AKRON—Despite labor strikes that have hampered its ability to maintain production while getting tire concepts off the drawing board and into the fields, Titan Tire Corp. is aggressively pursuing a bigger chunk of the ag market, especially by floating new product ideas to eager original equipment manufacturers. Titan is knee-deep in testing several farm tires that it claims will reduce or almost eliminate two pernicious problems for users: ``road lope'' and its off-road cousin, ``power hop.''
Road lope occurs when a tractor is being driven at speed on a roadway while traveling between fields, whereas power hop takes place in the field, when a tractor, pulling a load under full power, hops or bounces so badly the farmer is forced to back off the throttle and gear down, losing momentum.
``Deere (& Co.) can't wait to get their hands on this tire—they're champing at the bit,'' said Ray Evans, vice president of tire engineering for Titan Tire, referring to some large rear farm tires the company will be turning over to Deere for testing within a few weeks.
Since the introduction a couple years ago of Titan's Grizz LSW (for ``low sidewall'') tire/wheel package, the company has pursued with a vengeance OEM contracts for farm and other off-highway vehicles. And with a good deal of success, Mr. Evans said.
The LSW features a larger-diameter rim and lower-profile tire than traditional assemblies, and is said to provide more stability due to the shorter sidewall and lower inflation pressures.
While the company's not standing in tall cotton yet, Mr. Evans ticked down a list of OEMs in or nearing final-stage testing for Titan's skid-steer loader tires: Deere, which recently opened a new skid-steer factory; New Holland Inc.; Melroe Co.; and Gehl Co. Skid-steers typically cross over agricultural, construction and lawn-and-garden applications.
Melroe, for example, recently introduced a 105-horsepower skid-steer that's ``chewing up tires like you wouldn't believe,'' Mr. Evans said. Titan is providing the North Dakota-based company with heavier-duty, heavy-lugged tires that should help alleviate the problem, though, by their very nature, skid-steers eat several sets of tires a year because of their constant sliding and turning.
Titan also has begun producing several new tires for the construction market, including a 15223.5 size, replacing a 15219.5, and a 14221.5 that replaces a 14217.5.
It just cured several other prototypes that are for telescopic lifts on construction sites, for backhoes, and for land-leveling and agricultural uses, as well. Mr. Evans said a number of the industry's top OEMs are interested in them.
In the testing stages is a new Titan rear R1W tire for both two-and four-wheel-drive tractors. Measuring 20.8R53.5, it's aimed at the road-lope and power-hop problems. Both Deere and AGCO, another tractor maker, will begin trying them out within weeks.
All told, Titan is humming with activity.
There are 21 LSW projects under way—two fully released for production and the rest in various stages of final development, said Mr. Evans, who works out of the tire maker's Akron design center. It typically takes from nine months to two years for a Titan tire to get from the design to prototype stages.
The company recently introduced the ``Titan Packer,'' for use on seeders, and is adding to its line of tires that will stand up to punctures from crop stubble.
It also has purchased almost 300 bias tire molds from a Continental General Tire plant that made jumbo ag tires—sizes 15219.5, 15222.5, 18219.5 and 18222.5. Production will commence once retooling is completed.
Scheduled for launch in the first quarter are the Titan Super Rigger SRL and SRR—lug and rib tires, respectively—for use on large grain-wagons and carts.
Mr. Evans acknowledged that the ongoing strikes at Titan's Natchez, Miss., and Des Moines tire plants have put a crimp in the company's ability to get prototype tires built and to OEMs for field-testing. When contract negotiations with striking United Steelworkers of America locals hit impasses late last year, Titan began hiring replacement workers.
``We're now at the point where the current work force is trained sufficiently and engineers have been sent to Des Moines to build prototypes and get production under way,'' Mr. Evans said.
Still, Titan doesn't believe it can fully meet the anticipated demand for LSW tires on its own, and has been talking to other tire makers about licensing the concept, Mr. Evans said.
``Once the OEMs get in on this, that will be the biggest pull-through of all for us. Just from the number who want an exclusive on the LSW, that tells me they can't wait—they want it tomorrow.
``We've had more major OEMs asking us for exclusives on the LSW—that's been a very big surprise,'' Mr. Evans said. ``Even without seeing the tire and only knowing the concept and seeing the profiles and results on smaller sizes, at least four have asked for exclusives. They see the benefits.''
Mr. Evans put Titan's 1998 market share at about 11 percent for original-equipment rear farm tractor tires, and slightly higher in the replacement market. For small farm tires, Titan commands about 31 percent of the OE market—second only to Goodyear—and approximately 15 percent of the replacement market.
Once the company's three big U.S. tire plants, including its new Brownsville, Texas, factory, are ``fully cooking— look out!'' he said. ``In two years we will be the biggest player in farm tires.''
On the wheel side of the business, Mr. Evans said Titan now manufactures 90 percent of all ag wheels and 80 percent of the construction wheels in the U.S.
Agricultural equipment just keeps getting larger. Five years ago, machines of 250 horsepower were the norm. Today, the numbers have risen to the point where 425-hp machinery is available and 500-hp, four-wheel-drives aren't far off.
``We're trying to design a tire now that's going to transmit 500 hp, as farmers try to do more work in less time,'' Mr. Evans said.