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Inside Information: RFID Technology Bolsters Tire Management

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Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology isn’t new. But when it comes to using RFID technology to track truck tires instead of a skid of laundry soap, what’s old is becoming new again.

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At his trailer yard in Moses Lake, Wash., Lee McGraw, equipment maintenance manager for regional carrier LTI, scans the tires on 21 tractors and 55 trailers.

By simply swiping a device over the tires, McGraw can track mileage, tread depth, tire wear, inflation pressure, tire temperature, inventory and specific tires on specific wheel positions.

McGraw says he scans every Michelin X-One truck tire from the moment it enters his inventory until it is scrapped out. “At least that’s the plan,” he says. ®The Michelin eTire system we®™ve installed hasn®™t been in place long enough to let us run through a full tire life cycle.®

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Nevertheless, McGraw says scanning tires for identification, air pressure, temperature and longevity is an exciting business tool. “It’s a lot like our oil sampling program for truck engines. Regular oil analysis tells me what’s going on inside the engine and helps me be more proactive. I use eTire the same way.”

Electronic Tires?

When McGraw talks about “e-tires,” he means those equipped with special internal sensors and external readers. When a new Michelin tire arrives, his tire dealer vulcanizes a Michelin eTire sensor and docking station inside the tire. ®It takes 24 to 36 hours for the process to be completed,® says McGraw.

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Data about each new tire – cost, brand, type, TIN, vehicle and wheel position, vehicle mileage, and preferred inflation pressure ®“ is entered into McGraw’s database, and tracking begins. One important data element in this process is beginning price. “It®™s imperative that the beginning price is in there,” says McGraw, ®because when this tire is taken out of service, I®™m going to have an end price. That®™s the only way I’m going to come up with an accurate cost-per-mile measurement.®

To that end, McGraw scans any tire that comes out of service for such things as a nail hole repair. When the repair work is done and the tire is put back into service, the cost of the repair work and out-of-service time for that tire is entered into his database.

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“The end result is that I am going to have an accurate cost-per-mile number for each tire plus the cost-per-32nd of tread depth,” he said. ®Further, we will know what tire tread design and what tread depth work best at each wheel position.®

Data Gathering

McGraw says each LTI tire is scanned every time a rig comes through the yard and/or the shop. “My tire service man checks every tire on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and my mechanics scan the tires every day as time permits.”

How do McGraw’s employees know which tire, power unit or trailer to scan? “The eTire sticker on the sidewall is the first clue,” he said. ®If it®™s there, we scan the tire. We have also mounted a plastic registration box on power units and trailers on which tagged tires are being used. This provides another visual signal that there are tires on the unit that require scanning.

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“Each employee uses a hand-held scanner, which sends data directly into my computer,” says McGraw. According to Michelin, available RAM in one of these hand-held scanners can store data for up to 1,000 vehicles a day. The software is available from Michelin dealers for use with any truck tire brand.

“Of course, when we set up a unit (rig), we designate what cold tire pressure we want, plus or minus three pounds,” McGraw explains. ®The sensor in the tire is designed to give us a cold pressure reading, even if the rig just pulled in after a long run.®

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This ability to monitor live inflation pressures has already delivered considerable savings to LTI. “We have not had a blowout on one of our eTires since the system was installed a year ago,” he said. ®Our belief is that this is the result of technology that lets us constantly monitor inflation pressures.

“This is huge because a blowout usually means the tire has taken out part of a fender or the light boxes, and the truck is sitting on the side of the road, logging nothing but downtime,” says McGraw.

To get the most out of the system, McGraw says, an additional sensor must be placed on each power unit and trailer. “This is how we track power units and trailers and eTires,” he says, particularly which tires are on which vehicle and at which wheel position.

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Although he still has to deal with inputting errors and tires that weren’t initially scanned into the system, McGraw believes the upside, ultimately, is downright exciting. “I®™m being told right now that the next generation sensors will be more like barcodes. They will tell me who built the tire, what kind of rubber is being employed and even when I can’t reuse or retread a tire that has been taken out of service.”

Tire Intelligence

No matter what you call them – tire tags, computer chips and now RFID tags ®“ the ability to extract critical performance data (primarily live tire pressure and temperature data) has been a decades-long search for tiremakers and independent firms alike.

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Over the last 10 years, the industry has seen many fits and starts, claims and promises, but little in the way of practical, useful and cost-effective results. Issues such as transmitter type and size, weight and placement, battery life and data-capture methods have haunted most attempts at a workable solution.

Meanwhile, tire identification and recordkeeping software solutions have advanced greatly, creating a technology convergence that has made development of the “intelligent tire” a priority. At least in some quarters.

Decision-Making

With the help of their tire dealers, fleets, like LTI, that have been actively using or testing available systems quickly see that the real cost benefits are far more impressive than just eliminating time-consuming yard checks.

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“Armed with the right information, we can pick the right tire for the right wheel position,” says McGraw. ®For the first time, we are able to use black and white numbers to help us really manage our tire assets.

“This is only the embryo, the prototype of a system that will soon tell me everything I need to know. The trucking industry has been waiting a long time for this, and I’m a big proponent,” says McGraw.

So far, Michelin North America is the only tiremaker actively offering an RFID solution to fleets. However, its eTire System can be used with any brand or type of truck tire, giving all tire dealers the opportunity to integrate electronic data collection and reporting technology.

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“Our goal is to give our tire dealers the opportunity to offer fleets a total tire maintenance program,” says Michael Burroughes, product portfolio manager for Michelin Americas Truck Tires. ®They’ll take that responsibility away from busy fleet people. We look at it this way: The fleets excel at logistics; we excel at making tires and the systems needed to get the most out of our tires.®

RFID Challenges

At Goodyear, optimism is equally high, but with a dose of reality introduced by Al Cohn, technical marketing manager for commercial tires.

“We’ve tested RFID technology, and it works,” he says. ®My only question is: Are fleets willing to pay the $3 or $4 per tire it takes to have the system? This technology has been considered for a long time, and we®™ve all had a long look at what it can do. To this point, the indication has been that fleets aren®™t interested in paying that much.

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“As I see it, the challenge is retreadability,” continues Cohn. ®If RFID technology can pay off in more retreads, particularly with the new generation super wide tires, fleets will be more willing to buy in. For now, I think it’s a wait-and-see proposition.®

Meanwhile, Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire (BFNAT) is working on what it calls “very sophisticated electronic tags.” These will be active, not passive, meaning they will have the ability to broadcast data in real time thanks to transmitters embedded in the tags.

BFNAT’s tag “will be able to tell a fleet owner and dealer the inflation pressure in the tires, the tire temperature as well as the tire®™s unique identification number,” says Guy Walenga, engineering manager for BFNAT commercial products. ®It can also identify if a tire is running underinflated.®

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“We look at the tag program as a maintenance matter,” says Walenga. ®Tires will be scanned at the yard/terminal entrance. The fleet will know instantly which tires are OK and which tires need attention. Also important, our tags will work in anyone’s tire,® claims Walenga.

“We’ve had this technology available for a while now and have continued working on precisely what fleets need to know,” he says. ®That is now in place.®

Asked why his company’s tag program is not yet in the marketplace, Walenga noted that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has yet to issue its final judgment on tire pressure monitoring systems for passenger and light truck tires.

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Once that happens, “we’ll have a better idea of how to make our truck tire tag system comply with government and safety group expectations,” says Walenga. ®Until then, we’re going to wait for NHTSA®™s ruling.®

For truck fleets and their tire dealers, the RFID equation is a simple proposition: Fleets can buy into an active or passive RFID system immediately, or they can wait until the cost comes down, as it always does for new technology.

The good news is the technology appears to be paying back dividends for those who employ it – the early adoptors, as they say. The real question is what will the competition ®“ dealer or fleet ®“ do®ƒand when?

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