2012 Lightweighting Special: Wheels India sees tomorrow today

Apart from the obvious advantages of reduced fuel consumption and increased payload capability, a truck driver also gets much better – ‘car-like’ – feeling if the FAW is used.

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 31 May 2012 Views icon7234 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
2012 Lightweighting Special: Wheels India sees tomorrow today
In yet another instance of waiting for the Indian market to catch up with technology, the Chennai-based truck and bus wheel manufacturer Wheels India Ltd possesses technology that can reduce the weight of a standard bus wheel by a whopping 40 percent and yet sees no buyers in India. Called the Forged Aluminium Wheel (FAW), the wheel can also reduce fuel consumption by 2.5 percent. However, as the only wheel manufacturer in India with the acumen to produce the FAW, Wheels India has a reason to be patient.

Apart from the obvious advantages of reduced fuel consumption and increased payload capability, a truck driver also gets much better – ‘car-like’ – feeling if the FAW is used. The FAW is fully CNC-machined by robots, thus giving it consistency. The entire wheel is a single piece without any welding or joints, so vibrations are much lower.

The FAW also dissipates heat better, ensuring better life for the tyres and brakes. Its strength is almost equal to that of a steel wheel, at around 300 mega pascals. It also has high thermal and electrical conductivity. This means that the wheel is less likely to ignite a spark due to high electrostatic charge build-up, a sight common in steel wheels. For instance, fuel major Shell uses FAWs for its entire fleet in Europe for this very reason and alternatively a legislation to mandate FAWs for fuel-carrying trucks is in the works in Europe. B Rajaram, vice-president (manufacturing), says that a market has to be created for this in India, adding, “70 to 75 percent of the American market uses forged aluminium wheels. In Europe, this is around 25 percent. But in India, it’s completely non-existent.” At present, Wheels India has provided some tour operators working out of Chennai with FAWs to experiment and understand the practical implications of these wheels.

“The reasons we’re doing this,” Rajaram adds, “is to show the market that this is a viable option. We are, in essence, creating a market and who better than us to do that.”

When will OEs see the light of day?

Wheels India’s FAW wing began operations in 2005 and has since indigenously developed the required technology for this application. The company’s R&D department employs 27 engineers and is headed by R Badrinarayanan, who has around 30 years experience in wheel design. “Back in 2005, we wanted to enter a niche market. We were torn between cast aluminium wheels for cars and forged aluminium wheels for trucks and buses. But as many countries in Asia like China, Thailand and Vietnam were making cast aluminium wheels, we wanted to go one step further,” explains Badrinarayanan. “We made plans during that phase and we can say that we are on track to a certain extent. Obviously, we could not have anticipated the recession of 2008-09, but we have recovered well. What is disheartening is waiting for the OEs (in India) to catch up. They aren’t as receptive as some of the international OEs,” he adds.

“We didn’t have to tie up with anybody for the technology. It’s completely indigenous and we made it from scratch,” reveals G Venkatesulu, deputy general manager, FAW division.

“One problem with cast aluminium is that the casting is porous, so that could lead to leakage. After a certain point, this leakage becomes a big issue. This issue is addressed in a forged aluminium wheel. It is denser and since leakage is not an issue, we are able to go down on thickness. For some Japanese applications, we make 22-inch diameter wheels with 10-inch width and this weighs just 14kg. A cast aluminium wheel of the same dimensions would weigh around 18kg and a steel wheel would be around 30kg,” says Rajaram.

At present, the company imports its raw materials. However, 40 percent of the automobile industry’s aluminium consumption is recycled “and in that sense,” says Devi Prakash N, manager, FAW division “aluminium never dies.”

However, as with any new technology, price is a factor. Seeing how the Indian commercial vehicle market is extremely twitchy about costs, Rajaram says that the FAW is around two times more expensive than the standard steel wheel. “But the initial price difference can be recovered in 8-10 months, given the number of advantages this provides,” he adds. “However,” he says, “this recovery period is only applicable to sectors where the loads are fixed, such as buses and fuel tankers. With overloading of trucks rampant, it’s difficult to see the advantages.”

Real-world savings

Wheels India provided a tour operator with some FAWs to understand the real-world advantages and the results have been plain as day. With two different parties running 100,000km and 300,000km, Wheels India has gathered some very useful data.

The tour operator who drove 100,000km in hilly terrain was able to save a massive 1,700 litres of diesel due to the reduced weight of the FAWs. Tyre running costs were brought down by 28 percent and an increase in tyre run duration of 10 percent was achieved. In terms of simple weight advantages, a 12-metre chassis bus fitted with six wheels ends up saving 114kg – 43.5 percent reduction (without counting the spare wheel).

At present, only Wheels India’s customers abroad enjoy these advantages. The company exports around 36,000 such wheels per annum to around 20 countries, including the UK, Japan, USA, South Korea, Australia and some countries in Europe and Africa.

The prospect of domestic business for FAWs seems to be on the up. “The OEs know both our product and our company and yet, they are hesitant,” admits Badrinarayanan. “So, we are working with the aftermarket sector,” he adds. International CV manufacturers in India, however, have shown great interest in Wheels India’s FAWs. “Daimler, Volvo, Scania and Navistar use FAWs in Europe and are aware of the technology,” says T Sundararajan, deputy general manager, R&D.

Super Singles coming up

So where does the future of wheels technology lie? Rajaram says that the company is looking at different alloys and grades of aluminium. “The industry started with the tubed steel wheel with cross-ply tyres and then moved on to the tubeless steel wheel to tubeless aluminium wheel. The next could very well be the ‘Super Single’,” he adds.

Manufactured by Wheels India, Super Single wheels for the trailer industry enable replacement of the dual-wheel assembly with a single wheel. While a dual assembly of steel wheels with tyre weighs 220kg, it can be replaced with either a steel wheel-tyre combination of around 120kg or a wider FAW-tyre combination of 99kg, translating to a 55 percent overall weight reduction. For a tri-axle trailer, this can increase the payload up to 0.7 tonne, while for a tandem-axle trailer there is a payload increase of more than 0.4 tonne. “But that is still a forged aluminium wheel,” Rajaram says. “You see magnesium or other such alloys being used for racing cars. Racing trucks, however, use only forged aluminium wheels. Composites have not made too big an impact either. The ultimate priority of course, is keeping the cost down while offering benefits,” he adds.



Ready and waiting

The entire production management team of Wheels India is confident that the Indian commercial vehicle industry would lap up something as advantageous as the forged alloy wheel soon. When that happens, Rajaram says, “With our long-lasting business and our market experience of over 50 years in both Indian and export markets, we will be ready. There are some barriers for the competition to be set up. Yes, technology can be bought, but infrastructure and market knowledge are not something that can be bought off a shelf.”

“And that’s where our edge comes in,” Rajaram concludes.

BENEFITS OF FAWS OVER CONVENTIONAL STEEL WHEELS LIGHTER

• Up to 43 percent or 19kg saving per wheel, depending on the wheel size

• Between 220 and 230kg weight saving per 12-wheel truck/trailer combination

• Increased payload

• Driver comfort, better 'car-like' feel

STRONGER

• Unrivalled forged strength

• Corrosion resistance

• Single non-welded piece

MORE PROFITABLE

• Reduced fuel consumption by a minimum of 2.5 percent

• Better heat dissipation

• Less tyre wear

• Increased life time of brakes

• Increased life duration of suspension

• No need for repainting or wheel covers

• Reduction in tyre running costs by 28 percent

MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY

• Aluminium is 100 percent recyclable

• Lesser energy used during manufacturing

• Reduced CO2emissions due to lower weight, fuel economy

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