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Flat-Out Profitable: A Little Digging Exposes New Opportunities in a 30-Plus-Year-Old Niche Market

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Consider the power of this suggestion: No more flat tires. Ever.

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Nudging this concept into the realm of possibility is a group of products known by some as tire fill and by others as foam fill. Due to the variety of materials being used today, the most accurate term may be “flatproofing solutions.”

Simply stated, flatproofing solutions replace the air in a tire with other materials. They can take many forms – liquids, solids, foams and even rubber liners and strips. Form aside, the function of all of these products is to eliminate flats due to punctures, cuts and tears.

The concept is not new. South Gate, Calif.-based Arnco first offered tire flatproofing products in 1971. Today, 400 dealers in North America sell Arnco’s product. And, prior to the 1970s, Goodyear offered a foam filling solution known as Permafoam.

But, today and most commonly, flatproofing refers to the process of pumping polyurethane liquid through the valve stem into the cavity of a tire. This liquid “cures,” or solidifies, after about 48 hours. The result is a tire filled with a solid mass. That’s the type of flatproofing Arnco, and others, offer today.

“Someday, every new automobile on the road will be equipped with flatproofed tires,” predicts Chuck Lotocki, national sales and marketing manager for RL, a flatproofing product consisting of rubber liner inserts manufactured by Trenton, N.J.-based Hutchinson Industries. For right now, though, flatproofing solutions are limited to slow-moving vehicles in non-highway service, says Lotocki. Generally, today’s formulations work best at speeds under 35 mph because they are less able than their pneumatic counterparts to withstand high temperatures.

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That means buyers of flatproofing products for the most part include businesses that operate vehicles used in the construction, earthmoving, mining, aircraft ground support or material handling arenas, among others. Such vehicles could include skid-steer loaders, load-haul dumpers, wheel loaders, fork lifts and a host of other vehicles used in mining operations, scrap yards, steel mills and foundries. Any tire subjected to severe environments where punctures, cuts and tears are common is a good candidate for flatproofing.

Though Michelin North America maintains a neutral position on flatproofing, the tiremaker says there are many solutions available today that prevent tires from going flat. “The most common market segments for flatproofing are underground mining, waste handling and demolition – situations where tires face severe abuse,” says Michael Ford, market segment manager at Michelin’s Earthmover and Industrial Tire division. “Flatproofing encompasses multiple solutions created by multiple manufacturers,” he says.

User Benefits

The main selling point of flatproofing solutions is the promise of reduced downtime caused by flat tires. “Downtime is number one,” says Bob Giasson, director of marketing and OE sales at Arnco. To a tire dealer’s commercial customers, “downtime” is a four-letter word that means idle workers and equipment and lost productivity and profits. According to Mike Kapral, general manager of the Tire Products Division at Richmond, Va.-based Carpenter Co., the most damaging effects of a flat tire on a business are production losses, which can never be recouped. “This can make flatproofing almost a necessity in the construction business,” he says.

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And don’t forget repair costs. Arnco estimates that, for a mining operation, a flat can result in $110 per hour in lost production and idle labor. Add to that more than $1,100 to repair an average of three flats per each tire’s life, and you get a total cost of $4,425. That, Arnco says, is the total cost of flat tires to the operation. Flatproofing, Arnco claims, would cost the business approximately $1,880 per tire, saving that mine operation around $2,545.

Beyond the dollar savings, though, there’s another, not-so-obvious benefit – safety. According to Giasson, “when tires are filled with polyurethane material, they are pressurized properly at that time, and the material solidifies and never changes pressure.” That translates to a reduced risk of tire explosion.

And there’s another safety aspect some end users don’t consider. “A tire that has been flatproofed cannot blow out,” says Kapral. “This can prevent injuries to employees and increases stability of loads being carried by equipment,” he says.

Dealer Benefits

It’s easy to see how buyers of flatproofing solutions benefit. For the sellers of the service, advantages are less obvious but just as important. “There is an opportunity for dealers to make better profits in flatproofing than they can make in tires at times,” Giasson claims. For example, the generally low-margin skid-steer tire is one of the more popular candidates for flatproofing. “Dealers can increase their margins by offering flat-free skid-steer tires,” Giasson says.

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Kapral says profit margins on flatproofing can reach 40% or more and, at the same time, increase tire sales and service. “If a tire is more than 30% worn, it should be replaced before being flatproofed,” Kapral says. “If the tire dealer is smart, he can even retread the tires he has put on his customer equipment and increase profits tremendously.”

P.J. Dooling Tire Co. in Philadelphia flatproofs about 90% of the skid-steer tires it sells. According to Greg Dooling, co-owner of the commercial tire dealership, his flatproofing business has been increasing 10% each year, due mostly to recent OE approvals. Bobcat, Caterpillar, John Deere, and others have approved the use of Arnco’s SuperFlex brand of polyurethane material.

Want Flex?

Dooling says he suggests SuperFlex to customers who want to maintain an air-like ride. Key to the ride quality SuperFlex offers is its low “durometer,” a measure of hardness. Durometer determines the deflection, or flexibility, of the tire. Low durometer (softer) will result in high deflection, while high durometer (harder) means low deflection. For medium deflection, Arnco offers RePneu and RePneu II brands, and for minimal deflection under heavy loads, it offers HeviDuty polyurethane material.

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Which durometer dealers choose to offer customers depends on the application. High-durometer materials allow minimal sidewall flexing and so result in a rougher ride, but they are also more durable in very severe, puncture-prone, high-temperature environments.

Carpenter Co. offers five types of its Rely brand flatproofing product, a liquid compound that cures to a rubber core. From low to high durometer, Carpenter offers: T-8 for an air-like ride on skid steers, golf carts and lawn equipment; T-15 for flotation-type tires; medium-deflection T-25 for industrial applications; T-30 for heat resistance in severe environments, such as underground mines; and minimal-deflection T-49 for use in coal mines and steel mills, applications requiring extra load-carrying capacity and stability. An analysis of tire operating conditions should allow a tire dealer to specify the best material.

And, specifying the appropriate product can bring additional profit opportunities beyond flatproofing sales, according to Dudley Colvin, sales representative at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Synair, supplier of Tyr-Fil polyurethane filling compound. “This puts a tire dealer in the ‘go-to’ position for anybody needing this type of service, which should also include industrial tires, sealant programs and wheel service,” he says.

Though flatproofing has been around for 30-plus years, plenty of new opportunities remain. “There are still some areas where end-use customers who need our kind of product either have not heard of it or don’t know how to find it,” says Colvin. “Our dealers even amaze themselves; after selling flatproofing for many years, they still find customers that have not heard of the product,” adds Kapral.

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Be Realistic

Regardless of potential opportunity, flatproofing shouldn’t be entered into lightly. “Price, quantity, installation and removal equipment, plus scrap removal charges all enter into the profit picture,” says Hutchinson’s Lotocki.

For starters, a tire dealer looking to get into the business will have to own or have access to installation equipment. “Every tire-proofing supplier has its own equipment for installing its product into a tire,” Lotocki says. Fill-type products require an air-driven pump that injects the chemicals into the tire, while other flatproofing products, such as rubber liners, require insertion machines.

In addition, flatproofing takes time. “A tire-filled product usually takes a minimum of 24 to 48 hours to turn around,” Lotocki explains. And removing old fill can be challenging, too. “When the tire is worn out and has to be removed, the tire and tire fill must be cut off the wheel,” Lotocki states. “This process can damage the wheel.”

Further, flatproofing products must be stored at certain temperatures, so a dealer may have to maintain dedicated temperature-controlled containment rooms. Installing these products can be messy, and once cut from the wheel, the scrap fill has to be moved to a disposal site.

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Trojan Tire Inc., in Oakville, Ont., is one flatproofing supplier attempting to alleviate some of these drawbacks. The company offers its Prefill Tire Fill System, which is pre-installed in tires at its factory. Trojan Tire delivers the pre-filled tires, ready to be pressed on a wheel, to the dealer. “If a tire dealer has a press, then it requires no additional equipment,” says Chris O’Coin, business development manager at Trojan Tire.

Even so, flatproofing is still not cheap for the independent tire dealer or end user. “A typical skid-steer tire takes 142 pounds of tire fill material, for which the end user will pay up to $200 for the fill alone,” says Colvin of Synair.

“This cost, however, is more than offset over the life cycle of the tire when you consider that it practically eliminates downtime,” he says. And for a dealer’s commercial customers, eliminating downtime and increasing profits will never get old.

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