AKRON—They'll probably never supersede tires as the traction of choice out in the fields or on construction sites, but rubber tracks are gaining sales ground and popularity.
For Solideal Tire Inc., which admittedly sells a heckuva lot more tires than tracks, the latter is a small but growing part of its business.
"Our track sales are very very strong, going up exponentially each year," said Alec Hickox. He's rubber tracks product sales and technical manager for the Charlotte, N.C.-based company that specializes in industrial tires—and tracks—made with its own natural latex produced in its mixing plant in Sri Lanka. Solideal's tires also are produced in that country.
The company has been slowly, quietly building its tracks business, and that approach apparently has paid off. Without divulging specific numbers, Mr. Hickox said sales of Solideal's rubber tracks increased four-fold from 1998-99 and two-fold from 1999-2000.
As more machinery with tracks—such as large excavators or the small Bobcats used on construction sites and by homeowners—are introduced and increase in popularity, he anticipates tracks sales will continue to grow.
"Right now, we've just begun to scratch that market's surface," he added.
Mr. Hickox, who joined Solideal four years ago, established its rubber tracks program, and handles sales and training of both his in-house and dealer sales forces.
After more than a dozen years of personally testing and evaluating equipment that uses either tires or rubber tracks, he said tracks provide at least "100-percent more traction than tires" and can pull more weight than machines with tires.
Unlike its major rubber tracks manufacturing competitors in North America—Bridgestone Corp., Goodyear and Ohtsu Tire & Rubber Co.—Solideal has no original equipment contracts in the U.S. yet.
Bridgestone is the world leader in rubber tracks sales, with about a 75 percent market share, said Drew Minwegen, director of OEM products, Bridgestone Industrial Products America Inc., in Barrington, Ill. The Japanese parent of Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. introduced rubber tracks in the early 1960s originally for use on rice harvesters in Asia.
Today, Bridgestone produces tracks for all types of applications— from snow mobiles to large industrial applications—at plants in Kumamoto, Japan, Des Moines, Iowa, Shenyang, China and Bilbao, Spain.
In North America, the company has sold rubber tracks since the mid 1980s. It entered the agricultural rubber track business about four years ago and currently supplies tracks for the John Deere combine harvester and other non-powered applications, Mr. Minwegen said.
Goodyear, while a much smaller competitor in rubber tracks, sells the product worldwide and is considered the leader in rubber tracks for the ag market in North America.
While Goodyear produces fewer than 10,000 rubber tracks a year for the OE and replacement markets, it has original equipment contracts for the John Deere 8000 and 9000 farm tractors, supplies Case Corp. with all of its tracks and is OE on some grain carts, a company spokesman said.
Caterpillar Corp. supplies its own tracks for its vehicles.
Are tracks cutting into tire sales? Hardly.
The tracks market in Europe and Asia is much bigger than in the U.S., Mr. Hickox said. While in North America, agricultural, off-road, industrial and other similar tires ring up an estimated $1 billion in sales, Mr. Hickox said that, in the U.S., the replacement market for rubber tracks is between $15 million and $20 million.
The chief selling point for Solideal tracks, he said, is longevity. Under normal operating conditions, a 300-millimeter-sized track lasts about 2,000 hours, though he cautioned that overtightening a track on a vehicle can cut track life by half.
As tracks usage grows, the missing link in the sales chain apparently is the independent tire dealer. Solideal's main customers are equipment sales and rental enterprises, which purchase—and sell—most tracks. "We don't utilize tire dealers that much," Mr. Hickox admitted.
For the farm market, tracks usage is growing thanks to tracks-driven equipment made and marketed by two of the industry's big players—Caterpillar with its "Challenger" tractor series, and farm machines from Case Corp.
No matter how popular tracks may become, Mr. Hickox said end-users must determine whether tracks are the best application for their business—"otherwise, it's overkill."
On a farm tractor using single-tire setups, tracks are not economically practical. "But in some cases, when you go to duals or more tires," he said, "you're just as well off or better to go with a tracks machine."
He predicted that, within two years, Solideal will be an OE player in tracks. The company's biggest problem right now is getting enough volume to meet demand. And high demand is a predicament Mr. Hickox doesn't mind being in.