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Perfect Fit: Matching Tire to Application Even More Critical in Broad Industrial Tire Market

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Matching Tire to Application Even More Critical in Broad Industrial Tire Market

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Sometimes, when a person widens his or her view of something, that something tends to expand and take on a life of its own. After all, perception is reality; it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

So it goes with industrial tires. When tire dealers widen their expectations about this market, its profit potential follows suit.

Traditionally associated with tires for forklifts – also called lift trucks – the industrial tire segment does indeed serve owners and operators of this standard manufacturing, warehouse and distribution-center equipment. But, industry insiders point out that the segment is actually much broader.

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To Charlotte, N.C.-based Solideal USA, for example, industrial tires are defined not only as tires for forklift trucks but also tires for ground-support equipment, hand trucks and rough-terrain equipment, according to Darren Stratton, product manager of wheels.

And, Superior Tire in Warren, Pa., defines an industrial tire as “any tire used in manufacturing or distribution of goods,” according to Hank LeMeur, president. Superior Tire produces tire and wheel assemblies for a broad range of end-user applications, including personnel lifts, automated guided vehicles, industrial mixers and even floor maintenance equipment like sweepers and scrubbers. The manufacturer also produces load wheels and casters for motorized equipment.

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In addition to forklift tires, Maxxis International USA also includes mining and loader tires in its industrial segment definition, according to Scott Griffin, the company’s specialty tire manager.

Sub-Segments

Within this broad definition of industrial tires are the sub-categories of original equipment and aftermarket. Unlike other niche tire markets, industrial OE and aftermarket tire demand don’t always see eye to eye. “The aftermarket is still growing into 2007, although not as fast as previous years,” says Stratton. “Solideal is currently seeing sales growth that exceeds the rate at which the market is growing,” he adds.

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But, “the OE market is a different story, with the market declining to pre-2005 numbers,” says Stratton. Overall, “the material handling market is projected to see little growth until 2009, with significant opportunities in the polyurethane and load-wheel markets,” he continues. “Historically, the population of Class 5 lift trucks has grown faster than all other classes, but total sales of Class 3 exceed all. The trend is projected to continue.”

LeMeur sees the market a little differently. “Demand for industrial tires, at the OE level and in the aftermarket, has been strong for the past four years,” he says. “Sales growth to OEMs for the past several years across a range of equipment, from manlifts, to fork trucks to specialized construction equipment, has averaged in excess of 15% per year in units.

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“Aftermarket demand has been similarly strong,” he continues. However, “it is reasonable to expect a slowing of this growth in the next 12 months, and we have begun to see a drop in our ‘book-to-bill’ ratio in the last month.”

So, what does this mean to independent tire dealers? Put simply, those that maintain a broad view of the market and keep up with the latest equipment trends will be the ones that survive the ups and downs of the OE and replacement markets.

And, the best way to gain this kind of market intelligence is to start with the basics. For forklift tires, there are generally two options: press-on (solid rubber or polyurethane) or pneumatic. Within these categories, there are also pneumatic-shaped solids and non-marking tires, according to Stratton. “Press-on tires are generally used for indoor applications, where the floor is smooth,” he explains. “Pneumatic tires are designed for use outdoors on uneven or loose surfaces.”

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“A pneumatic tire will cover uneven terrain and offer a softer ride,” adds Griffin, while solid tires result in a rougher ride. That can negatively affect forklift operators carrying delicate loads or those operating on rough floor conditions. And, this is a serious consideration today, as more warehouse managers are demanding ergonomic lift trucks. Just like over-the-road commercial fleets, small forklifts fleets are also feeling the pinch of the driver shortage.

Another disadvantage of solid tires is that most of them require a special press for mounting. In May, Continental Tire North America (CTNA) launched a new industrial tire that solves that problem. The CSEasy, CTNA said, is a solid, “super-elastic” tire for forklifts that requires no press, specialized training or equipment for installation. The tire/wheel system features an “innovative, reusable adapter between the tire and rim,” said CTNA, which places the tire in the proper position for quick mounting with a torque wrench.

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Even with their drawbacks, press-on tires still have advantages over pneumatics. “Solid press-on tires offer better rolling resistance and durability than standard pneumatic tires,” says LeMeur. “Excellent rolling resistance makes polyurethane press-ons the preferred choice for electric forklifts,” he adds, because it allows for “longer operation between battery charges and ultimately longer battery life.” They are also more durable than pneumatic tires, says LeMeur.

Plus, “pneumatic tire trucks will have a higher ground clearance, which raises its center of gravity, thus reducing its rated load capacity,” says Stratton.

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Tire dealers should ask industrial tire customers what features they need in a tire and what they are willing to do without. Do they need a soft-riding tire? Is rolling resistance especially important? It’s critical in this market for dealers to ask about intended application.

“As an example, an appropriate tire for a new large distribution center using electric trucks is different than the proper press-on selection for a foundry application,” LeMeur explains.

“Improper selection can dramatically reduce work life, resulting in truck downtime costs and mechanics costs that are a multiple of the original purchase price of the tire.”

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A third option, according to Stratton, is solid pneumatic tires, otherwise known as resilient tires. Solideal’s Magnum PSS is one example. “They are ideal for outdoor environments like lumber yards or recycling centers, where there’s a high risk of puncturing regular pneumatic tires,” says Stratton. “They combine the solid-rubber construction of cushion tires with the rough-terrain capabilities of pneumatic tires.”

Making Business Sense

Though they all have different application requirements, industrial tire customers share at least one commonality. They are commercial customers, and like all business managers, they’re concerned with downtime, productivity and return on investment.

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That’s why experts agree that on-site service is key to dealer success in the industrial tire segment.

“If your company offers mobile services by trained technicians, you can greatly expand your business and be the first choice for your customers,” says Stratton.

“Tire margins have eroded over time, so service is the key,” agrees Griffin. “Do not look solely at price, but the overall tire, including wear, performance and giving the user less downtime.”

And, tires aren’t the only component dealers should be monitoring for their industrial customers. “Most dealers are overlooking wheels,” says Stratton. “Split wheels in many applications can wear out as frequently as the tires and are almost disposable.

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Other wheels, such as multi-piece wheels, can become dangerous if unchecked due to wear of the lock ring. Dealers who offer servicing can take the opportunity to inspect the wheel and recommend replacement parts of full wheels,” Stratton says.

So, how can dealers best expand their existing industrial tire business or start it up from scratch?

LeMeur offers some suggestions: “Start by identifying industrial tire opportunities with existing customers, even if they are lower volume. Many tire dealers have large distribution centers or logistics companies as customers for over-the-road tires,” he says.

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“The distribution centers also have fleets of forklifts. Does the forklift truck dealer have the tire business? If yes, that forklift dealer may not be inclined to offer tire alternatives to the distribution center, instead only offering what the OEM recommends.”

The independent tire dealer’s advantage in this situation is clear – the ability to offer another tire alternative that can dramatically reduce costs, improve productivity and boost the distribution center’s bottom line.

“Identify the most tire failure modes the customer sees – meltdown, debonding, chunking, accelerated wear,” LeMeur suggests. Then, offer a tire solution that reduces, or even eliminates, those problems.

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“If you solve customers’ problems with good tire selection, they are likely to return for future business,” Stratton says.

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