At the 4th annual Steel Wheels Design Competition held in Southfield, MI, in March, several industry professionals gathered to judge student proposals for the future of design. The event's sponsors were the Wheels Task Force of the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI), and Michelin.
Classroom walls adorned with dimensional paper models and foam cutouts helped convey the creative language of the college students competing in a steel wheels design challenge. "The way the students think is very refreshing. It's very imaginative," said one of the judges, Erwin Angala, Senior Creative Lead Designer for Wheels at General Motors.
After evaluating the design proposals for luxury vehicles from 12 Lawrence Technological University students in the Southfield, MI, school's transportation design program, Angala said the top finisher presented a well thought-out wheels concept that considered the manufacturing implications.
Sophomore Colin Bonathan's first-place entry showcased a ten-spoke design. "The perimeter of the cylinder's top actually becomes a three-dimensional section rather than just being a two-dimensional face. That's accomplished by stamping a sheet metal cylinder, then pinching in the top edge toward the center. The excess material from the stamping becomes the 3D shape," Bonathan explained.
High-strength steel (HSS) plays the lead role in Bonathan's concept. "I really tried to optimize the wheel design to make it as light as possible while also confirming through FEA that the worst-case scenarios for acceleration, cornering, and bump could be handled by the HSS," said Bonathan.
Judges saw and heard Chris Nichols' wheel design presentation via a Skype link from Wolfsburg, Germany, where the LTU senior is completing a six-month design internship at Volkswagen. The second-place finisher told judges his wheel concept celebrates the technical attributes of an electric car.
"Integrated heat sinks on the spoke draw heat from the hub motors and electronic components for a functional and appealing design," Nichols explained, adding that the wheels' heat reactive paint conveys a unique identity at night by creating a subtle glow that "lets everyone know that you're an eco-conscious driver."
Ronald Krupitzer, Vice President, Automotive Market for the SMDI, said that hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles are prime targets for steel wheels.
"OEMs are looking for ways to save on the costs of electrified vehicles and one way to do that is with good-looking, fair-priced steel wheels. And by using HSS, we can make the wheels lightweight," Krupitzer told AEI.
Third-place finisher Matthew Eash's six-spoke design was inspired by a six-string electric guitar. "The balance mechanism attaches inside the spoke, and it rides along the strings—which are rolled steel spokes-like the slide on a guitar. The 'strings' are structural pieces that connect the rolled rim to the hub, which is a stamped assembly. There's a silicon stop on the end of each 'string', so you could use a tubeless tire," said Eash, a sophomore.
Competition judge Murat Gueler told AEI that, after more than a decade of working in the automotive industry, spending time with the younger generation is uplifting.
"The student designers are fresh thinkers and, in a positive-way naïve, so they try things that are very interesting, very inspiring. In some cases, the ideas are a bit wacky and unfeasible from a production standpoint. But it's very refreshing to come here and see all this innocence, creativity, and passion. Sometimes you need to take a step back from the daily routine of working, and maybe at one point, try to be a student again—just in your mindset," said Gueler, a design manager for vehicle exteriors at Ford Motor Co.
The top three finishers received scholarships in the amount of $2500, $1500, and $1000 respectively. All other competitors received a $100 scholarship.