Keeping the wheels of the automotive industry turning
Mark Smyth visited Rimstock and found the business is more fascinating than you might think
Matt Neal has been racing in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) since 1991 and has won three times.
He is also the brand ambassador and marketing chap for a company called Rimstock. You probably haven’t heard of it, but it’s likely that you see its products every day, either on the streets, in these pages or in videos on social media. In fact, you will probably see its products on one of the pages this week, though the automotive manufacturer in question prefers no-one mentions it.
Rimstock makes wheels — tens of thousands of them. It has a very nondescript factory and head office in the town of West Bromwich near Birmingham in the UK. I was last there nearly 20 years ago and the building still looks the same — in fact I could swear the boardroom and its furniture is still exactly the same too. These days, though, the facility has expanded significantly and we took a tour to see how it makes alloy wheels for some of the world’s must revered carmakers. We’re talking about companies such as Aston Martin, Alpina, Jaguar and Lotus. It also makes wheels for motorsport, including the BTCC and the Australian V8 Supercars championship.
Rimstock makes wheels for concept cars and production cars, as well as for motorsport, and it all starts with a three-dimensional computer model being supplied by a carmaker, says technical director Chris Reyner. Once the rendering has been received, the team analyses it for failure risks, assessing the stresses it will have to endure before adjusting the model to suit.
Reyner told us that in the old days it would then go straight to tooling before testing, but today they can do more computer simulation and can actually test a wheel design in just 40 minutes, change the design and then test again. They can then engineer in specific handling and dynamic characteristics before creating the tooling to make the first prototype wheel. These days the manufacturers are more demanding than ever, he said, requiring less weight for lower fuel consumption and emissions, but Reyner said there are still some carmakers who put design first.
Currently, they are working on the most complicated wheel they have ever had to produce, requiring a significant £2m investment in equipment — just to make one wheel. That wheel will be one of up to 300,000 the company will produce this year, a small percentage of the more than 320-million produced globally every year, the majority of which are manufactured in China and Taiwan. Most are castings, the same at Rimstock, but the main area of craftsmanship is forged wheels. Neal explained that while the company regularly creates new wheel designs, it also often has to tweak existing designs to accommodate engineering changes or different materials.
“How can you reinvent the wheel? Well, you can,” he told us.
A good example is the control wheel for the Australian V8 Supercars championship. Neal said teams were dramatically reducing the tyre pressures in qualifying to increase the contact patch. Technically it wasn’t against the rules but when the organisers wanted to close the loophole, Rimstock installed a secondary valve hole in the wheels so telemetry could be included.
Back to the production, though. Initially a wheel starts in the foundry as a 50kg piece of alloy, and can be forged to anything from 12 to 23 inches. It’s a very labour-intensive process, with little automation in the plant. There are two robot rooms, though, part of a paint facility opened in 2007 where robots are used to apply acrylic and lacquer coatings because they can keep the environment cleaner. It’s essential that dust does not get into the final coatings.
The company also has automated process-control systems for its cast wheel production, from the X-ray machines that check quality to the CNC turning centres. There’s a new heat-treatment facility as well as an 11-stage immersion tank pre-treatment system to provide the highest level of anticorrosion protection. There are elements that use the latest technology but others that seem more traditional, like the poles on which wheels sit as they travel along a conveyor system, weaving like the queues at an airport security control in order to give them sufficient time to cool after being superheated.
In total there were more than 60,000 wheels in stock at the facility, all produced to the demanding standards of the carmaker and of Rimstock itself, which has been making wheels since the company was founded in 1985. Much like tyres, these days there is so much focus on the technology in a vehicle that it’s easy to overlook what goes into making the wheels themselves.
They are as much about engineering as they are about making the latest Aston or Land Rover look good — and let’s be honest, we’d be going nowhere without them.