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Should Tyre Maintenance Engineers be Concerned about Technology?

Posted by: Lucy Donald

CEO of California-based Tesloop Inc, Rahul Sonnad, commented recently that “In this world, tires [sic] are by far the most important ongoing maintenance cost factor”. In the United Kingdom, the average mileage of a four wheel car is roughly 8000 miles per year. That number is minuscule in comparison to the mileage output that companies at the forefront of automotive innovation, such as Tesloop, Goodyear, Michelin, et al, are hoping to achieve. Jim Euchner, Vice President of Global Innovation at Goodyear has previously endorsed the work of their technology agreement with Tesloop, stating that the next generation of mobility could involve “driving vehicles 250,000 miles a year” as “a common occurrence.”

250,000 miles a year. Right now and for the foreseeable future, this is surely something of an innovative dream; however, if such levels of automotive travel (much of which, Tesloop and Goodyear hope, will be through vehicles that are electric and at least semi-autonomous) are realised, then tyre maintenance, as Sonnad opined, will become even more important a consideration. Without tyres being continuously maintained and improved, these targets are forlorn hopes at best.

So, to what extent is technology going to affect the jobs that revolve around the maintenance and best practice of tyres? Will aspects such as speed of work divide skilled humans and technology? Can one work effectively without the other in the 21st century? And, what about the fact that tyre types and sizes are various to say the least?   

If we shift our focus slightly, from road cars to enormous industrial vehicles used in the mining industry, then tyre maintenance again rings loudly as a crucial factor regarding innovating that industry. CAT trucks, loaders, lifters, earthmovers, rock breakers, haulers, scalers, to name but a few. Enormous machines, often kitted out with heavy extensions such as cranes, ploughs, and buckets that can be filled with 2000 lbs (1 ton) of rock, and sometimes much more in the case of large CAT vehicles for example. A 2015 model Mitsubishi Mirage weighs around 1950 lbs. Driving a loader that is carrying the weight of a four wheel car is a slow, delicate process, with extreme pressure applied to tyres. Add in the tough terrain that these industrial vehicles are required to traverse – terrain that is rocky, or very muddy, or uneven and grassy (any kind of difficult off-road terrain) requires tyres that are engineered with focuses on maximum sustainability and performance. Some of these tyres are 3.5 metres wide, and simply dwarf humans in size. 

While today, many mines have a better selection of manufacturers to choose from when purchasing tyres than a decade ago, risks such as untested brands and differing levels of product can have huge repercussions on the performance of the mining crew. There is also the need to consider the compound of the tyre and the tyre size. Wear-resistant, cut-resistant, heat-resistant. Certain mines will have higher needs for certain tyre compounds, depending on the difficulty of, again, the nearby terrain, as well as the speed desired to drive, and even the climate. Companies such as Titan Mining Services took huge steps at the beginning of this decade to increase their mining tyre production capacity. Their LDR150 58/80R63 model was introduced to significantly improve machine stability and reduce swaying during peak load, this was achieved by increasing the size of the wheel and reducing the aspect ratio of the tyre. This Low Sidewall option was one of the first of its kind for vehicles such as the Cat 994. 

The availability of tyres is still somewhat of a headache for many mining operations in African countries, especially mines in more remote locations. Their tyre usage forecasting is performed quarterly and their inventories are built on-site. The ability to plan far in advanced or even before an operation begins is difficult in an industry where the key products (the tyres) are still tough to acquire. Because of the need for the tyres, plus the remote locations they must be delivered to, tyre manufacturing companies can charge astronomical prices, with some CAT tyres costing upwards of $30,000 (£24,000) per tyre. Without skilled maintenance engineers, these prices would inevitably be further increased because not having highly qualified persons to repair the tyres would lead to a situation where tyres are replaced much more frequently, thus increasing demand. 

The average road car’s tyres are much easier to design and manufacture than the tyres of the types of vehicles listed above, for many reasons – the car will frequent much smoother roads, and the weight of the car is placing less pressure on the tyres. On the other hand, the potential for high speeds undertaken by road car drivers does of course have a negative impact on tyre wear. The extreme example of this is motor racing. Think, for example, about a Formula 1 car needing its tyres changed after 20-30 laps. With tyres often damaged by pressure and heat, the maintenance or repair or replacement of tyres for any kind of vehicle provides a market for plenty of jobs in all industries. However, I will argue that, because of many reasons involving industrial vehicles, the average road car is more susceptible to being analysed and eventually maintained in the future by more advanced technology systems than a loader or an earthmover. 

In the mining industry, the above-mentioned market for maintenance engineers is very much alive. Many of WRS’s clients’ mining operations take place in countries on the African continent, where, in addition to the heavy load of the vehicle itself, as well as the immense load of earth, or materials, or mined goods that must be carried, the tyres are also straining under the immense heat that many African countries, so close to the equator, are subjected to. Tyres for these enormous vehicles – vehicles without which many mining operations would grind to a halt nowadays given the need to move massive loads – need to meet a host of requirements: resistance to wear, to heat, to impact and cuts; they need to bear comfort, have grip, flotation, traction; they must be stable, resistant to low rolling; there is a need for retreading to be performed, as well as reparation; and they must be able to travel at certain speeds while carrying the immense loads. With all of these aspects in mind, plus budget, it’s vital that a mine decides on the best option. 

There are many factors to account for when using these sorts of vehicles in the high-stake environment of an industry. If tyres are cold, they will have no grip. Therefore there is a need for tyres to be heated to a certain point; eventually, though, with the addition of usage, braking, hot weather, and pressure, the tyres will get too hot, at which point the rubber is susceptible to steady damage. Other problems include under- and over-inflating the tyres; overloading can be a deadly miscalculation. To overload a tyre by 30% can reduce its tread life by around 50%. Not only, therefore, are the jobs for maintaining and repairing these tyres vital, but there are crucial skills inherent in these jobs, of which it is very important for companies to be aware. The analytics of a tyre’s air pressure, load capability, and optimal heat, are all components that need to be considered when thinking about the best practice of a tyre, and it’s important to remember that, as far as technology is concerned, computer software is a key tool for engineers performing these tasks. This posits that the industry is not creating a divide between technology and skilled workers, but instead, because of the increasing and ever-changing demands, encouraging professionals to unite and utilise technology to their advantage. Even the types of terrain must be considered by the skilled workers of these jobs; for example, to travel downhill in one of these loaders, laden, is going to increase the pressure on the front axle, which will increase the load weight on the tyres, and lead to greater tread degradation, speeding up the need to be replaced or repaired. Instances like these reinforce the importance of having skilled maintenance engineers on hand. 

Michelin have been working very hard in their innovation plans over recent years in order to find ways to increase and eventually maximise tyre performance. Right now, they are offering two tyre models for industrial vehicles, as part of their larger X Tweel Airless Radial range. The SSL All Terrain and SSL Hard Surface are being deployed under the mantra of No Maintenance, No Compromise, No Downtime. Michelin describes these tyres as “one single unit replacing the current tire/wheel/valve assembly” and claim that once the tyre is bolted on, there is no air pressure to maintain. Testing the tyres on loaders with 2000 lbs hauls, the SSL outperformed pneumatic tyres and solid tyres on objectives such as traversing a bed of rocky rubble or rumbling over wooden beams with their laden bucket at a certain height across the board. In this video, the increased stability of the loader with the SSL tyres is easily noticeable. Michelin purports that these models enable skid steer to operate faster and with more comfort for the vehicle operator, which could reduce operator fatigue over the course of a gruelling work day. The tyres, Michelin claims, will therefore improve productivity. There is, it seems on paper then, no trade-off. But these, it is worth remembering, are for small to medium size vehicles, some of which are commercial road cars that are manufactured daily in the hundreds – not gargantuan machines capable of hauling 5 tonnes of earth. 

With Goodyear and Tesloop working together to create and validate predictive models for tyre wear using technology such as cloud-based machine learning and analytics systems, plus the work being done by Michelin in creating tyres that might redefine considerations regarding air pressure, heating, and that therefore will have a positive impact upon tyre degradation, there is certainly lots of food for thought regarding innovation in the tyre maintenance industry. Given that much of the work done so far is performed on the tyres of small to middle-sized machines, versus the continuing need in the mining industry for vehicles to become larger and larger, in order to carry more, simple practical concerns will lead to humans needing to use more technology to do almost innumerable tasks, from fitting the largest tyres, to monitoring the tyre pressures, and tyre heats and tread degradation through fitted sensors. 

However, the tyre maintenance industry is not about to suddenly bow to technology as any kind of conceivable skilled engineer replacement overnight. While airless radial tyres can offer performance advantages and can be easier to equip with sensors in order to use technology to monitor their performance indicators, a bias ply tyre, by comparison, is cheaper to purchase, and cost is a monumental concern in this industry. Inevitably, it is a factor that many companies will consider alongside the important functions of a tyre such as grip, handling, durability, shock absorption, and load capacity. There is also the need to be aware that, even if a tyre is airless, or if it is simply upgraded to be longer lasting, there is still the requirement for skilled professionals to repair punctures, cuts, turn-up. And then if the tyre cannot easily be repaired because of tread separation, impact breaks, or over deflection, then it must be replaced. Somebody, therefore, must be skilled to replace the tyre(s), and those new tyres needed to be produced in the first place. And, in reality, all of the analysis, optimisation, and deign planning is undertaken by people working with technology. Tyre maintenance engineers are very, very necessary.

While humanity’s continued onward exploration of technological innovation might inevitably soon lead to software or hardware solutions to simple tyre problems such as bad driving, inconsistent braking or accelerating, tyre spinning, poor alignment, or negative camber setup, the reality is that almost every aspect of tyre maintenance, from tread realignment to proper usage practice, to safe storage away from direct sunlight or, perhaps, gasoline, still requires a skilled engineer to perform the task, often with some kind of technology as an aid. And often more than one engineer will be required for the job. Innovation certainly has the promise to threaten certain jobs, but its arrival is still in the distant future because there is a huge opportunity within an industry like mining to see skilled professionals working using technology to their advantage to further their work. Heavy tools and equipment require software and hardware such as lift assistance, and the larger and heavier the tyres become, the more that specialised tooling will be essential in ensuring proper fitting, maintenance, and repair. Mining operations are definitely not about to lose their need for maintenance engineers. 

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