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Published on September 9, 2002

Aircraft tire market's future is in technology

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Date Published September 9, 2002

Despite high development costs and lengthy approval procedures, aircraft tire makers are striving to secure future supply contracts.

Groupe Michelin's NZG (Near Zero Growth) tire technology, developed last year for the Concorde, remains ``the key part of our aircraft tire innovation,'' according to Cavell Portman, Michelin director of marketing and sales for aircraft tires in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, who spoke at the recent Farnborough Air Show.

In addition to the damage protection required for the Concorde, NZG offers lighter weight and greater cost-effectiveness because of its longer life, Portman said.

Michelin has not revealed the reinforcement fabric on which NZG's performance is based, but it is widely believed to be aramid.

The firm now is targeting NZG technology at next-generation large aircraft, according to Portman. ``We have presented a number of tires to Airbus (S.A.S) and are in the process of having the tire certified for the A340,'' he said. ``This is going through the flight testing process, and we expect to be certified by the year-end.''

The French group also is commercializing smaller NZG tires, and has supplied main landing gear tires for Dassault Falcon private jets since June.

``The main weight saving advantages are on the bigger tires, but for the smaller ones the improvements are resistance to damage. Business jet operators don't want to be delayed and are often landing on smaller runways which are not so well-maintained,'' Portman said.

In late 2001, Goodyear launched a radial tire reinforced with aramid fibers-DuPont's Kevlar-as well as standard nylon. Called Custom Flight III, the tire offers 20 percent more landings as well as enhanced wear and puncture resistance, the company claims.

``Aramid has increased the performance of the tire and benefited its perception in the marketplace,'' said Alex Dumm, Goodyear general manager for global aviation tires, who forecast that the technology ``will become more common than niche.''

Dunlop Aircraft Tires Ltd. also is studying nylon/aramid hybrid reinforcements, according to David Baker, chief designer with the Erdington, England-based firm.

``The fabric is made for us and we are using it in tires for detailed evaluation,'' he said.

Radials currently represent 15 percent of the aircraft tire market and demand for radials is rising at about 1 percent annually, according to Michelin. Part of the reason for the slow move to radials is because tires are fine-tuned for each aircraft, making retrofitting expensive.

Bias-ply tires also remain popular because they can be retreaded four to six times compared with two or three times for radials.

Still, ``all the capital investment from R&D to manufacturing is moving to radials,'' Dumm said.

Last year Goodyear invested $10 million to triple production at its Danville, Va., plant to make radials for aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 and for military and private planes. With this capacity, Goodyear is ``fairly well covered for the next three to four years,'' he said.

Portman said there is ``quite significant'' on-going investment at Michelin's radial manufacturing and retreading plants at Bourges, France, and at its U.S. radial operation based in Norwood, N.C.

Dunlop Aircraft Tires, which has annual capacity of about 40,000 units, recently revamped its Erdington retreading unit. The investment has boosted capacity to about 200 tires a day and cut turnaround from six weeks to about 14 days, according to the firm.

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