, and that's what a lock is supposed to do. A wheel also needs to be able to withstand high force from multiple angles," Levich explained.

Levich's multipiece dual-phase steel skeletal structure features crush tubes in the central hub to enable mounting studs to pass through without damaging the wheel when the lugnuts are tightened.

"When you view the wheel from different angles, it looks completely different because there is so much negative space in between the spokes," Levich said, whose design earned a $1500 scholarship.

For the second year in a row, LTU junior Colin Bonathan was the first-place winner, earning a $2500 scholarship. Third-place finisher LTU junior Cherise Caldwell, also a finalist in last year's competition, picked up a $1000 scholarship. The 11 other competition participants received a $100 scholarship.

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