by Sharon Styger

In focus

Tyre innovation

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Tyre innovation has remained relatively the same over the last few decades, with only a few significant technological advancements cropping up every few years, along with some blue-sky concepts. However, of late there are several environmental, technological and market demands that are forcing the tyre industry to sit up and take note.

Tyre innovation has remained relatively the same over the last few decades, with only a few significant technological advancements cropping up every few years, along with some blue-sky concepts. However, of late there are several environmental, technological and market demands that are forcing the tyre industry to sit up and take note.

From an environmental perspective, climate change is a phrase that features all the more frequently and it is important to note the impact this has on the consumer buying decision. This can specifically be seen with Millennials and Generation Z as they have been deemed the most environmentally conscious generations. They are more likely to be the consumer that asks the question of what environmental impact the products they buy have on the world. As they are also at the helm of becoming the world’s largest buying power, tyre manufacturers cannot afford to ignore the fact that a focus on sustainability is now more important than ever.

As tyres account for a large percentage of solid waste on landfills, not only do they pose a threat when burned due to emitting dangerous gases and contributing to CO2 emissions, they also harbour a breeding ground for pests, insects and diseases. It takes an estimated 50 to 80 years for a tyre to naturally decompose, which has even farther-reaching consequences than burning the tyre.

So how does the tyre industry become more sustainable and how do tyre companies or tyre brands get the message across that they care about the environment?

For one, the recycling industry needs questioning and specifically in South Africa where REDISA has left more question marks than answers. While the organisation has recently been cleared of the corruption charges laid against its members, it is to be seen whether the industry will see change and whether positive and sustainable recycling initiatives might come from the operation reviving itself.

Rubber recycling can be very profitable and can contribute to job creation if done right and with good intention and a sound plan as to where and how the recycled rubber can be used.

In saying that, the market for recycled rubber must also first exist or in the very least be created. When looking at South Africa, it is safe to say the full scope of opportunities are not fully being explored.

Places like California use recycled rubber as an additive when laying roads. Not only does this count as recycling, but also ensures a more durable surface that has seen a decrease in road noise levels and requires less maintenance. South Africa could benefit greatly from such an initiative, especially with the poor quality and degrading road conditions faced by motorists daily.

European countries alike are using recycled rubber for outdoor playground flooring and Yellowstone Park in America, has recently gone as far as using old tyres to make an eco-friendly pavement that has been reported to reduce erosion and not disrupt the parks water cycle, as water is able to pass through the material. One could imagine endless opportunities for new public spaces, housing and corporate developments across the world.

While it cannot be argued that it is difficult to break down a tyre for recycling, as it is made up of carbon black, steel, rubber and other additives, it is being done in other countries and there is no reason why that should be the excuse to not recycle in South Africa.

Sustainability is also not limited to recycling tyres as they exist today, but also looking to new manufacturing technologies where new tyres can be made from recycled rubber and furthermore developing more sustainable and possibly biodegradable materials to make tyres with, which fortunately for future generations, many legacy brands are already exploring.

As far as technology is concerned, it is changing the way we live, work and interact with each other on a daily basis. And as vehicles become more advanced, the greater the demand becomes on the tyres that are fitted to those vehicles.

Run-flat technology was introduced to South Africa as far back as 2006 or so, but for the average consumer in the South African market, it was previously only seen as an option for the wealthy as it was fitted to premium brand cars. Today, however, with wider availability of tyre brands at highly competitive pricing, the consumer demand for run-flat tyres is steadily growing.

Fast forward to today, the electric vehicle is making headlines all over the world with the likes of Tesla and BMW producing the near perfected technology. Relative to our economy, South Africa is still far behind the curve of the electric vehicle trend, but nevertheless, the rest of the world is looking to tyre manufacturers to meet the operational demands of the electric vehicle. As it stands electric vehicles are quicker on off-take and with the increased torque require tyres that match the performance needs. One could almost say that tyres need to be re-engineered specifically for electric vehicles to meet the extra load capacity, higher performance and increased driving comfort that the new technology requires.

With automation also comes the challenge of driverless vehicles. Driverless may be the latest buzzword, but caution would also need to be exercised to believe that this technology has been perfected yet. Driverless vehicles mean that the tyres fitted require standard safety systems to be developed and installed as a crucial element of measuring tyre pressure and road conditions, where the human factor is removed from the equation. If a tyre was hypothetically to experience a puncture of some significance, the vehicle would have to know to stop driving and alert the passenger or controller. If you took this into the context of having such a vehicle in South Africa, the vehicle would also need to know where it would be safest to stop to avoid you becoming a victim of opportunistic roadside crime.

Further to the advance in vehicle technology, 3D technology is a hot topic these days with 3D printing becoming more and more accessible to the masses. 3D printing offers possibilities where current manufacturing limitations are stripped away and one could imagine having a blank canvas to work with, as far as creative and technological aspects are concerned. The only parameter that would remain is that the tyre needs to be round.

In recent years we have seen concepts of 3D printed tyres produced by the likes of the Michelin Vision, which while considered visually interesting and highly advanced is also a concept that isn’t going to be fitted to a consumer’s vehicle any time soon.

One concept that was actually put into production and has been around for years is the Polaris ATV airless tyre that was designed for military use. The inner tube was replaced with a honeycomb structure that eliminated the need for air. While it was designed to effectively carry the load of the vehicle and to be puncture proof, the open honeycomb structure also meant that mud, snow and other road debris could get trapped, causing imbalance and a lack of driving stability, not to mention dangerous heat build-up. So while it could take an award for innovation, practically the airless design needs further refinement if it is ever to be fitted to regular vehicles. On the upside, the airless design is currently being used for recreational vehicles like golf carts, ATV’s and mowers.

As far as the increasing demands from the market go, tyre manufacturers will undoubtedly find themselves being pushed beyond their comfort zones to compete in the new technological age, where things like adaptive artificial intelligence and Nanotechnology are no longer just concepts for Sci-Fi movies but will become the standard jargon used to market and sell tyres.

While innovating new concepts or disrupting the market may be the most effective ways to get ahead and get noticed, companies with limited resources could at least look at adapting to new sales and marketing technology as a step towards the future of business. The digital age is nothing short of amazing where almost anyone has access to a plethora of information or is able to buy almost anything on a mobile phone. If companies’ sales models and platforms are not adapting, and more so not doing so fast enough, businesses are going to find themselves falling far behind very quickly.

Sharon Styger

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