Alloy wheels were invented as early as the 1920s with magnesium as the primary component hence the commonly used term 'mag wheels' or 'mags'. However, magnesium lost its popularity in the 1960s with the advent of aluminum bringing forth a new generation of aluminum alloy wheels. Aluminum, being a more cost-efficient material to produce became the choice of manufacturers and was well accepted by carmakers as well.
We made a visit to the Rota Wheels manufacturing plant to see how one of the first wheel manufacturers in the ASEAN region makes their wheels. In case you're wondering what Rota stands for, its Latin for round. The company has been in the wheel making business for nearly 40 years.
The company actually started out in 1976 as a joint-venture between Italian company FPS (maker of Cromodora wheels) and Filipino entrepreneur Romeo Rojas to produce alloy wheels in the Philippines to supply to a thriving Philippine automotive industry and the aftermarket. Rojas was into the importation of car accessories from Italy during the time, bring in products from prestigious brands such as Momo, Personal, and FPS wheels.
"In 1983, our Italian partner was getting old and decided to retire, so he sold us his share in the company. Thus Philippine Aluminum Wheels, Inc. (PAWI) was born and we decided to rename the brand to Rota Wheels," shares Michael Rojas, PAWI president.
Through the years of business in wheel manufacturing, PAWI has made partnerships with Japanese wheel manufacturers like Kosei and Enkei. PAWI now has 2 factories and is proud to say that it is the most automated wheel manufacturing plant in the country, employing approximately 300 people.
We took a tour around their plant to see how simple aluminum ingots from various sources around the world turn into stylish Rota alloy wheels seen in many cars around the world today.
The first processes included smelting of the aluminum alloy and then pouring it to the cast. After which the casted wheel is trimmed by a cutting machine. The wheel is then inspected for imperfections. If it is damaged, it will be recycled. After which the wheels are subjected to a heat treatment machine which is like a big oven to compress the molecules and to harden the wheels to make them more compact and durable.
To ensure the consistency and quality of the aluminum, each new alloy mix is inspected in the aluminum lab to make sure it is within specifications. Aluminum castings are also tested randomly to make sure they are produced with the correct specifications. Per batch, alloy wheels are randomly subjected to the X-ray test to reveal if there are air pockets or impurities which may compromise the quality of the wheel.
After the heat treatment, the wheels are brought to factory 2 for finishing and the final stages of testing. The wheels are first polished to even out the surface in preparation for painting. After which each wheel is subjected to a leak test to make sure there are no holes in the surface of the wheels. For wheels with a polished finish, they are randomly selected by batch and subjected to a salt spray test to determine their resistance to corrosion.
To further test the durability of the wheels, they are subject to impact tests using different angles to simulate potholes, curbs, and road obstacles. The wheels are also subject to cornering tests to determine how they react to cornering. And a radial test where the wheel is mounted to a tire to test how it reacts to load. Rota uses testing methods that comply with the stringent requirements of the Japan Vehicle Inspection Authority (VIA) for the JWL (Japan Light Alloy Wheel) standard.
"We use this test for prototype wheels. The wheels subjected to the impact test are actually tested to be destroyed. Here is an example of a wheel subject to the impact test. By performing this test, we determine how much abuse the wheel can take. If it does not pass this test we go back to the drawing board and make adjustments and then test again until we get the desired result," says Rojas.
For finishing, the wheels are first sprayed with a preparation coat or commonly known as 'primer' and then subject to pre-painting inspection before it is powder coated in the automated spray booths.
After painting, the wheels are put in racks for final quality inspection before it is boxed and readied for delivery. "We manufacture 1,000 wheels a day, for the export and domestic market. Although most of our production is for the export market." relates Rojas.
AI: How do you distribute your products in terms of export-domestic market share?
MR: "70% of the wheels we produce go to the export market, while the remaining 30% is for local consumption. We export wheels to Japan, USA, Australia, and Korea for private brands. We also have OE exports for various car manufacturers."
AI: We see your wheels in race cars in Clark and Batangas, is this also part of your testing procedure before releasing wheels?
MR: Partly, since we already test the wheels with our different test machines this just an additional test.
AI: How often do you make new designs and how do you come up with them?
MR: "Rota releases about 4 designs in a month, a mix of aftermarket and original equipment (OE) design wheels. We get our designs from magazines, mostly influenced by Japanese wheel designs, some designs are specified by customers."
AI: What are the wheel designs that people choose?
MR: It depends on the buying market, for example in Japan, they tend to go for flashy/shiny wheels. While racy/sporty enthusiasts go for racing designs and lightweight. In the Philippines, we have a mix market of flashy and race-oriented consumers.
AI: What size of wheels do you make and are they for passenger cars alone or do you have for SUVs?
MR: We manufacture from 13 to 20-inch wheels for both passenger cars and SUVs. But the SUV wheels are mostly for export.
AI: Lightweight wheels are very popular nowadays, does lightening affect the durability of the wheel?
MR: Yes, that is why study carefully which specific parts of the wheel that we can lighten to maximize the durability of the wheel. The aluminum melt also plays a big part in the durability of the wheel. We study carefully the aluminum melt in our own metal lab.
AI: Do you repair wheels? For example, I have a Rota wheel which was damaged, can I bring it here to have it repaired.
MR: Yes, if the damage is repairable. But if the damage is a crack on the wheel or separation of the wheel, then it is better to throw the wheel away as it will not be safe to repair it.
AI: Can wheels be purchased by the piece in case one piece has been damaged or the buyer wants an extra wheel for his spare tire
MR: Yes you can buy wheels by piece from our dealers. You can also buy it here in case they don't sell by the piece.
For more info about Philippine Aluminum Wheels, please visit their website at www.rotawheels.com.