The technology to track tires from cradle to grave using radio frequency waves is moving along in development, albeit at a slow pace, tire makers say.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) has received a significant buzz from the industry in recent years, particularly since the technology could help tire dealers track inventory more accurately as well as help narrow the scope of tire recalls. The Big Three tire makers all are working to bring their version of RFID technology to market and see whose device will become the industry's standard.
In the commercial tire segment, RFID tire tags are being used to monitor tire pressure and temperature, a function Michelin North America Inc. rolled out in 2002 with its eTire System. Goodyear, meanwhile, is running trial RFID tags on about 3,000 to 5,000 vehicles to test and see if its tags can last for the life of a tire, said Steve Roth, Goodyear's director of vehicle systems.
Guy Walenga, Bridgestone/Firestone's manager for North American commercial products, said he believes implementation of RFID tags probably are ``more than a couple years away'' because there is no industry standardization yet. There also is uncertainty as to whether the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will mandate tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) on truck tires. He said BFS is not rushing to get RFID devices out on the market for this very reason and wants to develop a device that goes beyond reading product codes.
``We've talked to fleets and dealers about `what if we could provide for you a way to electronically maintain inventories, do billing, read DOT numbers of product codes on tires but that's all?''' Mr. Walenga explained. ``Or what if we could do all that plus read tire pressure and temperature? Almost everybody says, `Well we'll wait until you can do tire pressure and temperature. Do everything.'''
Michelin's eTire system is an embedded sensor mounted on the inside of truck tires that monitors tire pressure and creates reports available to fleets via the Internet. That said, Michelin made it clear the technology is not ``RFID TPMS,'' but a system that uses a radio-frequency data link.
``eTire has been well-received,'' said George O'Brien, North American electronics research director, Michelin Americas Research & Development Corp. ``Michelin wants to limit the eTire introduction to make sure that it's introduced well, that we make sure that any problems that are unforeseen are taken care of. Then we'll see what the future holds after that. For right now, we're very excited with eTire.''
Mr. O'Brien noted that just as the computer makers created various PCs that weren't standardized at first until the market determined the best system, so the tire manufacturers are coming up with different ways to use RFID technology.
``There are different kinds of technology, and they will conflict at this point because it's all in the bag being stirred around,'' Mr. O'Brien told Tire Business. ``The superior combination of all those factors will win out in the long run, and the consumer is the winner. But there will be confusion initially.''
In the passenger tire sector, the auto manufacturers and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have expressed interest in tire RFID devices. The auto makers use RFID devices in their plants and would be greatly helped logistically if workers along the assembly line could instantly identify tires placed on the vehicles.
Goodyear's Mr. Roth predicted that RFID tags for original equipment tires probably would be delayed for some time while Mr. O'Brien said it was hard to say if any of the auto makers would be using Michelin's transponders soon. Mr. Roth said the OEMs probably will exhibit in future auto shows concept vehicles shod with RFID devices capable of monitoring tire pressure and temperature.
Wal-Mart has informed its top 100 suppliers that it wants RFID tags in products shipped in cases in 2005. Mr. Roth said Goodyear currently is running trials with Wal-Mart to determine the best technology to use in tires and hopes to start shipping RFID-equipped tires on a limited basis to Wal-Mart later next year.
``With tires, one of the things we have found very early on is tires are a very difficult technology to use with RFID tagging,'' he said, noting that steel, rubber and chemicals in tires affect radio transmission.
Michelin said it has tested in the past year RFID transponders that are cured in to passenger tires and has achieved ``excellent results,'' according to Mr. O'Brien. He said Michelin's RFID transponders are compatible with the Automotive Industry Action Group's B11 tire and wheel tracking standard and the ISO 18006-B standard.
Mr. O'Brien said that so far, Michelin has licensed its RFID transponders to three tag manufacturers: AWID in North America, Sharp in Asia and iTICO in Europe. The transponders are capable of storing tires' DOT codes and also are able to be used as a substitute for bar codes.
Yet, Mr. O'Brien and a Michelin spokeswoman acknowledged that although the tire maker's transponders are available for market and cost approximately $2 a piece, Michelin has not sold a passenger tire with an RFID transponder embedded in it.
``No one has asked for it; therefore no one has paid for it,'' he said.
Mr. Roth said that Goodyear's RFID tags for Wal-Mart could cost anywhere from 50 cents for disposable tags up to $5 for more durable ones. Both Goodyear's and Michelin's passenger RFID devices are designed for identification purposes, though Michelin's Mr. O'Brien said his company's transponders have unused capacity to read additional information.