A step into the future – Alcar improves finish quality with paint shop investment
If you’ve bought a new car any time recently, or indeed since the start of the century, chances are it arrived with alloy rims as standard. Alloys are well established as the fitment of choice in Europe, and widespread OEM take-up has been accompanied by rising expectations regarding quality. The knock-on effect of this has also influenced the aftermarket: Amongst those meeting demand for higher quality products by investing in their facilities is the Alcar Group, which recently ploughed around 7.3 million euros into the final stages of the manufacturing process.
Alcar looked beyond merely ensuring ongoing compliance with all standards and environmental regulations when setting up a new pre-treatment and paint shop within its Alcar Leichtmetallräder GmbH plant in Neuenrade, Germany – through its installation, Alcar is better positioned to achieve OEM quality with its exclusively aftermarket range. Furthermore, and as a remark made by Norbert Frohner suggests, it grants Alcar greater freedom should the company opt to extend beyond this segment. The general manager of Alcar Leichtmetallräder shares that “this investment step gives Alcar the flexibility to become more active as a partner for vehicle manufacturers and importers.” Any intimation that Alcar intends to seek out original equipment business with car makers remains, however, entirely speculative.
Alcar’s investment in a new pre-treatment and paint shop forms the second part of a two-stage project. The first, in 2015, resulted in the construction of a new casting line and also brought automation and upgrades to various mechanical processes.
With the on-time completion of the second project stage following a 28-day retrofitting process carried out by surface finishing technology specialist Eisenmann, rims produced in Neuenrade now undergo an 11-step pre-treatment in which they are cleaned to shine, made passive (passivation is a surface technology process involving the targeted creation of a protective layer on a metal material, which results in preventing the corrosion of the basis material) and then coated in a separate powder cycle.
All 11 steps are carried out without the use of chrome and in closed circuits by means of a special wastewater system. Thanks to state-of-the-art technology, this enables Alcar to operate the paint shop in a more environmentally-friendly manner. Following the clean to shine process, rims are cleaned with a high-performance vacuum cleaner to render them free of dust and particles, and are then prepared for the actual painting process. An initial primer coat is melted into the rim in powder form in the paint furnace – this is the first of three coats applied as part of the Alcar SR3 (SR stands for salt resistant) process, which is now applied to all Alcar-made alloy rims in order to enhance their defences against road salt and small scratches.
Further paint shop components include a horizontally run wet coating line applying a two-layer wet coat by baking. This coating method is used for materials that are unable to absorb colours and paints. By slowly heating the rim the actual colour carrier compounds with the primer coat to result in extra-firm protection. A transparent sealing, the third coat, forms the first line of defence against environmental influences.
Zero wastage a ‘big advantage’
Around 120 tonnes of paint (the most popular colour is ‘brilliant silver’) and powder are used in the new facility annually, and Alcar says it recycles 100 per cent of all excess material from the powder stage. Recycling is a high priority here, just as it is in all stages of the alloy rim production process. During a tour of the Neuenrade plant, Gustav Sponer, general manager of Alcar Technik und Design GmbH, describes the “big advantage” with aluminium rims as being that none of the excess material from production is thrown away. “Lots of energy is consumed in the process but there is no wastage.”
The ability to recycle all aluminium remaining from production provides some relief from Alcar’s highest single cost. Prices for the aluminium it uses – Sponer comments that Alcar only sources “first class aluminium” from Norway, Iceland, Dubai and Russia – has increased in recent years and currently accounts for more than half Alcar’s selling price for a smaller rim. “The material for a small diameter, standard rim costs 22 euros, and we sell such products for 40 euros,” the general manager shares, adding that LME-determined aluminium prices can fluctuate significantly. “Half of our turnover is aluminium – customers forget this sometimes – they want a price for the whole year. This is not possible in this business.”
Around 1,100 tonnes of aluminium are used in production every month at the Neuenrade plant, Alcar’s main site for light alloy wheel production. This quantity covers the manufacture of some 1.2 million rims per annum. These are sold in the aftermarket under the AEZ, Dezent and Dotz brand names, and the product portfolio made by the 215-strong workforce during the plant’s 24/6 operating schedule (one day a week is set aside for cleaning equipment) consists of a full range of passenger car, off-road and light truck rims in 14-inch to 22-inch diameters. It takes each of the plant’s dozen casting machines 12 and a half minutes to produce a 16-inch cast alloy rim, giving a daily output of 320 rims per casting machine. In addition, around 1,000 CNC machined forged rims are made in Neuenrade daily; Alcar maintains a stock of some 40,000 raw cast wheels for this process.
Quality control a preoccupation
Even though Alcar subjects all rims it makes to numerous quality control tests during the manufacturing process to ensure they meet the high standards set for dimensional accuracy, material homogeneity, surface condition, density and visual defects, zero returns remain a goal aspired to rather than achieved. Nevertheless, Sponer comments: “Quality control is an issue that has preoccupied us for years now, and will continue to concern us.”
Thanks to Alcar’s six-stage quality control process, on average just 4,300 rims from every two million are returned. Of this small percentage, many come back due to damage that occurred during shipping rather than during the production process itself. In order to pinpoint exactly where such issues originate, each and every rim leaving the factory is photographed.
The new pre-treatment and paint facility joins a production and quality control set-up that Norbert Frohner describes as “premium-quality” and “state-of-the-art.” He talks of constant improvements taking place in Neuenrade, with the 7.3 million investment made this year following a 2.3 million investment half a decade earlier. “These modernisations ensure savings in maintenance costs, and as regards the new paint shop take the next step into the future.”