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Brains Match Muscle: The Intelligent Tire

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Brains Match Muscle
as Tire Chips Finally Hit the Market

The Intelligent Tire. Many see it as a myth, an unworkable idea with no real world merit. 

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Others see it as the wave of the future, a screaming-to-be-born combination of technologies that will solve so many tire maintenance matters.

It’s no secret that tire manufactures have been looking into tire chip technology, especially when it comes to OTR tires. Scientists and engineers are probably locked away in rooms right now dreaming up the best methods and applications for a so-called smart tire.

Just picture it: a tire that tells the vehicle operator when it needs to be serviced. No guessing, no field checks. No devastating accidents such as the recent one in Chile where an under-maintained tire exploded, crushing the floor of the cab into the ceiling.

No, just a tire from which a quarry, mine or construction fleet can get maximum life and value.

Born out of the medium truck tire segment, the idea for a microchip-based pressure and temperature monitoring device built into a tire has been perfected only as fast as Silicon Valley will allow. Five years ago, existing technology got the chips down to the size of cigar box, way too big for an 11R22.5 and barely acceptable for even a 57-inch haulage tire.

Today’s chips are about the size of a hockey puck, still a long way from the dime size most agree will work on over-the-road truck radials, but just right for most critical OTR tire applications.

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Several tire manufacturers are in various stages of development with their individual tire chip technologies. Goodyear and Michelin have already gone to market. Yokohama and Bridgestone/Firestone have technology in development and will come to market in the near future. Continental General is evaluating all available technologies and will begin a program from there.

"We knew there was a need for this technology to further help customers reduce tire costs, and this is one of the avenues we took to help them reach that goal," said Tom Ford, general manager of Goodyear Global OTR Tires.

"We’ve been researching this technology for five years now," said Terry Martin, technical sales manager, about the Michelin Earthmover Management System (MEMS). "It’s in nine sites in 22 installations in North America, South America and Australia. It’s installed in four truck models of Caterpillar and Komatsu, and has logged 78,000 truck hours."

Functionality
The theory behind tire chip technology is an interesting one.

Onboard microcomputers – attached to the interior of a tire – monitor everything that happens to the tire. Tire temperature, pressure and load. The system is designed to reduce downtime, extend tire life, eliminate field checks and – most importantly for everyone involved – save money. According to Michelin, MEMS can provide an 8% cost savings, while moving additional tonnage thanks to reduced downtime.

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Most manufacturers’ systems operate on basically the same level. The chips are located inside the air chambers of the tire and monitor what’s going on with the tire. That information is then transferred to an onboard receiver mounted somewhere on the haul truck or loader and/or to monitors in the fleet office.

"Operators can now see, on a real-time basis, which tires are getting hot, and adjust routes accordingly," said Darrin Landes, a Goodyear OTR engineer. "This is the most significant benefit of the system, since excessive heat is the tire’s worst enemy."

Bridgestone/Firestone’s (BFS) system is slightly different in that there is no onboard receiver. The vehicles must pass through a fixed gate reader where the tire chips are scanned and the information is then transferred to the fleet office.

"The fixed gate reader communicates with a vehicle’s tag as it drives past," said Jeff Asay, marketing manager of technology services for BFS. "This information is then fed to a network server and placed on a secure Web site.

"The information can then be accessed by anyone with a secure ID and password from anywhere in the world. Picture a purchasing agent in Arizona monitoring tire performance in Chile."

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These tire chip systems are designed so that if all the different aspects are functioning within the acceptable parameters, nothing needs to be done with the tire. If there is a problem with a tire, a computer is alerted to what the problem is – be it low pressure, high temperatures, etc. – and the customer can fix the problem before it cascades into something much larger and more expensive.

"Our OTR chip will be able to monitor the temperature inside the tires," said Steven Yumoto, manager of corporate planning for Yokohama. "Using the chip in the tire, there will be a warning indicator and recordkeeping system inside the vehicle and at the operator’s office. This means the operator will have no need to check the tires unless the warning indicator flashes."

"These tires are big and expensive, and MEMS allows us to avoid failures," said Martin. "All tires eventually fail from heat and if we can identify this condition, we can take action in the mines or quarries. An employee can sit in the control room and see the pressure and temperature of the tire on a computer screen.

"The first level indicates a potential problem. The second level says you need to take some action, and the third says stop the vehicle and have it serviced immediately."

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Of course, with any technology such as this, it has to withstand a lot of punishment. After all, when you’re moving earth out of a quarry with a 240-ton truck, a computer chip is going to take a beating.

"One of the key considerations for the intelligent tire is the environment in which these tires operate," said Ford, explaining how robust tire chips needs to be. "There are very brutal conditions and almost-continuous use in all types of weather, from extreme heat to intense cold, and overloading in not uncommon. In fact, it’s very common."

BFS concurs with the computer taking a beating in extreme conditions. "Durability and accuracy come to mind for the actual hardware and in-tire device when it comes to design parameters," said Asay. "It’s important to note we are talking about technology that must last anywhere from two to five years with no maintenance. The electronics absolutely must be as durable as the tires themselves."

Flooding the Market
It seems that in any market – tire-related or not – once a product comes out that is widely accepted and useful, there is a rush of imitators and look-alikes. The OTR tire chip market is no different. As stated earlier, several manufacturers are developing their individual tire chips, and while they all sound alike, they are only similar in that they look to reduce costs for OTR equipment fleets.

However, it does seem natural that there will be a rush to market from these and other manufacturers. The chips currently in use have proven their mettle and if designed correctly, they can be a huge asset for a mine, quarry or heavy construction operation.

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"I think industry manufacturers are already tripping over themselves to get a product out the door," said Asay. "But, like the space race, Sputnik was first but Apollo closed the deal. The true challenge is creating a value that a customer can see and touch for years to come."

And that type of thinking is what could prevent some manufacturers from simply shoving product out the door and into OTR tires. Their tire chips have to be right, they figure. They have to work. They have to deliver useful information, in the right way and for the right people.

This will not be an overnight market.

"This type of product requires the highest technology in terms of product life, durability, cost and size," said Yumoto. "Most of the customers who would want the chip would want the latest and greatest technology, but might be hesitant since the product is still under development. We do not think it will be easy to spread it to the market, but the potential is high.

"The testing and evaluation on Yokohama’s tire chip has been done, but the chip is not ready for the market. At this time, we can’t say when we will bring it to the market, possibly within two years."

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Practicality Issues
On the surface, it sounds as though the OTR tire chip will be the greatest thing to hit this market in a long time. But will it really be that practical? Once all the chips have come out, can it change the market?

For tire manufacturers to dream up this kind of technology, they obviously see a practical use for it on the near horizon. So would most equipment owners if it proves to be as cost-effective as promised. "Any improvement that reduces downtime and increases the working capacity of these trucks is cost-effective," said Goodyear’s Ford.

"Our chip for OTR tire products can monitor the temperature on the tire, which will allow our customers to avoid failure on the tire from high temperatures," said Yumoto. "They can locate the low pressure areas of the tire. Plus, they can use this technology to possibly find any trouble in the motor and braking systems. Or they can use the results to study operating conditions."

The ability to continually monitor the tire and the vehicle is a major selling point of tire chip technology. "Pressure management is really the leading use for this technology," BFS’s Asay said. "We believe a substantial number of tire problems, equipment downtime and excessive tire wear are due to underinflation. What better way to eliminate this needless low-tech obstacle than to place a gauge inside a tire 24/7. The daily increase in productivity realized by checking a vehicle’s tire pressure in seconds rather than minutes will pay immediate dividends."

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But At What Cost?
The only question remaining with tire chips is cost. Yes, it will reduce the operating expenses for an OTR equipment fleet operator, but will they be able to afford the technology?

"In this hyper-competitive industry, I don’t know how anyone in the industry could produce a sales proposition that won’t meet a customer’s cost/benefit litmus test," Asay said. "An effective tire monitoring system will sharply reduce equipment downtime and allow our customers to work smarter. We will price according to that model."

If the chips prove their worth, reduce operating costs and are reasonable to install, mines and quarries – the primary target customers – should be lining up to purchase them. And if mines and quarries are getting in line to make such a buy, then maybe the rush to market will pick up, with technology improving and costs going down.

"Every mine that we go to, when we make the presentation and show the savings that can be achieved, they want us to install the system," said Martin of MEMS. "The only thing slowing us down is that the electronics cannot be produced quickly enough.

"This will change the business as far as mines and quarries are concerned because it’s not only saving costs, but it has a built-in safety factor that isn’t there right now."

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But could this OTR tire technology develop into other large tire markets, like aircraft or military applications? And would those markets be receptive to something like this? The answer is a vague maybe.

It will certainly be years – even decades – before tire chips are prevalent in passenger and light truck/SUV tires. But it may not be too long before commercial trucking fleets see their first tire chip efforts.

"We’re working on similar technology for medium commercial truck tires, aircraft tires and other types of tires," said Goodyear’s Ford. Michelin and BFS are also working feverishly on a practical chip for medium truck tires. Yokohama has also gone in another direction, according to Yumoto. "Yokohama has been working on the microchip technology for quite some time and has already released the product for conveyor belts, rubber fenders and aircraft parts."

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