Plating car and truck wheels with a protective and decorative layer of chromium is a popular long-standing practice to dress up wheels and protect them from corrosion. But the process is costly, environmentally challenging, and it adds unwanted weight to the wheels.
Southfield, Michigan’s Superior Industries International, Inc. has an alternative that produces a similar result without those complications. Physical vapor deposition promises to displace chrome plating, so Design News thought it would be good to hear from Superior’s director of technical services, Steve Sparks, to learn more about this process and its benefits.
Design News: What are the benefits of physical vapor deposition?
Steve Sparks: Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) is a highly reflective premium wheel finish that is offered at a lower cost than traditional bright wheel finishes. It provides the same appearance as chrome plating, but with a highly automated, environmentally friendly process that requires minimal water consumption and no use of highly toxic chemicals as with traditional chrome plating.
PVD provides significant mass savings over chrome plating with typical savings of 10 pounds per vehicle or higher. PVD allows for more styling flexibility than other bright wheel finishes with more robust lab and field performance, particularly with corrosion resistance
Design News: How does the process work?
Steve Sparks: PVD is essentially a powder coating process with a very thin layer of metal alloy applied within the coating sandwich in a vacuumized chamber. A specially designed powder primer is applied and undergoes a plasma application process before the PVD metal gets deposited for optimal adhesion performance. A powder acrylic clear coat is then applied on top of the metal as a final layer of protection against wear and environmental damage
Design News: Are there tradeoffs relating to cost, production speed, durability, or any other issues?
Steve Sparks: PVD has a significant cost advantage over chrome plated and chrome-clad wheels with no tooling investment needed. PVD is more readily scalable than chrome plating and can be offered at a higher volume without the manual surface preparation that is needed with chrome plating. Lab and actual field warranty data collected by Superior shows a significant performance benefit with PVD
Design News: The weight saving per wheel seems tremendous. Is that only versus chrome, or against other finishes too?
Steve Sparks: The weight savings applies to traditional chrome plating which utilizes multiple layers of metals like zinc, copper, and nickel. For larger diameter wheels, the weight savings can be even greater. Compared to other bright finishes like plastic inserts, which may require either metal screws or adhesives, there also could be significant weight savings that is design dependent
Design News: It seems like bright chrome finish is in less demand, do you see the potential for that to rebound, or do you see physical vapor deposition being applicable to other finishes too, like the black that is very popular now?
Steve Sparks: Bright finish, especially on trucks and SUVs is still desired although we do not see the potential for traditional chrome plating to rebound. This is primarily due to the high cost, mass effect, and field performance concerns. The environmental impacts of the chrome plating process are also a bigger concern as ‘green’ technologies are becoming more and more important. Superior is working on new finish variants using the PVD technology that include Black PVD and other colors that we feel will offer new looks that have not been available before in the OEM market.
Design News: Are there other automotive applications for this beyond wheels?
Steve Sparks: PVD has been used on other vehicle components in more ‘friendly’ environments than wheels such as door handles and headlights, but a significant amount of work was needed to establish the robustness of performance required for wheels while still maintaining the high level of appearance demanded. Superior is looking at other potential applications with its PVD process, but we are focused right now on expanding our customer base for PVD wheels
Design News: Can you point to any vehicles that are using this today?
Steve Sparks: PVD finish is offered currently on the Ford F-150, Ford F-250, and Ranger vehicles. They are also used on select Lexus and Hyundai/Kia vehicles