One of the biggest challenges facing companies that produce complex products is efficiently connecting all the dots from concept to a finished product. For a manufacturer of automotive products, there’s a number of steps involved – conceptual design, prototyping, testing, and final production being just a few of the most notable phases along the way.
At typical wheel companies, each of those phases involve different teams of people who are often at different locations. This can add convolution, delay, and increased chances for error or overlooked issues as the process moves from start to finish.
This Weld S76B wheel will soon find a home on one of our project cars. This three piece modular wheel features a forged billet center and cold forged rims, and offers three mounting pad heights to clear specific drum and multi-piston opposed calipers.
But Weld Racing is not a typical wheel manufacturer. At their Kansas City, Missouri, manufacturing facility where Weld, Weld XT, CCW, and HiPer wheels are manufactured, Weld sees the entire process from start to finish – they even have an entire tooling department that designs and services the various tools used for stamping, machining, rolling, and the other aspects of the production process.
Today we’re taking a closer look at Weld’s in-house test lab to get a better understanding of the rigors each prototype wheel goes through during development. The stresses that wheels go through during use – particularly in high performance and motorsport applications – are tremendous, and wheel failure at speed can have catastrophic results.
Weld’s Kansas City, Missouri facility is a one-stop shop. With all elements of design and production performed under one roof the company can design and test their newest prototypes in a fraction of the time it takes most wheel companies.
Here we’ll get a better sense of how that on-site testing allows Weld to quickly refine their designs and create updated prototypes with that data, which in turn gives them ability to create a better product in quicker succession than typical wheel manufacturers.
“All of our wheel designs start as models designed in [3D CAD software] SolidWorks,” explains Nick Rickels, Senior Product Engineer for Weld Racing. “When the model is complete we run it through FEA, or Finite Element Analysis. FEA is a complex piece of software that allows us to test the wheels in virtual reality before we ever make a forging, design a tool, or cut one chip of aluminum.”
The job of the Rotary testing station seen here is to attempt to pull the center section away from the rest of the wheel. A 15x16 Alumastar Rear Drag wheel is about to be put through its paces here.
This FEA process allows Weld to test, refine, and test a design again in just a matter of minutes, which means they can evaluate literally dozens of design modifications over the course of one day before a single physical prototype is created. “This also allows us to remove all the excess material that does not add strength to the design,” Rickels explains. “This yields us the lightest possible wheel without sacrificing strength or performance in the process.”
Once Weld has zeroed in a prototype design candidate, the wheel is put through a trio of stress tests, all of which are performed per SAE test standards. Unlike most wheel manufacturers, these tests are performed on-site at Weld rather than being outsourced to a third party testing company.
Here a Sprint Car wheel is prepped for the Radial test. This places a load on the wheel and tire at twice the wheel’s official spec for approximately four days straight as the drum spins at 55 mph.
Having the design, manufacturing and testing in house allows us to go from concept, to research and development, and on to production in a matter of days rather than months. That means we can respond almost instantly to customer demands, market trends or new concepts. – Nick Rickels, Weld Racing
“It’s a huge benefit to our engineers to be able to see the process through from start to finish,” Rickels explains. “We can go from concept to prototype in a matter of days, and the engineer that designs the wheel can follow the testing process to see first-hand where improvements can be made to the design. With outside testing you might wait months to get results back, and if the engineer can’t be present during testing, it’s also kind of an unknown as to whether the tests are being properly performed to the required spec.”
The Rotary test places a side load on the center of the wheel, which basically attempts to rip the center from the rest of the wheel. Also referred to as the Cornering test stand, the wheel is laid down on the axle and is secured with the lug nuts. The axle is then lowered down until the inner lip of the wheel is against the table, at which point the inner lip is clamped down to the table and the axle is side-loaded to torque the center of the wheel.
Once in place, the wheel is then rotated at 500 rpm for 150,000 cycles. “This test can vary from 1,600 ft-lbs of torque on our small ATV and UTV wheel all the way up to 8,200 ft-lbs on our truck and Dually wheels,” says Rickels. “Yes, 8,200 ft-lbs of torque!”
The Drop test – also known as the impact test – replicates the forces applied on a wheel if a driver hit a curb with it on their vehicle. A weight is dropped so that half the impact is made on the wheel and the other half on the tire. This type of testing is particularly important for cast wheels, as they inherently have less strength than their forged counterparts.
The Radial test places a physical load on the wheel and tire combination by being pushed down against a two foot wide, six foot diameter “bull wheel” drum, which spins at 55 mph. Weld runs this test at twice the wheel’s load rating, so as an example, a wheel rated as 1,200 lbs gets tested at 2,400 lbs. “This test load can be as low as 2,400 lbs and as high as 8,000 lbs for truck wheels,” says Rickels. “And they will run for a minimum of one million cycles to a maximum of 1.85 million cycles, which equates to about four days of non-stop testing.”
The third element in this gauntlet of wheel torture is the Drop test. Commonly referenced to as the “Curb Check” machine, this rig takes a wheel with a tire on it and drops a defined weight down on the pair, with half the impact against the wheel and the other half on the tire.
“It basically replicates the stresses that the wheel would go through if it was hit against a curb,” Rickels tells us. “This is an issue with cast wheels since they are more brittle and more prone to cracking than forged wheels.”
Using Testing Feedback To Improve Design
Putting all elements of a wheel’s creation in one house greatly simplifies Weld’s research and development process. “Having the equipment in house allows us to get instant feedback on testing. Since we’re doing the FEA analysis and the testing, we can then correlate the two items,” explains Rickels.
A sample of the wheels from recent testing, including a number of competitor’s wheels for comparison.
“It doesn’t happen very often, but when we have a wheel pass the FEA test and fail a physical testing phase, we have the ability to immediately go back and refine the FEA test until we replicate exactly how the prototype failed. That new FEA test then becomes our new standard for all new wheel testing. Having the design, manufacturing and testing in house allows us to go from concept, to research and development, and on to production in a matter of days rather than months. That means we can respond almost instantly to customer demands, market trends, or new concepts.”
Top: After making hard contact with a wall at an open track day event, the wheel on this Mustang broke and the hub separated from the shell. This is the reason that cast wheels are not used in racing applications, because they can be very brittle and crack or break like this. A forged wheel would possibly bend, but would not break on this type of impact. Bottom: Top Formula Drift Driver Justin Pawlak pushes his Weld Racing wheels to the limits, and even with enough contact to push the axle sideways, his wheels maintained composure. Weld performs its stringent testing processes to make sure Justin's wheels don't end up like the wheel at the top.
We spoke to Formula Drift driver Justin Pawlak about why he chose to partner with Weld Racing for his Formula Drift team. He puts his Weld Racing wheels through a lot of abuse each season, and he needs a strong, durable wheel that he can rely on each time he heads out to the track.
Weld gives me the confidence that despite how hard I drive, a wheel failing is not a concern. -Justin Pawlak, Formula Drift Driver
Justin said, “In a world that’s infested with cheap imitation wheels, Weld gives me the confidence that despite how hard I drive, a wheel failing is not a concern. Weld’s quality and true ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ production are two of the reasons why I approached Weld for partnership into my Formula Drift program. Weld is truly one of the American Hero brands of wheels in motorsports!”
These days the term “Made in the U.S.A.” can be a bit of a misnomer for a multitude of reasons. But with Weld, it can safely be taken at face value. “We have five engineers that run these Finite Element Analysis tests, and our staff have all run the actual test equipment personally,” Rickels tells us. “This gives each member of the company a complete understanding of the wheel design, wheel testing, and wheel manufacturing, and it shows our customers that we truly engineer our wheels!”
Here we’re looking at a wheel after the Rotary / Cornering test. It’s being inspected for cracks with dye penetrant; none visible on this wheel.
Looking for a new set of wheels for your ride? Rather than going for a dubious eBay knock-off, give the folks at Weld Racing a buzz and get wheels that are designed, engineered, and built right here in America to be as strong and light as they possibly can be. After all, you don’t want your wheels to bite the dust when you need them the most just because you wanted to save a few bucks. Right?