Fashion, even in the black-and-silver world of tires and wheels, is a powerful force for change.
As light truck and sport-utility vehicle owners make style statements by spending thousands to customize their vehicles with larger wheels and low profile tires, many tire dealerships are forced to invest thousands in new equipment to service this continuing and lucrative fashion trend.
``Style rules. Serviceability always comes last,'' noted David Scribner, Hunter Engineering Co.'s product manager for wheel balancers, tire changers and brake lathes. Although the popularity of larger customized wheels has been growing for a decade, only during the past couple of years has Hunter seen tire dealers buying more and more high-end equipment to service these wheel packages. Often it's due to tire dealers hearing about mounting problems or mistakes other shops encountered.
``What's driving change in the tire shops is customers-due to damage or vibration,'' Mr. Scribner said. Improper mounting and demounting of tires can damage wheels and improper balancing can cause ride vibration in the low-profile tires.
With new vehicles coming off the assembly line with few options, people are creating a customized look by installing larger wheels and lower-profile tires. The trend toward larger and larger wheels-20-inch, 22-inch, even 24-inch sizes-shows no sign of waning, according to equipment manufacturers. Tire and wheel sizes are evolving faster than manufacturers can develop the equipment, according to Mr. Scribner.
``It's creating an opportunity (for the industry), but also huge problems,'' he said. The larger tire/wheel packages produce harsher rides and higher vibration rates, yet the customers have expectations of a smooth ride. Tire dealers have to be sensitive to the high-performance needs. ``Everything has to be perfect or you run the risk of complaints and comebacks,'' he said.
If a dealership is geared up to service the large, high-end tires and wheels, it needs the right equipment. With custom wheels costing upwards of $1,500 apiece, dealerships can't afford to damage them while mounting tires.
``The typical tire dealer is not equipped to handle it. They don't have the tire changer capacity,'' said Norm Prinzo, marketing manager for Akron-based Myers Tire Supply Co.
Dealers can usually buy adapters to upgrade their existing equipment to handle sizes up to 22 or 24 inches in diameter. But diameter is only part of the issue, according to Kevin Keefe, Hennessy Industries Inc.'s group marketing manager for tire service. Other factors include proper mounting and clamping procedures and the ability to mount/demount low-profile tires.
``Some tires look like rubber bands during inflation. They are tough to seat,'' Mr. Keefe said.
Often, adapters don't offer the same features specialized changers do to handle all the situations involved with servicing high-end packages. Proper adapters are also needed for centering the wheel properly on the balancer.
One of the advantages of the high-end machines, Mr. Keefe noted, is that they are more automated than typical tire changers. Thus, the need for less ``brawn'' reduces the chance of damaging the tires and rims and lowers the risk of back injuries and other health and safety issues.
The short, stiff sidewalls of low-profile tires require more effort in seating the bead. ``Sometimes you'll see two or three guys trying to help one guy put a tire on a wheel. The new machines provide that `extra person' without a lot of physical labor,'' said Carl Pruitt, John Bean Co.'s technical support training manager. He pointed to such machines as John Bean's new EHP System 4E tire changer that features pneumatic assistance to handle wheels up to 24 inches.
Likewise, Hennessy Industries produces the Coats X model Rim Clamp tire changers to handle up to 24-inch wheels, with its 70-series changers equipped with a robotic arm to help lift the heavy wheel and get it clamped properly.
Mr. Prinzo of Myers Tire Supply noted that tire dealers who have been in the business for years are able to find ways of getting the task done right. ``The job of the equipment manufacturers is to make it easier and let the less experienced person do the job.''
He admits the equipment needed to handle up to 24-inch wheels-such as the Corghi Master tire changer his company sells-is more expensive than standard changers. But if it allows the job to be done without damaging the rims, and with the high margins inherent in such jobs, ``it very quickly pays for itself.''
For instance, a John Bean balancer costs about $5,000 and a tire changer with pneumatic assistance costs about $7,000. When weighing equipment cost vs. wheels costing $1,000 or more, ``You damage three or four wheels and you're there,'' said Mr. Pruitt.
Hunter Engineering believes there is a market demand for the proper equipment, noting that its fastest selling machine, the GSP 9700 balancer for specialty wheels, is 31/2 times the price of regular tire balancers.
``The average shop would have a coronary at that price,'' Mr. Scribner said. ``Other people insist they want it yesterday. Our sales are going through the roof.''
And even though Hunter doesn't market to consumers, the company receives calls and hits on its Web site from people seeking locations for its balancer, and its TC3500 tire changer for the high-end tires and wheels, as well.
As with all equipment purchases, a tire dealer has to determine his target market and then get the equipment that will service those types of jobs.
``The typical tire dealer is cost-conscious. They want the most for their investment,'' Mr. Prinzo said. ``If the exotic combo (tires/wheels) is a small part of the business, the cost (for the necessary equipment) is hard to justify.''
Hunter's Mr. Scribner said that the larger tires and wheels are the most profitable niche in the tire/wheel industry, but as he tells his tire dealer customers: ``If you want to do high-end tires and wheels, you have to do it right or don't do it at all.''
Even with the proper, specialized equipment in the shop, ``the machine doesn't solve the problem. It's the guy standing in front of it,'' he said.
``With the average shop today, they don't know what they're doing because they are not trained properly,'' he added. ``The customer gets all sorts of assistance from the company when people are trying to sell these tires and wheels, but satisfaction of the job squarely lies on the capability of the people doing the work.''
``There is certainly a gap in training,'' Mr. Keefe said. ``The general issue is technician turnover. Training is an ongoing need.'' In addition to turnover, tire dealers have to keep abreast of the sheer volume of information on new products continually being introduced.
There are numerous horror stories of expensive wheels being damaged during servicing. ``Ninety-five times out of a 100, it's operator error,'' noted Mr. Keefe. ``Someone didn't know the proper procedure, clamped from the inside and marred the finish, used the wrong tool. It's those problems that drive change.''
``Training is (paramount),'' said Mr. Keefe, airing the views of Hennessy and other equipment manufacturers that provide technician training. ``Half of the battle is knowing all the capabilities of the machines.''
The equipment itself needs attention, too, according to Mr. Pruitt. For example, John Bean's machines have polymer inserts in the mounting/demounting head to prevent metal-on-metal contact. But they can wear out, and often technicians fail to replace them promptly.
Likewise the mounting/demounting head is made of plastic to minimize damage to the wheel, but periodically the plastic breaks. Technicians need to check the equipment for maintenance, urged Mr. Pruitt, as a $25 consumable part is cheaper to replace than a $1,000 wheel.
Other advice for handling mounting and balancing includes:
Most aftermarket wheels are lug-centric, said Mr. Keefe, requiring the wheel to be centered on the balancer by the lugholes rather than the hub. Also, backcones can't be used on lug-centric wheels as they will cause an egg-shape balance. Proper balancing is key to eliminating vibration, he said.
Many of the specialty wheels also have high spokes and many mounting/demounting heads don't provide enough clearance so as not to damage the spokes, Mr. Keefe said. Dealers need extra tools, such as Hennessy's duckhead demounting tool for these applications.
Balancers cannot identify mechanical mounting errors caused by incorrect mounting methods or worn adapters. Correct mounting has to be verified by the technician, according to Hunter.
Weights that can be inserted on the inside of the wheel or behind the spokes can enhance the physical appearance of the wheel, said Mr. Pruitt. However, using the hidden weight method and dynamic balancing can require additional weights. John Bean's new Virtual Plane Imaging System 3 uses single plane or static balance with the minimum amount of hidden weights, Mr. Pruitt said.
``Speed is not an important factor,'' Mr. Prinzo said. ``People should slow down. There are some things you can't be in a hurry with.''
Hennessy's Mr. Keefe agreed, noting that tire dealers are under time pressure from customers. Some technicians who are unsure of how to change the specialty tires make hasty decisions and end up damaging the wheel rims.