WMU engineering student's prototype design unveiled at Frankfurt Auto Show

contact: Mark Schwerin
| WMU News
Photo of Conner Knepley.

Knepley with his prototype

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A Western Michigan University mechanical engineering student got an auspicious start to his career by unveiling a prototype of a wheel he designed for the world's biggest automotive stage.

Conner Knepley, a junior from Stockbridge, recently displayed a wheel he designed as an intern for Maxion Wheels at the Frankfurt International Auto Show, the world's largest auto show. He has spent the past two summers as an advanced engineering intern at Maxion Wheels, a tier one automotive supplier and the world's largest manufacturer of steel and aluminum wheels for both light vehicle and commercial vehicle markets.

About the project

Knepley was personally able to visit the display of his creation, one of about 16 different prototypes Maxion displayed at the show in September. Knepley's design was a lightweight version of a current production steel wheel.

"We made it lighter and stronger," Knepley says. "With the government's increasing fuel-economy regulations, automakers are looking for almost anything they can to improve fuel economy. Wheels are a big area of improvement. It takes a lot of energy to spin a wheel."

The advanced engineering team at Maxion Wheels took a conventional wheel and removed steel, which is dense and heavy. In place of it in strategic areas, they added a composite-reinforced tape like substance that is lighter and stronger than steel. The result was a wheel that is lighter and stronger than the current production steel wheel.

Knepley used 3D printing technology to improve the aesthetic appearance of the wheel as well. He adhered an "overmold" feature to the face of the wheel to highlight and accent the wheel's bare appearance. He was then flown to Germany days after the wheel was unveiled at the show. "It was an unforgettable experience," Knepley says.

Feedback strong

"There was a lot of good feedback from both current customers that were there and hopefully future customers," Knepley says. "The purpose of bringing it there was to see what kind of interest there was. Since there was such good interest, now we're developing the prototype that's hopefully going to make it to production scale."

Knepley is technically still employed at the Novi-based Maxion Wheels. He plans to work there over the holiday break and earn his mechanical engineering degree in December 2017 at WMU. His goal is to work in automotive research and development, possibly at Ford Performance, a division of Ford Motor Co.

"I like that you're always getting to explore something new," he says of research and development. "I get bored doing the same thing every day. So getting a new project every week and getting to explore something different, I really enjoy that a lot."

Knepley says his education so far at WMU has helped prepare him for work in the engineering field. "What I think gets applied is just developing the mental process of 'here's a problem, what could have caused it, how can we approach it,' I think the mental development of the engineering school itself—that's really advanced me as a person for the workforce."

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