Unique steel wheel designs

  • 16-Apr-2010 03:59 EDT
Nichols wheels.JPG
Chris Nichols presents his design idea for steel wheels during a competition at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, MI. Nichols' winning design concept earned a $1500 scholarship.

An annual college student design competition aims to erase the stodgy views about steel wheels.

"Steel wheels still seem to be regarded as base entry model or utilitarian wheels. The material is not celebrated for beauty but for strength," said Brian Clauw, General Motors Senior Project Engineer for Wheels and Wheel Trim.

Several industry professionals, including Clauw, served as judges for the 4th annual Steel Wheel Design Competition sponsored by the Wheels Task Force of the Steel Market Development Institute, a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), and Michelin.

After hearing and seeing design proposals from eight Lawrence Technological University students in the college's transportation design program, Clauw said the younger generation did a good job of showing that steel wheels can be more than strong.

Junior Chris Nichols, the challenge's first-place winner, designed a reversible wheel concept. "It's one main wheel with two faces," said Nichols.

Targeted to pickup truck buyers, the wheel's off-road stamped steel section has a deeper dish to give it a wider stance appearance. In contrast, the street side's stamped steel section is angled differently, "giving the appearance of a larger rim," said Nichols. An optional bead-lock can be attached to enhance the look of the off-road side.

Production considerations were not overlooked. "If you don't push the feasibility of your design, then it is just another idea that gets thrown in the filing cabinet. So by design, this reversible wheel—whether it's the face for off-road users or the street face—does not interfere with the brake calipers," said Nichols.

For second-place finisher Cherise Caldwell, her 3-D, star-shaped design took inspiration from the movement of fabric, flowing water, and an elephant's wrinkled skin. "In terms of producing this, the general shape could be stamped out, then the steel could be heated and twisted into shape before being dipped in water to cool and produce the strength," said Caldwell, a freshman. Her up-level design concept spotlighted a custom fade paint finish.

Third-place winner Vince Kaptur designed an aero-wheel concept with an outer and inner set of stamped steel spokes. "The inner spokes rotate as the vehicle's road speed increases to fill the gap that is left open by the structural, outer spokes, thus forming a flat surface so that airflow passes over the wheelhouse. Both the structural outer spokes and the moving inner spokes are mounted on two distinct propeller shaft hubs, and the movement of the inner spokes is regulated by a hub motor controller," explained Kaptur, a sophomore. The inner spokes open during braking for cooling purposes.

Ron Krupitzer, Vice President of Automotive Applications for AISI, said the challenge lets future designers give current industry professionals reasons to consider steel wheels. "Twenty years ago, steel wheels had a more than 80% share of the North American market, but today steel and aluminum have about a 50-50 split of the market. The idea of this competition is to show that design can be a powerful ally to attract customers to the many benefits of using steel," said Krupitzer.

Competition judge Joseph Dehner, Head of Dodge and Ram Design at Chrysler Group LLC, said that automotive designers have tended not to consider steel wheels for upscale, luxury applications. "Trying to manipulate steel so that it doesn't look like a traditional steel wheel—such as by cladding or some other material—is commonly done so that steel undergoes a transformation to give it a more upscale look. I think we're still searching for the answer with steel wheels," said Dehner.

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