Prepared for the Road Ahead

How Wheelabrator's Surface Preparation Solutions are Shaping the Automotive Industry (Article first published in MFN)

Vanessa Ashworth

Vice President, Marketing, Norican Group - Published

The passenger car market comprises some of the world’s biggest brands, so it is no surprise that this market is fiercely competitive.
Manufacturers continue to innovate in order to maintain and enhance their brands, by introducing new models that are more fuel-efficient, maintenance-friendly and reliable, whilst driving down their manufacturing costs.

All automotive manufacturers are feeling the immense pressure of the economic downturn. The automotive market is by far the largest user of surface preparation equipment and services (including its different tiered suppliers and foundries) it is up to the surface preparation industry to support it and its concerns in order to help this critical industry grow.


In order to deliver a lighter, more fuel efficient, high performance, reliable, low maintenance car to today’s cash-conscious, environmentally-savvy consumer, the automotive manufacturers and suppliers design with lighter and newer materials, produce less waste, introduce sturdier components and increase production line speed. This also means designing processes with high reliability, both for the automotive components and the final assembly.

Stronger, Faster, Lighter

Stronger & Safety Critical

Developments in shot peening equipment have enabled automotive OEMs to reduce costs and improve performance in a large number of components. The days are long gone when this revered process was saved for Formula One and luxury car components. Automated, complex, air blast and wheel blast peening machines are used to process transmission components, springs, axles, torsion bars and some drive train parts for most cars on the road today.

Many automotive components are safety critical, and as such, processes must be reliable, repeatable and traceable. As safety requirements and legislation become more demanding, parts that have been designed to be lighter must also have stronger construction. This is where Wheelabrator works in partnership with the auto OEMs to design and define processes to deliver shot peening equipment that meets and exceeds their specifications.

Stronger: Gear peening

Shot peening of gears and shafts is an established application. However, the torque rating of these transmission components has undergone dramatic change in recent years.

It is very common to find Wheelabrator CFX 200 automated airblast peening machines for gears and CFX 600 machines for shafts at major gearbox manufacturing facilities around the globe. These are indexing table type machines that are packed with features engineered into the machine after years of working with the stringent specifications of major automotive OEMs such as Volkswagen, Volvo and Scania, to list a few.

To improve competitive advantage, the OEMs need to introduce longer warranties on wear parts, again, with lighter parts and cheaper materials. This presents a challenge that only the correct shot peening process can deliver. Since 100% inspection of automotive parts is not economically viable, Wheelabrator shot peening equipment can be supplied with a Process Reliability Package going far beyond conventional parameter checks and measures.

Processes must also be repeatable – and repeatable at all installations around the globe. To maintain global brand reputation, the final product must perform to expectation no matter where it is produced. Automotive OEMs have factories that cater to demand, in every corner of the globe, as does Wheelabrator.

Repeatable solutions from Wheelabrator support process repeatability, common operating procedures and the flexibility to move and support equipment to follow demand.

Faster: Process Repeatability

Process repeatability takes many forms, and Wheelabrator has developed a machine build process to eliminate the design and engineering time of re-designing the blast cabinets and media reclaim systems for every project. Realising that the process and the blast technology, the controls and monitoring are the most critical features of the blast machine, the Wheelabrator Module8 concept ensures that no time is wasted on “box” design. It is a reusable, modular concept focusing on process and machine reliability, it is flexible for the changing needs of customers, and can speed up the delivery of equipment. 

Drastically reducing design time and manufacturing modular sections that can be used for all machine types mean that costs are minimised. The customer then pays for the technology that matters, and not for the box. This also means that “standard” machine types, with little or no customisation, can be produced very efficiently and offered at attractive prices. The Module8 designs are based on the following eight principles: Flexibility, Wear Reduction, Ease of Maintenance, Safety, Product Reliability, Process Reliability, Quality and Lead Times.

Flexibility is increasingly important as automotive components are constantly being improved and adapted, and the blast machine should not be rendered redundant with each adaptation. Born of the Module8 concept, the Frame Machine (FM) peens 2100 mm of weld length in different areas of an axle beam in about a minute.

The system also takes advantage of this peening cycle time to manipulate the beam and expose the opposite side (side B) to the blast nozzles. This is carried out exterior to the machine, when a second axle beam is being processed for side A, so no time is lost in unproductive handling operations. Blast nozzles are manipulated by robots located on one side, exterior to the cabinet, and the design allows for additional robots to be integrated into the process anticipating any future expansion.

Faster: Hybrid solutions

The automobile is the ultimate consumer product, and automotive production lines are highly efficient. This means that intricate shot peening work must be completed within defined parameters of cycle time. Larger components, Outside Diameters (ODs) and external surfaces on parts such as axles, can be cleaned/shot peened at speed with wheelblast machines, and intricate sections and Internal Diameters (IDs) can be shot peened with airblast nozzles.

Whether the proposed solution is a wheelblast, airblast or hybrid system depends entirely upon the needs and circumstances of the customer and their application. Both types of media propulsion techniques have their unique features and benefits and Wheelabrator derives advantage from its expertise in both to provide the optimum solution.

Faster: Automation and Manipulator Blast Cleaning

Automation is the key to speed, productivity and defined performance parameters, and numerous solutions have been developed to address both simple and highly complex applications.

Manipulator blast cleaning systems meet the highest production demands and are renowned for their excellent blast cleaning performance; even interior surfaces which are difficult to access are properly cleaned without accumulating abrasive.

Automotive components have more complex geometries than ever before, the internal apertures must be treated, and in some cases only specific areas of the part should be peened or cleaned, such as with welded sections. Manipulator machines can be programmed to deliver to these requirements, and can carry out a number of different pre-programmed routines, allowing a variety of different parts to be treated effectively.


Robot Manipulator machines allow different operations to take place simultaneously. During the shot blasting cycle, other processes such as shot evacuation, pick-up or delivery of castings can be performed by the robot to reduce process time or to extend individual cycle phases. 

Our knowledge in this field has been extended beyond the realm of the treatment process, and Wheelabrator is renowned for delivering complete solutions with automated handling, loading and unloading arrangements.

Lighter: 

Components are manufactured using less material and sometimes with more cost-effective materials than before; they are lighter. In such cases, the peening process induces the required strength, and can improve performance, such as torque rating, and enhance the life of the part.

Powerful engine blocks are made smaller and lighter and the heads and blocks have very demanding cleaning specifications. Wheelabrator has developed an Advanced Internal Cleaning (AIC) airblast machine to increase efficiency and repeatability, while improving quality and reducing the process times of blasting bores and water jacket apertures of cylinder heads, crankcases, motor blocks and similar complex castings.

This machine is the first of its kind on the market. Various workpiece or nozzle lifting and lowering devices are integrated in the machine depending on the arrangement of the bores and apertures to be blasted. Multiple blast stations are located in the blast cabinet, determined by the desired production rate. After blasting, the bores and workpieces are cleaned of abrasive either by compressed air or by manipulating the part.

Some traditional shot blasting processes, such as cleaning and desanding components in tumblast (wheelblast) machines, are being replaced as newer, lighter cast components will not stand up to the aggressive tumblast process – any waste or damage must be kept to an absolute minimum. New Inclined Belt type machines (IBC) are introduced to treat workpieces such as brake discs, so that parts are individually treated, in an inline arrangement, without any part-on-part contact. 

The Wheelabrator IBC Inclined Belt blast machines are highly effective for cleaning sand and scale off rotary iron and steel components at high production rates, it can be used to remove sand and burrs from light metal parts, and can shot peen disc or drum shaped workpieces. Shock- and vibration-sensitive parts are blast cleaned in a continuous flow, in a reliable and cost-effective process.

The workpieces are individually transported on an endless belt conveyor and rest on lateral guide skids which cause the continuous rotation of the parts. All surfaces of the parts including ventilation slots are thoroughly blast cleaned in this process/machine.

Reducing The Cost Per Part Produced

Downtime is the enemy of speed, and operating three shifts per day and seven days a week will take its toll on the hardiest of blast machines and its wear components. Wheelabrator has been delivering heavy duty solutions for over 100 years, and designs its machines with ease of maintenance in mind.

Unique features of Wheelabrator wheelblast equipment can include a quick transfer / switch arrangement for blast wheels where the wheel is mounted on a trolley and attached to the blast cabinet by quick disconnect clamps. During times of wheel maintenance, the wheel is disconnected from the cabinet, and a new blast wheel is quickly and almost seamlessly wheeled into its location. 

Dedicated to reducing the customer’s cost per part, Wheelabrator Plus, the equipment modernisation, spares and service support division of Wheelabrator, helps automotive manufacturers and suppliers to extend the lifetime of their equipment. The focus on Total Cost of Ownership (TOC) has led to customised maintenance and service contracts, preventative maintenance packages, remote monitoring applications and modernisation programmes.

Just as their OEM colleagues at Wheelabrator realise that the technology and not the box that it is housed in is of utmost importance, the team at Wheelabrator Plus carries out highly customised modernisation projects to turn aged, application-obsolete or technologically-obsolete blast machines into state-of-the-art shot peening systems, fully compliant with updated specifications.

With the challenges presented by the current economy, refurbishment is sometimes the only viable alternative to investing in a new machine to some automotive suppliers.

Another alternative would be to send parts to be professionally shot peened by a qualified subcontractor. This is also part of the Wheelabrator Plus offering, via its Impact Finishers divisions in the UK and France.

Driving Innovation – A Summary

Brand is critical to continued success and the automotive OEMs depend upon reliability, not just of their own manufacturing processes, but also of their suppliers. Wheelabrator works with the OEMs and their suppliers globally, delivering process reliable solutions that perform to, and often exceed, expectation.

Due to its long history and global presence, with five Technology Centres supported by a network of its own manufacturing centres, a guaranteed, proven and effective solution is assured.

Whatever the application, Wheelabrator promises to deliver the right solution, whether that turns out to be one of its off-the-shelf standard designs, or a complex custom-built system for a new component design.

Once delivered, Wheelabrator Plus will help in the system’s operation to optimum performance levels to ensure the customer gets the best out of the investment.

Wheelabrator is excited about the future. New applications and new equipment for existing applications constantly challenge its engineers to develop new solutions, driving innovation in shot peening equipment for the automotive industry to a new level of sophistication.

Just another way that Wheelabrator is helping shape the industry of the future.