Reinventing the wheel

by Sonia Straface

The phrase “don’t reinvent the wheel” is a funny term to wheel manufacturers in the trucking industry. Because while some think reinventing the wheel is just an idiom for wasting time, to them, it’s a career.

Engineers in the commercial wheel industry have spent decades trying to reinvent what it means to have the best commercial wheel in North America by figuring out how to create a wheel that is lightweight, rust-proof, and can handle the tough job required of it.

Watch your weight
It’s no surprise that the biggest wheel trend is the increased interest in aluminum wheels over steel wheels. And the number one reason for that, according to the manufacturers we spoke to, is the weight savings aluminum provides.

“The number one trend we are seeing in the market today is the increased penetration of aluminum wheels for tractors and trailers,” said Chris Putz, principal engineer at Maxion Wheels. “And we have seen that trend grow over the last several years and we do see it continuing in the future mainly because aluminum wheels are lighter in weight versus steel, in between 35-40% lighter, in fact.”

That weight savings on a typical 18-wheeler can equate to more than 500 lbs on just one vehicle simply by changing your wheels, said Rafael Gonzalez, the director of international business development at Accuride.

“Five hundred pounds is huge,” said Thomas McGann, global marketing director for Arconic, a division of Alcoa Wheels. “If a fleet is able to load to full capacity, then that weight savings of 500 lbs can just be replaced with freight. And if you’re a private fleet, that means you can reduce the number of trips you’re making to haul your freight. If you’re a for-hire fleet, you will automatically have a built-in competitive advantage where you can haul more freight than a competitor who’s using steel wheels. So, from a payload perspective, that goes right to your bottom line. And then if you’re not weight-sensitive or if you’re not loaded to capacity, you get the benefits of the fuel efficiency from the weight loss.”

Unsurprisingly, this trend has started a wheel war between manufacturers who are competing to create the lightest – while at the same time, the strongest – wheel possible.

“We remove the weight through the aluminum we use,” said McGann. “You can’t take the weight out without doing something different, so we’ve been using a different, proprietary alloy that strengthened the wheel, it allowed us to redesign the wheel – where we’ve shaved aluminum off in many parts making it thinner, making the hand holds slightly bigger, so there’s less material and less weight.”

And while aluminum wheels are winning over their steel counterparts, customers do have to pay close to three times as much to reap the weight and fuel savings they provide. So sometimes, fleets still prefer steel wheels.

“Steel wheels do make sense in a lot of applications,” said Brandon Uzarek at Accuride. “Especially for use in trailers. But really it comes down to the preference of the driver and fleet owner and if that driver can afford to spend money on aluminum wheels.”

Lookin’ good
Another reason aluminum wheels win out over steel in the debate is the aesthetics that aluminum provides. Aluminum wheels are brighter and have a better shine and finish on them than traditional steel wheels, which bodes well with proud owner-operators and image-conscious fleet owners.

“Drivers like the look of an aluminum wheel a lot more than steel wheels,” said Gonzalez. “And so, having aluminum wheels actually helps with driver retention, something that is a big problem in the trucking industry today. Drivers like to drive trucks that look nice, so having aluminum wheels can help with that.”

Putz agreed, adding aluminum won’t rust as easily and become an eye sore on your rig.

“Aluminum wheels have better anti-corrosive properties than steel wheels would,” he said. “So, you won’t have that red rust on an aluminum wheel like you would on a steel wheel.”

Plus, aluminum wheels don’t need as much maintenance to keep that shine.

“As far as maintenance is concerned, to combat the rust on a steel wheel, you have to refinish and refurbish that wheel every so often,” said McGann. “And every fleet is different, so some will do it a few times a year…where they’ll strip it down and refurbish it and some are doing it in-house and others are outsourcing it, but even if you’re doing that twice a year, that cost will certainly add up. However, with an aluminum wheel, you don’t have to maintain it that way. If you get the Dura-Bright EVO (Alcoa wheel with a surface treatment) you do not even have to polish it, all it needs is soap and water and it will maintain its shine for the vehicle’s lifetime.”

Trading up
Aluminum wheels hold their value a lot better than steel wheels as well, added McGann.

“The icing on the cake, as we like to say about aluminum wheels, is that they have a higher resale value than steel wheels,” he said. “It has been estimated that when you go to sell aluminum wheels, you will get 75% of what you paid for them back. And today the education of fleet owners and drivers is much higher and they recognize that spending that extra money on aluminum wheels will benefit them when they go to sell, and that’s why you’re seeing the doubling of the penetration rate of aluminum wheels in the marketplace. That resale value is driving it.”

Get smart
Looking into the future, Maxion knows that all things are moving to the cloud and are moving online. To it, this includes wheels.

In late 2016, the company revealed the trucking industry’s first connected wheel, dubbed MaxSmart. MaxSmart combines the company’s steel wheel with sensor technology to capture and communicate wheel data to the driver and fleet manager.

“Our MaxSmart project supports the kind of mega-trend in the trucking industry of connectivity,” Joe Wolf, the manager of global advanced engineering at Maxion Wheels said. “In so much that it is a connected wheel. It would be a wheel that can communicate back and forth with the vehicle it is mounted to. It will apply critical informational to the truck to help it make better decisions on its most optimal operating condition. MaxSmart will make intelligent decisions on what to do, such as adjusting the brakes.”

According to Maxion, MaxSmart will help fleets and drivers prevent accidents and collisions as well as avoiding expensive wheel and vehicle repairs.

Wolf said the connected wheel is still in its testing and prototype phase, and the launch date is not yet decided. However, Wolf hinted that MaxSmart’s roll-out will be “in conjunction with a vehicle roll-out.”

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