THE SEASONAL TRIUMPH OF STEEL RIMS
Winter feeds the business of steel rims but all too frequently their technological content is still a mystery. Together with Gianetti Ruote we have attempted to provide some clarification accompanied by new developments in products, materials and processes
Mino De Rigo
FOR OWNERS of vehicles embellished with maxi wheels, the cold season returns with the same quandary: a set of winter tyres in the same size or a set of smaller rims complete with tyres. And often steel wheels triumph over alloy rims in the bitter battle of rationality and the rigour of the former against the whims and aesthetics of the latter. Without a doubt, for manufacturers of steel rims it isn’t just a time for enjoying a peak in aftermarket volumes, it is also an opportunity to talk about a product that is still veiled in mystery for the non expert. How many drivers know the characteristic parameters of the rims on their vehicles or even the substantial differences between steel and alloy wheels?
Demonstrating this are various platitudes, such as the mistaken conviction that even with the same diameter there can be differences in weight that explain the vehicle’s different behaviour, or the misconception of those who call them iron wheels: if they really were, after a few hundred kilometres, handling would be the least of their problems!
Gianetti Ruote and the aftermarket
“We saw that there was a need for more information and dialogue with sales staff and even with their customers” – stated Andrea Tola, the head of aftermarket sales & marketing at Gianetti Ruote – “so we are working on giving visibility to manufacturing processes and materials as well as finished products”. The steel rims by MW, a division of the CLN group of which Gianetti Ruote is part, which last year produced no fewer than 18 million wheels for cars, commercial and industrial vehicles and motorcycles. In general, over 90% of its production feeds the original equipment business with the remainder going to the aftermarket, which is handled by Gianetti Ruote. It operates as a collector of products from the Turin group’s various European factories in addition to making a complete range of wheels for trucks intended primarily for major European manufacturers. There are over 400 models of steel wheels in the replacement parts catalogue, and not only those supplied to car manufacturing companies as original equipment, but also wheels designed and developed especially for the replacement parts market and always on the basis of original design specifications. “This is because” – Tola explained – “the raw materials and the production process are the same as those used for the manufacturers’ original equipment”. Very closely linked to the world of Fiat, whose vehicles are without doubt the majority of those circulating in Italy, MW-Gianetti has just released two new products dedicated to two new Fiat models: “They are wheels for the Panda 4x4 and the 500L, which we developed in the 16” and 15” sizes as carryovers of the Doblò wheel. We expect considerably satisfying results because we are very competitive, even with respect to the corresponding alloy wheel”.
Group strength and supply chain control
But why is aluminium banned from the MW offer? “Since the beginning,” – replied the manager of the Piedmont group – “steel has been the business’s recurring element and over time the group has formed an increasingly stronger bond with the most important steel producers and has been able to control the entire supply chain, a strong competitive advantage.
“Behind MW and Gianetti Ruote there are six factories, 2,000 employees working only on wheels, and four international joint-ventures: a group of companies that for decades has worked alongside major European manufacturers on making steel wheels with the best technologies available and, above all, by taking advantage of the latest innovations in materials and processes that are decisive for gaining competitive advantages in terms of weight and cost”. The mantra is making wheels increasingly lighter, stronger and economical. “Every steel wheel” – Tola added – “is made to the car manufacturer’s specifications and is characterized by precise parameters with regard to diameter, load, geometry, section, camber, offsets and holes”.
From design to industrialization
In particular on optimizing weights and load capacity: “It is much more difficult for an alloy rim because shape prevails and wheel geometry presupposes moving the entire mass towards the outside, with an obvious balcony effect. Knowing that weight is transmitted to the centre of the wheel is why considerable thickness is needed in order to support vehicle load. The fact that 15” or 16” steel wheels usually weigh 7-8 kilos demonstrates that we focus on strength and saving weight”. Until not very long ago design, development, modelling and testing were the prerogative of car manufacturers, but now they are carried out almost exclusively by the suppliers of rims. “These are all activities” – Tola confirmed – “that are carried out autonomously by the MW division once the customer has placed an order and has indicated the design requirements. With current systems for calculating the finished elements of the wheel, nowadays development does not take weeks but only a few days to be completed”. Which is also thanks to the technical offices’ availability of a huge databank of all the products that the group has made to date.
Innovative materials and processes
Specifically dedicated to this type of production, the material used is high-tensile steel in all its evolutions linked expressly to the world of steel rims: based on particular specifications, it is the only one approved by manufacturers for their original equipment. Which is frequently not the case with replacement parts from other countries (most of which do not have traceable data), where totally non-specific steel can lead to very dangerous premature fracturing of the sides. “In addition to the raw materials” – Tola continued – “the production cycle also boasts unique characteristics; rim welding is another safety element that guarantees tyre grip. Then there is the geometry that allows the wheel to be mounted with precision”. Hub, brake disc, external size, the distance between the wheels and the suspension are all taken into consideration at every stage of wheel development and they are often precise mechanical tolerances.
Compulsory homologation that is about to come into force also in Italy should settle the matter once and for all. Even in terms of protecting investments: “We are looking into innovative materials that will further reduce weight because they will be thinner but have the same strength, and we are working on processes, from sheet steel turning to laser and plasma welding to steel lamination that will give an extremely strong material that is also extremely mouldable”. Once it has been adopted en masse by car manufacturers, it is a new development that could lead to a new standard.
• A multinational business for CLN steels
With consolidated turnover of about €1.9 billion and over 8,000 direct employees, the Turin-based CLN group has production sites in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America and makes the application of steel in different industrial environments its speciality. At the end of World War II, Mario Magnetto, the grandfather of the current owner and managing director, set up a company for working and selling sheet steel. Over the years, the business grew and many of the companies that were customers gradually joined a group that now has three divisions: MA, which works on sheet steel, forges components for the automotive industry and contributes 63% to overall turnover; MW, which makes and sells steel wheels (about 16% of the group’s turnover); and CLN-SSC Steel Service Centres division, which prepares and distributes sheet steel products for a variety of industrial uses. MW’s customers include many car manufacturers, from Fiat/Iveco and Citroën/Peugeot to Volkswagen, from Renault-Nissan to Opel/GM, and, in the truck sector in addition to Iveco, the main European manufacturers like MAN and Daimler. Production amounts to about 18 million units, 17 million of which for cars and light commercial vehicles, 500,000 for trucks and the same number for motorcycles, a sector whose main customer is Harley Davidson, which buys spoke wheels for its models.