Retreading, an integral part of most commercial over-the-road transportation operations, does not enjoy the same standing with the general motoring public.
Over the past decade, the number of retreaded light truck, medium truck and bus tires jumped 52 percent and is forecast to reach 23.5 million units this year.
At the same time, passenger tire retreading has plummeted, plunging 72.4 percent from 21.4 million units in 1984 to an estimated 5.9 million last year. And production likely will decline again this year, to about 5.5 million units.
Over this same period, much at-tention was paid to the consolidation that took place among tire manufacturers. The various mergers and acquisitions got lots of ink in the trade press.
Somewhat less attention was paid to a consolidation/shaking out that was taking place among U.S. retread shops, whose numbers will have shrunk 46 percent or more from 2,600 in 1985 to fewer than 1,400 by the end of this year. And only about 250 of those remaining will be retreading passenger tires.
Why such an enormous drop in passenger tire retreading? Taking a look back, there are a number of factors that influenced the decline.
Negative consumer attitude. During World War II, retreads fulfilled virtually all civilian replacement tire require-ments, as new tires were diverted primarily to the military. Pressure to increase production led to many abuses-multiple retreading, poor workmanship and materials-which were exacerbated by poor service and adjustment policies.
Retreading's image has remained a definite problem where passenger tires are concerned. Even the word ``retreading'' has a negative connotation. Too many consumers consider this a ``hole-in-the-wall'' industry producing a down-market product.
The bias-ply casing. Its shortcomings were a particular problem. Looking at the road performance of the bias tire, with its cord body often stressed by overload and underinflation, its inherent weaknesses become apparent.
As a result, a high percentage of casings were rejected at initial inspection. Even most truck tires could only be retreaded once.
Radialization. As radial passenger tires took over the market in the 1970s, U.S. retreaders were slow to respond to the need to substantially modify their equipment and processing techniques.
Retreaders first tried processing this new breed of tire with equipment that came off the ark-and often in facilities that looked like something out of Charles Dickens' more gloomy tales.
Used to dealing with the ±3/8-inch tolerance of bias-ply tires, they had trouble coping with the much tighter tolerances for radials: -1/16 inch with no plus tolerance due to the inflexible steel belts. Product quality and appearance suffered.
It was not all that rare to find shops rejecting high percentages of finished radial retreads at the final inspection stage-sometimes as much as 15 to 20 percent.
Inexpensive new tires. The availability of ``cheapy'' new-tire lines, both domestic and imported-especially through department, discount and warehouse-type stores-has made it difficult for retreaders to maintain the price differential necessary to keep retreads competitive.
Reasons for hope
Though technology never stands still, it is unlikely for the foreseeable future that there will be another major transformation in tire design on the scale of the bias-ply to radial switch.
It seems reasonable to assume that most modifications will simply represent improvements and changes in tread design, belt assembly and aspect ratio-changes that indicate tires may, in fact, become more retreadable.
Retreaders who were too slow to embrace equipment to process radials have fallen by the wayside.
For those remaining, rapid strides have been made in recent years with the introduction in this country of improved equipment and advanced techniques for processing radials.
Tire inspection is now an automated operation designed to permit a thorough internal and external examination by the use of X-ray, infrared rays, holographic techniques and ultrasonics.
Modern buffing machines with automatic template control provide accurate contours and diameter, so that the casing becomes almost a lathe-turned product.
Fully automated curing presses turn out a high-quality product, while reducing fatigue and enhancing productivity.
The new techniques and working methods yield retreads that are the equal of new tires in mileage, performance and safety.
Having solved the problems of turning out a high-quality, high-value product, can we not now meet the challenge of successfully marketing and selling these high-technology products?