Business Matters: Tire management

Not too long ago if one of your big earthmoving machines got a flat or worn tire you could call up the dealer and have one installed and ready to roll in 24 hours. A lot of fleet managers didn’t put much thought or time into managing their tire programs. But last spring a shortage of many large earthmover tires hit the industry hard, and inventories of big tires are still slim to non-existent. For many sizes it may take a month to acquire replacements.

Rather than accept the problem or park their machines a lot of contractors, quarries and mining companies are turning to more thorough and aggressive tire management practices. With commodity prices high and construction booming everywhere, it’s really a simple choice – get smarter about how you manage your tire program or get used to idle machines and less revenue.

Time tested practices
The good news is that a lot of tire management best practices had been under development or in use at mines and large quarries for several years prior to the shortage. And the lessons learned in managing these huge tires are benefiting users of scrapers, wheel loaders, backhoes and articulated trucks as well. Plus all the major tire companies have developed or are developing sophisticated software programs that help customers track and analyze every aspect of their tire use.

“When there were plenty of tires, people were less worried about tire management best practices,” says Chris Rhoades, manager of business intelligence, Bridgestone/Firestone Off Road Tires. “But over the past five years, there has been a huge jump in the number of people who are tracking tires. Every single one of our large mining and aggregate customers and national accounts are doing tire tracking, and all of our major dealers are using it as well.”

In earthmover fleets the use of tire management practices has improved over the years but it’s still not where it should be, says Doug Jones, Michelin North America customer engineering support manager.

With the right tire management practices, the shortage need not interfere with your operations and, shortage or not, you stand to save some money on tires and unload a lot of maintenance headaches. Most fleets have some sort of tire management system, but a lot of decisions are still based on initial tire cost and not cost per mile or cost per unit of usage, Jones says.

In the past most fleets didn’t track their tire costs or implement a good system because of labor costs or manpower issues, Jones says, but that won’t cut it anymore. It’s important for a fleet manager to have a tire management program because tires are the third major expense in a fleet – right behind salaries and fuel. If any one of these are not managed properly it will be costly to the fleet, he says.

Contractors should also realize tire costs are not just what you pay for that big piece of black rubber. An unanticipated or premature tire failure also costs you labor time and diminished productivity due to downtime.

Good tire management will reduce overall operating costs, Jones says. The fleet will buy fewer tires, they will have less downtime as a result of tire issues and they will experience less vehicle damage due to tire failures that lead to consequential vehicle damage, he says.

High tech tires
Tires, despite their simple appearance, are just as much an engineered product today as any of the engines or hydraulic systems running on your equipment. They need an equal level of expert evaluation and support.

A tire is more than a black and round thing that holds air, Jones says. Tires are application specific – truck vs. earthmover, highway vs. off road, urban vs. regional, logging vs. construction, etc. Some tires are speed restricted. The load-carrying capacity and corresponding pressure requirements are different.

As a result, tire dealers offer a range of support and services, allowing you to essentially outsource your tire program management chores to the dealer. These services range from simple advice to software programs, maintenance and inspection programs, inventory tracking and tire analysis as well as schools for your technicians.

Tracking software
To help keep all this information about your tires organized and massaged into a form that makes sense most tire vendors offer software programs, everything from a simple disk that you load on your laptop or network to more robust, Web-based systems run by the dealer.

“One of the things that is hard to do is to measure what is going on out there,” Rhoades says. “If you have a good sized fleet and a lot of tires coming in and out it’s hard to get a good feel for what percentage of a tire you are using.” Yet, he adds, it’s essential today to know what your tire costs per hour are, what patterns or compounds are performing best, when it’s time to service a tire, how many spares you have and how many tires you may have in service or retreading at any given time.

“With tire tracking software it’s easy,” Rhoades says. “You put the information in once, and you can generate 50-plus reports and have the ability to run all the numbers for asset tracking. With a little bit of input you can get a lot of output, without having to do a lot of work on it.”

Another valuable function of the software is its ability to predict when you’re going to need new tires. By tracking your history the programs will alert you, for example, when the tread is at 50 percent or 25 percent. That way you can put in your order for new tires ahead of time so the shortage doesn’t catch up to you, and you don’t ruin a tire casing you want to preserve for retreading.

Software can instantly analyze the cost-value ratio of the tires you’re using. Is it better to step up to a premium tire that guards against rock damage or would you be better off sacrificing the occasional failure and run on lower cost tires? Figuring these total costs of ownership on your own would take hours of number crunching. With most tire management software programs, the answer is there as soon as you enter the data. And each bit of historical data you enter continues to refine your numbers, giving you increasingly more accurate and more useful feedback.

Back to school
While most diesel mechanics and earthmover technicians know a great deal about engines, hydraulics and drive systems, tire technology and maintenance is not something that’s taught extensively in this career field. Manufacturers understand this and have responded with everything from educational factory tours to classroom sessions for customers.

Jack Dutcher, the training manager for Bridgestone/Firestone Off Road Tires, says he’ll probably conduct 20 to 25 training classes this year. “The interest in these classes has just exploded,” he says. “It started to pick up about two years ago. Last year it was really strong. I’m now taking reservations for November and have some classes already lined up for December. I’m having to turn people down because the classes fill up so fast.”

The type of students attending his classes is also changing, Dutcher says. “It used to be all I ever got was a purchasing agent or an assistant plant manager. Now I’m getting operators, truck drivers, even vice presidents of corporations. It’s really a whole gamut of people.”

Most of these classes are conducted at the company’s training center in Bloomington, Illinois. But Dutcher says he also travels to give classes to customers around the country. The courses in Bloomington usually run two full days. Classes at customers’ sites can be anywhere from a half day to a whole day, depending on what the customer needs and has time for. One advantage of taking the classes at the training center is that it includes a factory tour – something Dutcher says greatly helps users understand the technology behind the tires they purchase.

“The No. 1 thing they walk out with is an awareness of tires,” Dutcher says. “They’re aware of the capabilities and the limitations on tires. The one thing I get across is that everything you do to help your tires last longer also helps your production. We don’t just talk about tires, but about how tires and how things like air pressure maintenance help you achieve your production goals as well.”

Goodyear also conducts training classes, both at customers’ sites and its facilities in Topeka, Kansas. To arrange for these check with an authorized Goodyear dealer. Michelin’s 12-hour earthmover tire safety program can be delivered by the Michelin Earthmover field sales team members, the company’s safety team or an authorized Michelin dealer. The advanced earthmover technical course, the three-day earthmover end user seminar, plus a dealer service seminar are all offered at Michelin’s training facilities in Greenville, S.C.

Repairs, retreads, safety hot topics
With the shortage affecting the industry a lot of tire users want to know more about repairs and retreading. “We’re encouraging people now to look at every single tire for the possibility of a repair,” Dutcher says. In the past users would discard used tires because it wasn’t economical to put a lot of money into repairing a tire that was almost worn out. Today, he says, used tires should be repaired and kept on hand as emergency spares.

Retreads are also garnering new interest. “Because the price of a retread can be anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of the cost of a new tire, in the past it was hard to get a return on your investment,” Dutcher says. Today you have to evaluate the cost of a retread vs. what it might cost you to lose a month’s worth of production on a machine that you can’t get new tires for, he says.

The No. 1 concern today, though, is safety, Dutcher emphasizes. “All of us in the tire industry are concerned there may be some tires out there running around that shouldn’t be; that users are trying to extend the life of their tires a little bit past what they should,” he says. “And we don’t want anybody crossing that line into something that’s unsafe.”

The seven habits of highly effective off-road tire managers
According to Tim Good, off-the-road global customer account manager for Goodyear, 74 percent of tire failures on big earthmoving machines and trucks are preventable. “On average only 7 percent of tires actually wear out,” he says.

With a severe shortage of big tires worldwide it’s imperative that end users do everything they can to maximize the life of every tire, Good says. Below are the steps he recommends to keep your machines rolling.

  1. Everybody has to work together for the same goal of increasing tire life. It has to be from the top down and the bottom up: management, engineering, technicians, drivers and operators. If management is pushing for more production they have to understand this will have an adverse effect on tires. Everybody has to walk the talk.
  2. Keep tires top of mind. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration gets people talking and thinking about safety around the clock. Tire awareness needs to be likewise emphasized. You have to discuss and analyze on an ongoing basis all your success and failures.
  3. Air pressure maintenance. It’s still the easiest thing to do, and the most commonly ignored. You never want to take air pressure below recommended levels, but you may have to increase it. Monitoring is crucial. If you run a tire that’s 10 percent under-inflated you lose 15 percent of the tire’s life – plus that tire is more vulnerable to damage. Warning signs to monitor are when a tire has a 20 percent increase in air pressure vs. the cold base pressure. Work closely with your dealer to obtain more information and training as to how an operation can keep this increase in pressure from happening.
  4. Keep a clean site. Survey your haul roads, loading areas and dumping areas to ensure cleanliness. Rocks can cut into a tire, become lodged in the tread and slowly work their way into the core of the tire.
  5. Inspect, record and analyze scrap tires. Make sure you get the full, safe life out of each tire before you pull it. Then analyze the tires. When a tire is removed from service and inspected you should classify why that tire was removed and record that data in a tire tracking program. This helps identify if you have an issue with operators or the equipment. Or you may find you need a different rotation cycle to enhance tire life.
  6. Set up sites and haul roads to ensure proper drainage. Water and rubber don’t get along. A dry tire is hard to cut. Spray a little water on it and a tire cuts easily. You can’t prevent rain, but you can build your sites and haul roads so water drains off. Get rid of standing water, even little pockets of water. If your operators drive through those and then over rocks, cuts are likely to happen.
  7. Don’t run uneven, unmatched tires. If you run dual tires on haul trucks a 10 percent difference in air pressure between the two duals on the rear represents an 11 percent difference in load carried by each tire. If you have a tire carrying more load, it heats up faster and heat destroys tires through separation and vulnerability to impacts. Also make sure the outside diameters of the tires stay within the manufacturer’s specified ranges. On wheel loaders from front to rear you can’t be any more than 6 percent different in outside diameter. The allowable side-to-side difference on wheel loader tires is no more than 3 percent. Because of the shortage there are a lot of people buying used tires and they could be damaging their equipment if they don’t watch that, Good says. Many people are buying whatever they can get to keep going and that’s when this becomes an issue.