Tough Times Lead More Fleets to Retreads

2011 Volume Expected to Reach 15.5 Mln.

By Steve Brawner, Special to Transport Topics

This story appears in the Feb. 28 print edition of Transport Topics.

The retread business is booming at Snider Tire Inc. — so much so that the Greensboro, N.C., company is building a sixth plant to fulfill its half-million yearly orders for Michelin retreads.

The recession made retreading an option for more fleets, said owner John Snider.

“Those that maybe had not retreaded, we saw people move into retreading,” he said, “and those that were already retreading, we’ve seen them extend their casing specifications to get additional retreads.”

In fact, 2010 was a good year for the retreading industry nationwide. Based on surveys of retread manufacturers, David Stevens, managing director of the Tire Retread & Repair Information Bureau, estimated that sales hit more than 15 million units in 2010 and will rise to 15.5 million in 2011.

Sales had crept up from about 13 million to 14 million units from 2003 to 2008 and then dipped to between 13.5 million and 13.7 million in 2009.

“We enjoyed a nice rebound in 2010,” said Phil Boarts, director of marketing at Oliver Rubber Co., a Michelin retread subsidiary in Greenville, S.C. “Of course, 2009 was tough enough. A lot would have looked better than 2009.”

The good times may continue for tire retreaders, who are benefiting from the nation’s economic downturn. The slump made retreading more attractive as an alternative to new tires, and rising sales of new tractors created supply shortages of new replacement tires. Moreover, better retread performance has increased industry acceptance.

“It’s a very viable option to lower costs, and I think some traditional totally new tire users have looked to retreading to lower costs in these tougher times and are finding out that they’re performing very well,” said Robert Otting, director of Bandag retread research and development at Bridgestone Bandag Tire Solutions.

At Ozarko Tire Center retreading plant in Pottsville, Ark., 16 employees are producing 140 tires a day in what typically is the slow time of the year. Earlier, when it wasn’t the dead of winter, it was 180 tires a day.

“This has been the best year we’ve ever had,” said Tim Gross, retread plant manager. “In the 25 years that I have retreaded tires, we are busier now than I can ever remember being this time of year.”

The Pottsville Ozarko center is one of several affiliated with Michelin.

The retread industry does face some challenges, including a tightening supply of casings, Otting said. Meanwhile, rising oil and rubber prices, which have caused new tire prices to spike 12% in recent weeks, will have more effect on retreads because raw materials make up more of the cost of production.

Retreads produce both economic and environmental benefits. Savings per retread generally range from 30% to 60%, and unlike other recycled products such as paper, retreads cost less than their new counterparts. Retreads also save oil, though how much isn’t known. The long-accepted figure is 15 gallons per retreaded tire, but Stevens said TRIB needs to update that number to account for new tire production processes.

Improving technologies, particularly in the casing and inspection processes, have helped retreads gain more acceptance. Among those is laser shearography, which uses lasers to photograph a tire twice (the second time in a vacuum) and then overlays the snapshots to see where the tire has shifted and where the rubber has separated from the steel. That’s a far cry — and far more reliable — than the old days, when drivers relied on a mechanic with a flashlight.

Scott Perry, group director of vehicle supply management for Ryder System, Miami, said his company retreads pretty much the entire fleet, mostly with Bridgestone tires, and about two-thirds of all replacements are retreads. With about 1.2 million tires on the road at any given time, that’s a significant commitment — but the company, which ranks No. 5 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in the United States and Canada, is confident in the technology.

“Once they go through the full retreading process and we put them on the road, we see very little degradation or deficiency of the tread package,” Perry said. “It will run its full life, and we’ll recognize the full yield until we run it back through the retread process again.”

Most of the technological advances in recent years have been incremental, and today is no different. A focus is reducing rolling resistance to improve fuel efficiency without sacrificing tread life. That focus will be important as retreaders become more involved in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay program, a move that is expected to gain steam this year.

Many compounds are allowing manufacturers to put a tougher material on the tread’s shoulder and a longer-lasting one in the center.

Retreads for wide-based tires that some companies are using to replace duals are still being perfected. While Ryder does use them in certain situations, Perry said, “I don’t have the same level of confidence in retreading a wide-base tire that I do with a standard tire.”

Tires currently are branded each time they are retreaded to produce a historical record, but Jay Hofner, general manager of commercial retread for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Akron, Ohio, said his company will start this year inserting radio-frequency identification chips in new tires with the retreading process kept in mind.

“It’s not in a position to replace those brands at the moment, but I can envision a state in the future where it all does go on the chip instead of on the sidewall,” he said.

A retreader from three decades ago would recognize the physical act of putting the tread on the tire, but many of the processes that lead up to that moment — and what occurs afterward — are quite different. In addition to laser shearography, Michelin X-rays tires when technicians can’t figure out the cause of an anomaly. Treads today are measured electronically, cut precisely and aligned on the casing. Goodyear’s seamless UniCircle tread isn’t even cut — it slips on like a rubber band.

“The basic process since when I started 35 years ago . . . is fairly unchanged but, of course, the equipment gets better — and the inspection equipment is much better,” Snider said. “But we haven’t had somebody come along with a microwave chamber where we can cure tires in 10 minutes or anything like that.”

The Ozarko Tire Center demonstrates some of those incremental advancements. The buffer can do in two minutes what once took five. The builder can do in 3½ minutes what once required five. Cure times have been reduced by higher temperatures to 96 minutes from 110. Were only one tire to go through the plant at a time, it could go from bald to roadworthy in three hours — and depending on its application, it can be retreaded three to five times.

Gross said Ozarko’s adjustment rate is below 0.5%.

It’s that kind of assurance of safety that has allowed retreading to become a vital part of tire management strategies at such companies as P.A.M. Transportation Services Inc. in Tontitown, Ark., where much of the entire fleet is running on Bridgestone Bandag retreads.

Carl Tapp, P.A.M. vice president of maintenance, said the company buys tires new with the tractor and then uses retreads for everything in the fleet outside of the steer position. The company would have disposed of tires when they reached four years of age but now, most will last three years longer.

“I don’t want to say we never buy new tires, because I buy new tires every day on the road,” Tapp said. “We only buy a new tire when we have one fail on the road.”