Tire makers aim to make fully integrated tire management a reality
The quickstep advance of information technology is steadily stripping off the "anonymity" of individual tires - to more fully expose performance data to help fleets slash tire costs.
New information-based systems -some designed for dealer use, others for direct fleet application - even promise to deliver many of the benefits of "tire leasing" to over-the-road fleets.
Tire leasing is nothing new. The idea of a supplier leasing tires at a fixed cost while handling all associated maintenance originated years back in transit-bus districts that run on tight, unyielding municipal budgets.
And it's been confined there ever since. Mainly because few truck fleets hammer at their tires the way city buses do, and even fewer send all their trucks home daily to the same domicile.
On top of all that, many truck fleet managers prefer to retain ownership of their equipment assets, and today's tires certainly fit that bill.
In any event, one aspect of tire leasing would stand in good stead with truck fleets. Outsourcing the handling and management of all tire work would wipe out a lot of headaches for fleet managers. Presumably, operating costs would be cut by the expert practices and volume pricing offered by tire dealers.
Based on what various major tire makers say is happening with information technology, truck fleets may get leasing's "cradle-to-grave" tire management - without sacrificing ownership control of those expensive black doughnuts.
Yes, but Yes, but we're not all the way there yet. The good news is that milestones are being passed, suggesting definite progress on the information highway. Tire makers already predict that new systems that would easily - not to mention, remotely - track individual tires should become available within a decade from now.
At this point, the most exciting advance on the drawing board is the practical application of placing programmable microchips and sensors inside new tires. The timetable for this technology will largely be set by how quickly the unit price of data chips will fall to a level that would allow an acquisition cost acceptable to truck fleets.
Right now, the biggest gains are being made in the software programs and other computerized tools tire makers offer fleet customers and their own dealers. These sundry systems are all designed to make managing tire costs a less daunting and more rewarding task.
But to begin at the future, it's important to understand the current drawbacks of burying electronic chips inside tires to gauge where the industry is headed with all this high-tech stuff.
Guy Walenga, engineering manager- commercial products for Bridgestone/ Firestone Inc., says return on investment is the big issue for fleets. "The technology is here to put computerized 'tags,' incorporating microchips, into tires. But until there's a proven payback, fleets won't take on the expense."
When electronic tags become feasible, according to Walenga, they'll be "a good tool for air-pressure monitoring, could record tire temperatures, and provide data for managing the flow of tire work. All this can be done now without tags," he notes, "but manually inputting the data takes more time and causes more errors."
He says a tag-based system would enable tire information to be scanned rapidly and without manual input errors. The data could be downloaded when a truck enters a maintenance facility, or an onboard transmitter could send it while the vehicle is on the road.
"Electronic tags would represent another improvement," says Walenga. "But no matter the technology, fleet managers should aim to capture and compare performance and cost information. That's the way to make informed tire-purchase decisions for their specific operations.
"Fleets can benefit from what's available now," he continues. "They shouldn't fear that tags might not interact with current software. Fleet managers have to run a business today. On top of that, they should bear in mind that once introduced, tags will also go through a transition period."
Walenga says it's a "hazard" to predict when tags might arrive. "At this point, it's a pure R&D effort. It will be slow going, due to concerns about both payback and tag durability in service."
Moon shot Andre Heijnen, director of tire technology-commercial division for Continental General Tire, likens putting in microchips to "building a little moon station into the tire." He explains that no chip yet exists that would allow fleets to do everything they'd like to at an acceptable cost.
"Maybe in ten years we'll see chips available," Heijnen says. "Certainly, any tire maker who offers this technology will gain a competitive position. The real question for fleets will be, 'How much does this cost?'"
When tire chips do hit the market, Heijnen predicts there will be systems equipped with small power sources and capable of "broadcasting" tire data to a remote location.
"Any type of chip would have to be well-protected," he points out. "Chips would have to be built into a fairly stable, low-stress area, such as at the rubber apex of the bead." Heijnen also suggests that aftermarket chips might be installed via a repair-style patch affixed to the inside surface of the tire.
"Looking ahead," he continues, "one of the most helpful applications would be to have a chip correlate to trailer I.D. By checking if the tire is still in place, the chip could reduce the hijacking of tires from parked units."
Al Cohn, marketing manager-commercial systems engineering for Goodyear Tire & Rubber, also argues that cost is the biggest factor dogging tire chips. "A survey of fleet members of The Maintenance Council (TMC) suggest they'd be willing to pay from $5 to $7 extra for a chip-equipped tire," he reports. "We will eventually get down to an acceptable price point. But the material cost alone is still higher than that.
"It will also take a long time to test chips in actual service, over original tire and retread life, to show how well they'll work in a tough environment like trucking," says Cohn. "Nothing would be worse than putting a chip in and getting the wrong information out of it."
Cohn sees no market demand for chips that would only provide a tire I.D. number. "It would be key to have a chip that also records inflation pressure and tire temperature. And fleets will want a system that sends the tire data collected by the chip to their main computer quickly and wirelessly."
"Cost must always come with benefits," remarks Randy Clark, director of marketing for Michelin North America. "When the time comes, fleets will have to justify chip technology with the benefits they hope to gain from it.
"To make wise purchasing decisions," he continues, "fleets need the ability to track tire costs, including whatever elements, such as low inflation pressures, may be adding costs into their operation." While chips may offer a more efficient means of collecting that data, Clark contends that software programs will still be the best tool for analyzing fleet tire information.
"When it comes to chips, we expect fleets will prefer a minimalist approach," he says. "They'll want to depend on tire chips only for the data needed to feed a computerized tracking and management system."
Other roadblocks While developing its chip technology, Yokohama Tire, according to Bill Forsch, director of marketing-commercial group, is aware of the pricing issue as well as two other roadblocks that must be surpassed before tire chips will fly on the fleet market.
"The various tire makers will have to be willing to play on the same playground," he candidly remarks. "A standard format will have to be adopted for reading chip data. Fleets will balk at having to buy and operate a different reader for every brand of tire. In addition, fleets will have to indicate what kind of reading system they'll want developed - should it be a stationary or handheld type of device?
"We hear that fleets don't want to pay a lot for chips and readers - that makes it harder to develop them," Forsch continues. While aware of the lowball figures cited as acceptable by TMC, he says another recent fleet survey suggests those price points may be more flexible.
"A study I've seen, by McKay & Co., on acceptable pricing for 'smart' tires says fleets would be comfortable with a $9.68 premium for a chip system that provides tire I.D. alone. If it also gave current air pressure, they'd be willing to go to $14.65. And if a memory feature were added, they'd accept it at $17.21. Those are the highest figures I've seen - they stand out against what TMC has said fleets would pay for this technology."
Even without vouching for the accuracy or legitimacy of either set of figures, the gulf between them strongly suggests that fleet managers should indicate - sooner rather than later - exactly how much they'd be willing to spring for smart tires.
Avoiding this question - and the ones about reader/scanner formats and devices - will only delay the arrival of microchip-equipped tires. And, possibly, drive their acquisition price up.
According to one tire company executive, the chip revolution could also be stalled by current conditions. He points out that manufacturers are hard-pressed enough to keep up with today's high demand for new and replacement tires without committing to new technology fleet managers aren't clamoring for yet.
Now or later, with chips or not, software programs that make tire management easier and more effective will remain hot tickets. Even tire makers that don't offer proprietary branded programs regard such software as valuable fleet-management tools.
"The software package we make available to fleets and our dealers," reports Roger Stansbie, field engineering manager for Continental General, "can be customized for each customer, especially the reports it generates."
Jerry Starnes, EDP systems coordinator at Continental General, says the QVP (quality, value, performance) Monitoring System tracks tire-performance factors and inventory. "The system offers cradle-to-grave data coverage, including retreading, so fleets can stay on top of their tire costs per mile."
Bearing in mind the desire many fleets have to speed up data entry, Starnes advises that Continental General is "reviewing some possible changes" to its QVP system that would make it easier to process volume entries.
According to Goodyear's Cohn, the tire maker recently upgraded the CD-ROM-based management system it markets to fleets. The "Tools to Manage Your Fleet" package now includes Goodyear's Tire Vehicle Tracking System (TVTRACK) for Windows, TVTRACK Quick Survey, Tire Value Calc II (TVC II) with comparison module, and truck tire/retread service manual.
While he's proud of this software, Cohn does offer a distinction between collecting and using data. "A lot of software will track data," he says, "but the decisions a fleet manager makes from that information is what really counts."
Another wrinkle is the advent of computerized systems designed to enable a tire dealer to manage a truck fleet's rubber virtually as directly as they would under a tire-leasing arrangement.
The first of these to be rolled out is the Millennium Suite, a software package being offered by Michelin exclusively to its dealers. Jack McCammond, Michelin's manager-engineering support, says the system is "dealer-based but designed to manage a fleet's tire business in totality - from original purchase all the way to the scrap pile."
Among Millennium's most attractive features, according to McCammond, is the ability to track all associated costs - even as tires move in and out of service for repairs, retreading, or scrap analysis.
"Using Millennium," he points out, "a dealer will be able to take over the tire maintenance and retreading requirements of a fleet. Costs would be projected to establish a flat monthly fee for the complete service.
"With this kind of arrangement," McCammond continues, "fleets would get the advantages of tire leasing yet still own their running inventory. On top of that," he notes, "is the simple fact that something managed always outperforms what's not managed."
Despite all the promises of new technology, fleets should not sit back and wait for tire miracles to appear somewhere down the road.
"No matter how trouble-free tires become," says Continental General's Heijnen, "as end users, fleets will always have to take some responsibility for their maintenance practices and purchasing decisions. For example," he adds, "proper inflation is the number-one way to cut tire costs - and one tire makers can't control."
In other words, while air may always be free, there will never be a free lunch - let alone an entirely free ride from truck tires.
Paying attention can prevent costly - and deadly - sidewall zipper ruptures.
Maintaining proper tire inflation is the key to receiving maximum performance and longer tread wear," states Kevin Rohlwing, commercial tire services director for the International Tire & Rubber Assn. (ITRA).
"Irregular tread wear, increased downtime, and poor retreadability are just a few of the problems associated with underinflation," he continues. "Fleets also must consider that a majority of catastrophic tire failures - that is, blowouts - could be prevented if tire pressures were checked with an air gauge before each trip, or at least on a regular basis."
Rohlwing points out that for years the primary safety concern related to inflating truck tires was multi-piece wheel separation. "Split rims are extremely dangerous, and everyone is aware of the hazards involved with flying rim components," he says. "However, since radial tires have become more common, a new threat to maintenance personnel has developed - the zipper rupture."
Zipper ruptures occur in the sidewall flex area of steel radial light- and medium-duty truck tires. They usually follow the circumference of the tire and can range anywhere from 12 in. to more than 3 ft. in length.
According to Rohlwing, the problem starts when the steel cords that run from bead to bead are damaged by running tires flat or underinflated, which weakens them. Eventually, the air pressure becomes too great for the cables to hold. The entire area then ruptures, releasing a tremendous force.
"Technicians may not be able to tell when a zipper rupture will actually occur," Rohlwing asserts, " but they can take steps to protect themselves before it's too late."
He says the potential for a zipper rupture can be determined by thoroughly inspecting both sidewalls before inflating the tire.
"Any undulations or 'bumps' could signal a problem," says Rohlwing. "Pressing on the entire area can reveal if any cords are broken, especially if a crunching sound is heard. If possible, the inner liner should be inspected for any signs of being run flat or underinflated. Cuts, snags, and other sidewall injuries need to be thoroughly inspected. And tires should never be inflated if damage to the steel cords is apparent."
When inflating tires already on a truck, maintenance personnel must use equipment that conforms to OSHA standards. "Industry guidelines suggest that tires with less than 80% of the recommended inflation pressure be completely deflated before removal from the vehicle," Rohlwing reports. "In fact, most tire and retread manufacturers advise technicians to demount and thoroughly inspect any tire suspected of having been run underinflated or overloaded."
Rohlwing also recommends training personnel to recognize the telltale signs of a zipper rupture. "As steel body cords break during inflation, the sound produced is similar to that of popping corn," he relates.
"However, the undulations on the sidewall and popping sound will not always be present prior to a zipper rupture," he continues. "Having the proper equipment and training in place is the only way to protect workers from being seriously injured or killed by the sudden release of contained air."
As Rohlwing sees it, when it comes to maintaining proper tire inflation, fleets must make a choice. "If high mileage and performance are a priority," he explains, "then management must accept the responsibility of providing personnel with the tools to do the job safely. On the other hand, if higher operating expenses are acceptable, proper inflation is not a financial issue.
"But fleets that choose to ignore the importance of tire inflation create a safety hazard for maintenance personnel as well as for the general motoring public," Rohlwing adds.
Rohlwing notes that ITRA provides information on zipper ruptures, tire inflation, and OSHA standards through its Commercial Tire Service Training and Certification Program.
For more information, contact ITRA at 800-426-8835 or 502-968-8900; fax 502-964-7859; e-mail [email protected]; or visit their Web site at www.itra.com.