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Taking a look behind the scenes of the many R&D activities of the Swiss group, with one of its cutting edge technological subsidiaries in Italy, behind many of the projects and technical solutions for new generation wheels: here are the news in the pipeline, which will affect tomorrow’s products

Francesco Lojola

Cars change, both in form and substance, just as wheels do, employing new materials, structures and manufacturing technologies. It is true that in the world’s largest trade fairs advanced prototypes and futuristic concept vehicles are always present, but, besides these exercises in style, what is the direction taken by the sector’s technological developments? Among those who have shown themselves able to blaze a trail, anticipating the times, initially by virtue of a consistent commitment to motorsport and then in the wake of OE supplies to the automotive industry, we find the Ronal group. After taking over Speedline, a Venice-based company eight years ago, Ronal inherited its cutting edge sports technology as well as a technological radar always focused on sector innovations and a group of specialists devoted to research and development. Giorgio Muffatto, once Speedline designer and now Ronal’s consultant for product and process innovation, says: “Right from the start, the ability to be one step ahead of the competition has always been our strength.  More generally, because of different working methods: we often have developed new products only to keep them ‘in the drawer’ , waiting for the right moment to place them on the market, as an alternative to existing products or a qualitative leap for our customers”.  Just as it is happening around concave reverse wheels, the “nouvelle vague” of wheels destined to sports cars.

From motorsports to OEM
“The company first opened its doors at the end of the 60s – says Muffatto – with motor racing, and quickly grew to the point of becoming Formula 1’s chief supplier no more than a decade later, which has greatly contributed to our alternative and avant-garde approach, putting us ahead of the competition in our quest for innovation. Especially on lighter and more efficient wheels as well as solving issues pertaining to the racing world, with technical innovations that have always been an added value for our products, and the courage, at times, to say no to some important clients on unfeasible requests”.  Shapes and surfaces, materials and production processes constantly under scrutiny with a three-piece split rim as an unmistakable trademark. Currently, motorsports plays a rather minor role for the Ronal group, but research and development knows no limits as well as the search for new and alternative paths. "At the moment we are focusing - confirms Muffatto - on supplying original equipment and pushing on with innovation. Also because the Asian competition with its aggressive pricing policy, blocked for now by the EU on account of dumping practices, will return fiercer than ever, and by then we will have to be ready with new “weapons”. Many products look at the future, starting from wheels dedicated to electric vehicles: larger in diameter with narrower section, these must be lighter and more resistant since battery powered vehicles weight more than their traditional counterparts, not to mention that an increase in diameter increases the area exposed to potential damages.

Innovation? A must
"Reducing the rim width, appears to be a must also because of inertia and energy dissipation preserving its strength to minimize the risk of damage on impact. In this regard we have devised new shapes and, at the same time, changed the metal frame making it suitable to withstand higher loads, and soon afterwards we have patented the entire industrial process". Another innovative project, still in the pipeline, concerns the production of carbon fiber monobloc wheels: "These are - underlines Muffatto – very light high-strength structures, but if the wheel is damaged, it will behave very differently from alloy wheels, therefore the project aims to identify ways to control this behavior: we are also working on specific materials, which, when applied to the wheel (both carbon and metal alloys) can act as a sensor detecting anything that happens to the wheel while moving”. Impacts beyond a certain threshold are promptly detected. Everything is communicated to a unit lodged into the wheel, a sort of black box that can be accessed through a tablet or a smart-phone. Furthermore, in order to warn the driver about a sudden loss of pressure, wheels become luminescent when the tire pressure drops below 20% compared to the standard value. This system makes use of sensors able to communicate through a NFC system.


Reverse wheels, the new wonder
Here is the future, light, shock-proof, and why not, "communicative". Already on the market, the reverse wheel, combines design with weight reduction. "This wheel, where design and lightness combine - says Muffatto – currently lacks competition. We have already produced about 30 thousand of them in sizes 18 ", 19" and 20 ", mounted on gritty hatchbacks such as Citroën’s RS3 and Peugeot 308 GTI. A further advantage of these concave reverse wheels is in the fact that they seem bigger, meaning that a 19 "can usefully replace a 20” similar rim, with the inherent benefit of being less exposed to damage". Equally important are the hefty investments on factory processes. "The Ronal group continues to invest in new highly automated production sites. The latest is the third plant built in Poland, while a second factory  is being completed in Mexico, destined to supply the US market. We have already got the best out of flow-forming processes, which we have developed twenty years ago, and now the focus is on flexibility, with new generation machines and equipment that make it possible to manufacture different types of wheels for different customers without having to change any components in the production line, thus reducing time and costs". An innovation that, in the Swiss group programs, will gradually extend to all production plants, with the aim of being increasingly  productive and competitive.



But what would Ronal be without the entrepreneurial history and achievements of the Venice-based company Speedline, particularly in motorsport, where a wealth of new solutions marked the path of a constant evolution, always projected into the future. Magnesium wheels for example, appeared for the first time on the Audi Quattro competing in the World Rally Championship, which replaced forged aluminum wheels commonly used until then as well as ventilated wheels originally designed for Ferrari in Formula 1 and also used for wing cars with their huge ground effect. Soon after also the Peugeot 208T16 Rally started using them with brilliant results: built to cool down carbon brakes and guarantee their efficiency. And what can we say about the company’s efforts in Formula 1, as a supplier for Ferrari, Lotus and Williams, crowned with championship success from 1977 to 1990; and, again, the partnership with Porsche starting from the 956 prototype, a super-technological laboratory victorious at the 24 Hour of Le Mans, and later also with the 959 Group B, providing hollow-spoke wheels equipped with bead-lock rings, indexed mounting, pressure sensors and center lock wheels. A truly glorious past (or just getting ready for the future?).

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