As we all know, tire design is a unique and complicated mix of chemistry, physics and engineering that results in products that provide high performance, reliability, comfort and safety.
Tire companies are always looking for new ideas and innovations in tire development.
They all want to be known as the technical innovator or leader in the industry. The company that achieves this gains a competitive edge and its new tires are then perceived by customers as being more competent as well as being the latest and greatest.
Also, we all realize that tire prices are very competitive. Some people think that bringing out something new is the only real way the industry can get a price increase. But even that's debatable.
Designing from scratch
Perhaps you've wondered, as I have, how tire companies keep coming up with new types of tires and designs.
On the passenger and light truck side, tire makers work closely with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to develop tires specifically for certain vehicles in order to enhance their performance. Those tires often are used to make the vehicle perform better or to meet rigorous targets defined by either market demands outlined by OEMs or legislation.
In the early stages of basic product design, a tire company starts by designing tire models that are likely candidates for a specific vehicle whose requirements are included in the tire specifications. After a series of simulations and finite element analysis is done, a development mold is produced and tires are tested on their various performance parameters.
The automobile company issues a ``Request for the Design and Development of Parts'' that lists the specifications the tires must meet. The OEM selects the model of tire it believes is right for its vehicle, then tests it to determine how it performs in comparison to what it wants.
Joint testing between the OEM and the tire supplier is arranged to further define and refine the product requirements. The tire supplier then works on improving any performance areas that are weak, and joint testing continues until the tire is the best possible fit for the vehicle.
As you can see, there is a lot of involvement by the auto makers in tire development for cars and light trucks. However, this is usually not the case for commercial truck tires.
In the trucking industry, truck manufacturers are really simply component assemblers. (Don't tell them this, because it would probably hurt their feelings.) They usually build trucks and ask their tire suppliers to provide the tires that have some specific qualities to handle the characteristics of the application in which they are going.
There usually is no joint testing involved and only a limited list of specifications is required that is defined by the application. A tire company that is ``standard'' with an OEM usually has, at the OEM's facilities, an engineer who works with the truck-engineering group to select the proper tires as well as handle any problems with product, supply and logistics.
Occasionally new tires are designed to fit new vehicle designs. Usually this is the result of a joint collaboration of the tire companies and the engineering group at the OEMs. For example 19.5-inch low-profile tires were designed for mid-size trucks in specific applications that fleet customers were entering. Those required lower floor heights and total vehicle redesign.
Tire companies also get ideas for new tires from other countries and applications and transfer technology into the U.S. from other parts of the world. For example, low profile tires were first used successfully in Europe for several years before the tire companies introduced them to the North American market.
Often, new ideas come from a major improvement in tire chemistry or design. When a tire company invents or develops a new polymer, cord, belt or bead construction etc., it then looks for a tire that could really be improved with the inclusion of the new material.
The new wide-base tires take advantage of a new belt construction that greatly improves the durability of these tires and the new bead design allows the tires to be the same overall diameter as low profile 22.5s so that they can easily be retrofitted on a vehicle.
Fleets spur ideas
New tire ideas really originate more from fleets than OEMs.
Fleets provide the push for product innovation by making performance demands. For example, fleets felt the squeeze in higher diesel fuel prices and tire companies responded to their cries by developing lines of low rolling resistance, fuel-efficient tires.
Another example of this occurred a few years ago when air ride suspensions used on tandem drive tractors began to be used more but caused excessive irregular wear on the drive tires. As a result of fleet complaints on tire performance, we now have the new type of closed-shoulder design that eliminates this wear.
Expect these tires to continue to grow in popularity since air suspensions are becoming the preferred suspensions on new trucks today.
Tire companies acquire good fleet input by developing working relationships with fleets in particular market niches specifically for tire development reasons.
They test and closely monitor tires at these fleets and obtain performance feedback. Not only do they get the statistical analysis that they require for product design, but they get anecdotal information from drivers, mechanics and fleet operators who address customer satisfaction issues.
Tire companies really listen to these fleets and take what they have to say to heart.
Unfortunately, owner-operators have little input into tire design since they are so hard to reach and communicating with them is difficult.
Occasionally some input is obtained from proactive owner-operators who send information to the company on their tires' performance.
Issue of loyalty
Now the big question you're probably asking is: ``With all the attention that tire companies give fleets and OEMs, just how loyal are these customers to their tire suppliers?''
That's a good question, and I'm glad you asked it.
It used to be that both OEMs and fleets would switch tire suppliers if another guy came along with a lower price. But that's not so much the case today. Fleets are not as price sensitive as they once were. They are now more in tune to cost per mile and are concerned about logistics and supply issues.
They are looking for dealers and/or company-owned stores to handle their inventory and retread program as well as provide extended warranties and technical support. They're less inclined to change tire suppliers for price alone.
The OEMs also have more things to consider than just price. They choose a tire supplier based on price, quality perception, supply, product availability, variety of tire offerings and exclusivity agreements. They also want tire products that enhance their trucks' reputations rather than present barriers to truck sales to their customers.
Companies that supply tire mounting services and have the complete responsibility for providing uniform tire/wheel assemblies to keep the production line going reliably are preferred at many OEMs.
Lastly, long-term capacity limitations are a big concern. Jumping from one supplier to another could result in tire shortages if the new supplier does not have adequate truck tire capacity.
And there is not a lot of excess capacity in truck tire production since molds are so expensive.
However, a big advantage in one company's tire performance as well as price could be enough to encourage an OEM to jump ship.
If you want your tire supplier to be perceived as the leader in tire technology, pass on to it any information, complaints, problems or suggestions on tire performance that your fleet customers dump on you.
They might just be the seed of a new idea in truck tire development.