And automation will be key to the rubber industry's success, according to LabsCubed CEO Khaled Boqaileh, co-founder of the successful start-up software testing company based in Kitchener, Ontario, that began in 2016.
"Since then, the technology shift we've seen has been amazing," Boqaileh said. "The industry, although well established, has begun to embrace new technologies such as automation and AI to greatly improve all aspects of rubber development and manufacturing.
"I believe that we are at the beginning of a major shift toward Industry 4.0. This change will not only enable rubber companies to make better products, but it will also help to attract young and fresh talent. This is vital to ensuring the continued growth and innovation of the industry.
"This is an exciting time to be in the rubber industry as it makes this big shift."
Others believe technological shifts will occur through sustainability, as "greener" tire and non-tire goods making methods could necessitate a move toward sustainable feedstocks—like carbon from CO2 for carbon nanotubes or hydrogen as a byproduct of the pyrolysis of natural gas for carbon black production.
"Improved sustainable feedstocks for virgin materials are possible ... for biomass feedstocks for carbon black production," said August Krupp, director of rubber development at Austin, Texas-based Molecular Rebar Design L.L.C. "We have seen some interesting supply prospects in our own carbon nanotube space for utilizing CO2 as a supply source for nanotubes."
Still others posit that tectonic shifts in elastomer technology will come through sensors and software, as the broad notion of predictive maintenance assumes applications in conveyance solutions, air spring, smart tire and elastomer fatigue-testing tech.
Will Mars, president of Findlay, Ohio-based Endurica L.L.C., said simulation will continue to be at the center of tire development.
"With a simulation, you can get some very good results within a week or two," he said. "It really does help you to speed up development timelines. It helps you to de-risk development. I would say that expectations have gotten higher over the last 50 years.
"I can't imagine how anybody could compete these days without some level of simulation technology in their development process."
The physical testing side for the tire, in concert with AI and smart tires for autonomous vehicle production, will continue to be important, said Jerry Potts, president of tire testing and consulting firm GRP Dynamics L.L.C., and also an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Akron.
"What if the tire fails? You will need to have that tire-warning system, one that uses vibration measured by a computer—tires will have to have a self-diagnosing element," he said.
Such smart tech may not forecast a driverless vehicle just yet, Potts said.
"There has to be a sensing and testing element, but there also has to be an expert in the vehicle who can recognize and monitor the situation, similar to aviation with a pilot where there is less flying, but increased management and monitoring," he said.
And since small changes in tire compounding produce large changes on the corners of the "performance triangle," perhaps a non-pneumatic tire is the answer.
"Rolling resistance needs to go down for fuel economy. That has improved in the last 40 years over what it was," Potts said.
For many, the industry seems to hinge upon, and circle back toward, sustainability.
"It comes down to the sustainability of rubber," Potts said. "It goes to finding alternate materials—the rubber tree plant is a fragile beast, wiped out in South America and now being grown in Southeast Asia. We need all the rubber we can get from that. This will kill the world economy—not just tires, the world runs on rubber.
"The Russian dandelion, the guayule plant—chemists will need to find a substitute for rubber."