ST. LOUISIn the world of tire changers, the machines are becoming so automatic, even a low-skilled technician can operate them.
This trend could create a cost-savings for dealerships in the long run, according to Hunter Engineering Co. Granted the highly automated machines are expensive, but conversely, the dealership saves money in wages, manhours and injuries when working with premium, low-profile tire-wheel assemblies.
Previously these difficult assemblies would take a lot of training and you had to understand what you were doing. And ultimately it ended up being a multiple-technician sort of operation, said Greg Meyer, product manager for wheel balancers for Hunter. You had two or three guys with levers come over and help you and you'd be manhandling the tire, especially these runflats and very stiff assemblies, very low-profile assemblies.
So now the new tire changers change the simplest tires and the most difficult tires the same way and can be done with very little training.
He told Tire Business that the industry is moving toward using more premium machinesknown as leverless designsbecause the wheels are becoming more challenging and more difficult to install. There are even completely automatic tire changers that are essentially robotic and do the entire tire changing for the technician.
For example, Hunter's automated tire changer, the Revolution, which it introduced in 2013, includes on-board training videos on a touch screen. The technician can toggle between videos and languages, increasing the ease of use and reducing the level of skill required to change high-end, increasingly difficult wheel and tire assemblies, he said.
Yet another benefit of the automatic tire changers is that it forces you to tell it where the TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) sensor is, guide you to it and then it makes sure throughout the tire-changing process that the sensor is not damaged, Mr. Meyer continued. You can do that with any tire changer, but there's a skill level required. The automatic machines basically eliminate that skill requirement.
He admitted that while automatic changers are a lot more expensive than basic tire changers, they provide several cost-savings over the long run.
One main advantage is that the automation allows anybody in the shop to use that machine, he said. (It) allows lower-skilled technicians to use the machine, so you basically pay the machine off by having it operated by lower-skilled technicians (at a lower pay rate)...and that is one way to offset that cost.
Considering the industry's problem with high technician turnover, with this machine it doesn't really matter who you have operating it, you don't need to pour the time and effort and training into making sure they can effectively change these difficult assemblies, said Madeline Triplett, Hunter's marketing manager.
With automated machines, every type of tire is changed the same way. By doing everything the same way, it's a huge advantage for the tech because he learns how to change one tire and then they all work the same way, Mr. Meyer said.
Another advantage is the tire changer doesn't require two or three technicians to work on a single tire, allowing those extra techs to work on other jobs.
The machines also reduce the chances of damage to the TPMS sensors or the wheelexpensive mistakes tire techs can make that end up costing a shop the entire profit, and then some, of a mounting job, Mr. Meyer noted.
Another wildcard is injuries. Tire changers, especially the tire changers that use the tire irons and levers, those are notorious for injuring technicians. These new machines can greatly reduce the chance for injury. So you could change tires all year and have one injury and be giving away all your profits from that operation, Mr. Meyer said.
So there are several ways to rationalize and offset that cost (of the automated machine).... Some of those are harder to put down on paper and say it's going to save me X-dollars, but the costs are very real to these shops.
The added technology also helps reduce mechanical damage to the machine. Mr. Meyer noted that with older tire changing machines, you could do lots of crazy things that did damage the machine mechanically. But now with the more advanced machines, they don't allow you to do that. So there's a big benefit to that....
Overall I think you're going to see failure rates go down because the chance for machine abuse is reduced significantly.
Issues facing tire changing are affecting tire balancing as well, Mr. Meyer said. These low-profile assemblies also are affecting ride quality of the vehicles, so a lot of balancing is not just balancing anymoreit's also balancing with diagnostics. We need to make sure that not only is the wheel balanced but that it also rolls smoothly when it's on the car.
So what we're seeing is a growing percentage of balancers that are not just basic balancers anymorethey're also considered diagnostic balancers.
Diagnostic balancers, such as road-force balancers, feature a roller that pushes against the tire and as the tire turns, the machine essentially puts the tire through a test drive on the balancer.
The diagnostics indicate whether the tire is manufactured acceptably, installed correctly on the rim and if the rim is bent. We can test for all those things with this diagnostic test drive that the machine takes, Mr. Meyer said.
The tech doesn't have to understand how the diagnostic balancer works. When the cycle is done, if the machine registers excessive road force, it walks the tech around the tire and shows where to mark the rim and tire for proper positioning on the changer to optimize road force, he said.
He added that there is very marginal skill level required for a tech to operate a diagnostic balancer compared with a basic balancer.
Another issue regarding tire balancing is the industry's pending abandonment of lead wheel weights due to government regulations.
Unfortunately, the substitute steel and zinc weights are more expensive, Mr. Meyer said, causing shops to be more concerned about how many wheel weights they use.
There is a growing use of tape weights inside the wheels, which affects balancing, he said.
When shops used clip weights exclusively in the past, the balancers had an easier time of achieving a proper balance because the clips were as far apart as they could be on the outer edges of the wheel, he said.
When you switch to tape weights, they're closer together and that makes it more difficult to achieve a good balance. So we actually have a proprietary algorithmwhich we call SmartWeightthat optimizes that process and using the best balance results. As a side effect, it uses less weight than the traditional balancers as well.
Another trend in balancing is the use of collets to replace traditional cones for centering the wheel assemblies more accurately on the machine.
Mr. Meyer said the collets have a split taper that does a better job of centering and are less likely to damage the wheel.
Collets are relatively new but becoming commonplace, he said, noting that Hunter actually stopped making cones at the start of the year. We've gone to collets because they've proven to be far superior in the field.
Mr. Meyer said that despite the sluggish economy, tire dealerships have been buying new equipment for their shops.
We've seen a lot of investment going on. This is a very good time for them to take a look at their processes and improve them and become more efficient and become better at doing business.
Traditional assemblies of the past are going away and everything now is run-flat and low profile, Ms. Triplett said. If you have a standard-type conventional tire changer, you're great and just as fast as an automatic with conventional wheels.
But conventional wheels are not the normal anymore. The normal is specialty wheels. (The automatic tire changer) is a lot faster overall for what you're actually going to see out there in the shop, she said.
We did a survey of all the wheels and tire assemblies out there and found that the standard tire assembly, the average one, is 50-series profile or lowerwhich back 15 years ago, a 50-series tire was a very low-profile assembly, and now that's the norm. The business has changed quite a bit, Mr. Meyer said.
To reach this reporter: [email protected]; 330-865-6127; Twitter: @kmccarr