As the recession wears on, fleet owners have no choice but to keep seeking out every possible operating cost reduction. Certainly, none can afford to overlook savings that can be derived from properly managing the third-largest operating cost for most fleets — tires.
When it comes to cutting tire costs, it's not about where the rubber meets the road but where the rubber meets the truck and, above all, the tech. According to tire makers, it's crucial to start at the beginning with the correct take on truck tires: View them as assets, not consumables. Consumables are commodities, bought and consumed. Tires, like the trucks and trailers that roll on them, are financial assets that should be selected and managed as such from original purchase through retreading to ultimate disposal.
Once the appropriate tires are selected for the equipment and job at hand, the nitty-gritty of their basic yet critical care will fall to in-house or outsourced tire and/or retreading technicians, but the responsibility for getting the most out of these mobile assets always rests with the fleet's management.
“Tires are assets that need to be managed,” says Aaron Murphy, vp at Double Coin Tires. “Consider that the most progressive fleets track each tire's costs by wheel position to ensure they get the maximum value out of their investment. That indicates how valuable proper attention to both tire purchasing and maintenance is.”
“Every fleet should have some kind of tire management program,” points out Doug Jones, customer engineering support manager for Michelin Americas Truck Tires. “Technology has advanced over the past several years to the point that there are many resources to help with tire management. Technologically advanced computer software programs, pressure monitoring and inflation systems and much more can make tracking, maintaining and analyzing tires easier.
“However,” Jones continues, “just because a fleet might not be able to afford the technology or understand how to use it does not excuse them from having some kind of tire program. Despite today's technology, a fleet's tire management system can still be old-fashioned and done with pencil, paper and a tire gauge. A good tire management program includes cradle-to-grave tracking, analysis, preventive maintenance and more. A fleet's tire management program should be written, communicated, monitored and enforced.”
Part and parcel with implementing — or in the case of most fleets, improving upon — a tire-maintenance program should be proper tire selection. And these decisions should be reviewed periodically given that in some cases fleets are rolling with the downturn or other factors by switching duty cycles without trading out trucks.
Michelin's Jones says an “important step in any tire-management program is selecting the best tires for the vehicles. Fleets need to evaluate their trucks and routes to determine the type of application and weather and climate they will likely experience for the majority of their run time.
“Choosing an application-specific tire will make a fleet more efficient, and when gaining efficiency, gaining profitability is not far behind,” continues Jones. “Long-haul fleets should find a tire that will provide them with the required levels of wear and traction, while also providing fuel savings over similarly performing tires. Fleets should be constantly testing and evaluating tires to find which type of tire and tread designs provide them with the best performance and fuel economy.”
According to Guy Walenga, Bridgestone's director of engineering-commercial products and technology, “picking the proper tire for each application should be done on an axle-by-axle basis. We have made it very clear that [the products] differ, both tires and retreads, by the job they are designed for. On tire selection,” he adds, “the dealer is the best resource a fleet can draw on.”
Double Coin's Murphy says tire makers have “developed application-specific tires to put their products in the best position to deliver the lowest cost per mile. And one of the most application-specific components of a new tire or retread is the tread package and design. In general, the casing isn't aware of the wheel position it is in, but the tread design and features can enhance the performance of the tire in a certain position.”
“Total cost of ownership is far more important than the acquisition price alone,” points out Rick Phillips, manager of commercial sales for Yokohama Tire Corp. “Whether you're an owner-operator or a director of maintenance for a top 100 fleet, it's critical to get the right tire for your specific application and not just the deal of the day. Commercial truck tires are an investment and like all investments, if done properly, they will provide a healthy return.
“A quality product that performs well will cost less over time than a cheaper tire that doesn't meet the needs of the operation,” adds Phillips. “Some products are engineered and designed to lower a fleet's cost per mile, and some are simply built to deliver a lower upfront price. It's important to choose wisely.”
Mark S. Roe, commercial tire manager for Hankook Tire America Corp., suggests that “having an open mind on testing a variety of tires from various manufacturers is the way to go. While the ‘Big Three’ [Bridgestone, Goodyear and Michelin] make wonderful products, the second-tier manufacturers have made huge strides in producing products that are second to none.”
The pickings certainly are not slim these days, says Tim Miller, Goodyear marketing communications manager. “Thirty years ago, all the manufacturers offered a handful of radials for trucking,” he relates. “Now, it's like buying cereal or shampoo. The choices are by wheel position as well as by vehicle type and duty application. Since there are so many more choices, the fleet buyer — and the tire salesperson for that matter — need to be more educated to pick the right tire for the job to get the most value.”
Curtis Decker, senior engineer-product development for Continental Tire North America, points out that if fleets become more nimble to meet market demands, they should not overlook the impact of such changes on tires. “Some fleets are stretching the boundaries, if you will, to haul different freight than their trucks were spec'd for — such as running longer distances on regional-service tires.”
Decker suggests auditing the fleet to ensure the right tires are being used. He also advises staying on top of trade cycles. “Trucks that are no longer being traded every three years, for example, may need a tire change before the vehicle leaves the fleet.” He says if that's the case, it could be more economical to switch — from the start — to more fuel-efficient tires. “The return on fuel would beat trying to extend out the [life of] deep-tread tires.”
And don't buy more tire than you need. “Don't overstate your traction needs,” says Decker. “How much does the truck actually travel on the road? Too much of a good thing could cost you in terms of tire life. So do not base the decision on a worst-case scenario.”
Keeping tires properly inflated is about as basic as it gets, yet tire suppliers find fleets just don't pay enough attention to this critical matter. “There's no substitute for putting air in the tire,” says Goodyear's Miller. “That should be the first step when inspecting the tire.”
Michelin's Jones concurs, stressing that tire-pressure maintenance is “the first thing fleets must have in place when developing a tire management program. A program should include targeted pressures for the tires, periodic checks of air pressure, calibrated air pressure gauges, a master gauge and trained employees willing to diligently check the pressures. No one can tell by touch — or the trusty ‘tire kick’ — when tires are low. Always use a proper pressure gauge.
“Following the instructions on the data plate on the truck is also key to ensuring tires have the correct air pressure for the loads being carried,” he continues. “If a fleet has nothing else but a good air pressure maintenance program, it will reap substantial benefits over having no program at all.”
Bridgestone's Walenga says “maintaining air pressure is where fleets can invest a little and gain a lot over the long term; it's basic, basic, basic maintenance.” He points out that there is a straightforward solution available that fleets can use to make dealing with tire inflation much less labor-intensive.
“Consider using flow-through valve caps,” he advises. “There are only a few makers of this product and each cap costs maybe 50 cents. They are metal double-check valves with spring-loaded seals so you do not have to take them off to check pressure or add air. Using them will make checking and adjusting air pressure dramatically faster. Remember, proper pressure is key to maintaining both the tire's original tread and its casing.”
Walenga adds that the various systems offered to maintain tire pressure automatically are “a real good addition to trailers, whose tires always seem to get less attention, to protect tire life. But these are high-tech systems that require maintenance and oversight. And to be sure, trailer tire pressure should still be checked with a gauge periodically.
“The results from launching a tire inflation-check program will be seen in six months,” adds Walenga. “But backing off such an effort will negatively affect tires within just 30 to 60 days.”
According to Yokohama's Phillips, tires are “manufactured to produce a certain footprint on the road and if the air pressure is not correct, that footprint becomes distorted, which causes the tire to work harder and run hotter. And that causes the truck to burn more fuel and the tire to eventually exhibit irregular tread wear. Underinflation by 20% can decrease the overall tire life by more than 30%.”
Hankook's Roe figures that just keeping up with air pressure “could save the majority of medium to large fleets thousands of dollars monthly. This is the one item that frankly is out of control, yet is the easiest to control. I see mechanics and drivers bumping tires on a daily basis. What does that tell you? It simply has air! Yet a $15 air gauge will tell you what you truly need to know.” He notes that overlooking inflation can “cause major premature wear and potentially very costly road calls.”
Beyond inflation control, there are a number of strategies fleets can implement in their shops or insist be performed by tire dealers or other maintenance providers.
“After inflation, proper total vehicle alignment is the second most important piece of maintenance affecting tire life,” says Yokohama's Phillips.
“If vehicle alignment is off, it can create irregular tread wear that results in tires being removed sooner than planned,” says Double Coin's Murphy. “Even if that casing is then retreaded, you did not get the most out of that asset in terms of original tread life.”
Goodyear's Miller says the alignment of axles by toe and camber is essential. “Drives need to be parallel to each other and perpendicular to the frame to help tires last longer,” he explains. “Periodic inspections to discover uneven tread wear patterns will indicate the need for alignment. Inspections need to be about more than finding nails. Maintenance personnel should be trained to spot wear patterns that can indicate problems on the vehicle itself.”
Bridgestone's Walenga stresses the importance of the tire/wheel assembly process. “The tire must be properly mounted to the wheel and the assembly to the vehicle or the truck will not roll down the road properly. You might not feel any difference right away, but it will start to wear out-of-round. The idea is to put the tire into position to get the most out of it in the first place.
“Vehicle alignment is also essential,” he continues. “When you are driving down the road, you should not see the trailer. Steer tires get worn out first and they are a pretty expensive way to detect misalignment. Instead, check and adjust alignment on a regular basis. The most expensive approach is to check it at every PM, but I favor checking it whenever the steers are changed. Also, trailer toe should be checked regularly, perhaps on a calendar basis.”
Detailed elements of a comprehensive tire management program, as listed by Michelin's Jones, should include:
Purchasing the best tires for particular applications.
Tracking tires. “This is a must in order to determine and monitor cost per mile and to compare performance of different tires to determine what tire is best for a particular application.”
Determining how tires will be brought in. “A fleet needs to determine whether it will buy steer tires, run them down to a certain pull point and then retread them to replace them in the drive position, or will it buy steer tires and drives and retread them when they reach the determined pull point.”
Determining when the tires should be inspected and tire pressures checked.
Appointing someone to check the tire pressures.
Establishing a routine for tire rotation and vehicle alignment.
Keeping the tires clean. “Washing the tires periodically with warm soapy water is a good idea. This helps to prevent premature aging of the tires and deterioration of the rubber, which may be caused by contaminants to which the tires could have been exposed. Regular checks may be necessary to remove any and all debris or foreign objects that may become trapped between the tread grooves. If some of the fleet's vehicles are parked for long periods of time, it is important to ensure no oil or petroleum products are on the pavement, because they can deteriorate the rubber in the tires.”
Instituting scrap-tire analysis. “Every tire that comes out of service should be examined to determine why it was removed from service. Scrap tire analysis is very important to assist a fleet in determining what is happening to its tires and why they are coming out of service. This analysis could point to application, pressure, alignment and many other issues. Scrap analysis will help a fleet to determine what needs to be improved to reduce or eliminate repeated problems.”
Jones points out that “if a fleet does not have the time or resources to set up and run a tire management program, there are many reliable outlets that can help. Many fleets outsource this work or enlist the service of tire dealers or manufacturers. To make any program work, it must include dedicated and trained personnel.”
Hankook's Roe says basic tire maintenance is fundamental to controlling operating costs. “If you have a quality maintenance program, your tires will last longer. I challenge any fleet, regardless of size, with a marginal program to partner with a dealer that provides an all-out tire maintenance program — [one that includes] fleet checks/retreads, new tire reporting/scrap tire analysis and so on. Their overall downtime and annual tire cost will drop dramatically. With that said, yes, technology is so very important, but everyone involved has to do their part to see the true results of the manufacturer's technology efforts.”
“Don't let the economy force you to skip maintenance,” cautions Continental's Decker. “Holding off on alignment and shock change-outs will increase irregular wear and end up costing more in the long run.”
“Retreading is the most cost-effective way to utilize your tire assets,” says Hankook's Roe. He notes that most tire makers and retreaders offer a variety of casing and retread warranties, and, in Hankook's case at least, “a retread rubber allowance on remaining tread depth.”
Michelin's Jones contends that “the quality and reliability of retreads makes them something every fleet should consider. Retreading presents a significant cost reduction rather than replacing a tire with a new one.” He says the latest retread operations deploy such technologies as electronic liner inspections, advanced x-ray systems and casing integrity analyzers to ensure a tire casing is fit to be retreaded. “Because of the rigors of certain applications, fleets should spec high-quality tires, whose casing durability would be better able to withstand the retreading process, provided the tires are properly maintained throughout their first ‘life,’” Jones adds.
“Thanks to technological advances, retreading has improved over the past 20 years,” points out Goodyear's Miller. “What's more, a retread costs one-third the price of a new tire. It's the ‘green’ way to go as you are not throwing away a casing, and the performance — in terms of 32nds of wear — should be just as good or even better than that of a new tire.”
Yokohama's Phillips argues that “if you've made the right choice in selecting a quality product and have been diligent with your maintenance program, retreading the tire will provide additional service cycles, further lowering the total cost of the tire. Retreading the casing is not only cost-effective but environmentally responsible.”
“Fleets can go a long way toward reducing their tire costs by controlling all of the elements they can control,” adds Phillips. “Tire maintenance, vehicle inspections and repairs, as well as driver education and training, all have huge impacts on the bottom line.”