HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Technology improvements mean the future looks bright for retreading, but some challenges — such as its image — remain, according to speakers at a recent conference.
"It used to be that, if you wanted to become a retreader, you´d borrow a little money, buy some equipment and go into business," said Harvey Brodsky, managing director of the Tire Retread Information Bureau, speaking at the Clemson Tire Industry Conference at Hilton Head in March. "Were the retreads good? Well, they were cheap."
Retread technology nowadays is more sophisticated than 50 years ago, and produces an infinitely better, more consistent and reliable product, according to Brodsky. People outside the industry are always surprised to see the excellence of modern retreading techniques, he said.
When the hosts of the Discovery Channel program "Mythbusters" contacted Brodsky about an episode on retreading, he took them to a Santa Rosa, Calif., retreading plant owned by Bandag Inc.
"They were very impressed by what they saw," Brodsky said. "They asked what it would take to destroy one of the tires from the Santa Rosa plant." Taking one of the tires to a rifle range in Castro Valley, Calif., they spent all day, from 9 to 5, trying to get the tire to blow out via gunshot.
"At the end, they asked where they could get retreads for their own vehicles," he said.
Shearography — the laser examination of tire casings — has helped enormously in the effort to find flaws in casings before they´re retreaded, Brodsky said.
"Shearography is the equivalent of a CAT Scan or an MRI," he said. "Before shearography, you could have the best casing inspector in the world, but he wasn´t Clark Kent-he didn´t have X-ray eyes. With shearography, we´ve turned him into Superman."
There has been a massive consolidation in the retread industry, Brodsky said, partly because those retreaders that didn´t keep up with the times or were sloppy about quality have folded. "The shakeout has gotten rid of the bums," he said.
However, much of the public continues to see retreads as inferior and dangerous, largely because of massive tire "alligators" on the sides of U.S. highways. Most of these huge pieces of tire rubber, in Brodsky´s words, "have never seen the inside of a retread plant."
Nevertheless, they motivated a Florida state senator to introduce a bill that would have banned retreads from Florida highways. Fortunately, Brodsky said, there was no companion bill in the Florida House, and the legislation died.
"We have to educate truckers to stop when they have a blowout," he said. "Education, education, education-that´s the key. The more proactive we are, the less trouble we´re going to have with government officials who are anti-retread."
Meanwhile, retreading is an underused technology worldwide, according to Giuseppe Ferrari, managing director of Marangoni Tread S.p.A. in Verona, Italy.
"Thirty percent of truck tire casings are retreaded worldwide, but it could be well over 50 percent," Ferrari said.
For the past decade, Western European nations have generally exported their casings to Eastern Europe for retreading, rather than trying to retread the casings themselves, according to Ferrari. Retreading can be expanded throughout Europe, he said, but only if retreaders pay attention to the imperatives of reliability and improved fuel economy.
"A well-selected casing will have the same reliability as a new tire," Ferrari said. However, both European and U.S. retreaders will face the challenge of a flood of Chinese casings. For this and other reasons, complete control over casings and extensive shearography programs are crucial, he said.
As for fuel economy, "it´s really where our industry needs to work," Ferrari said. "It´s a new item in our industry, and it means we have to change the mixing and compounds used on casings-there´s been too much synthetic rubber, and the mixing has been too simplified. Our industry has to accept that from now on mixing in retreading must be like mixing in new tires."
Jeff Barlow, president of Green Diamond Tire in Elmira Heights, N.Y., belongs to a family that has been retreading since the Great Depression. Barlow runs a Bandag truck tire retreading plant in Elmira Heights today, he said. Since 1999, however, he also has been the sole U.S. maker of Green Diamond bead-to-bead remolded passenger snow tires.
"I´m on a mission from God," Barlow said.
Passenger retreading, which was popular from the 1930s through the 1960s, started fading in the 1970s with the radialization of the industry, according to Barlow. A few years later, the entry of low-cost Asian radials in the U.S. market effectively spelled the end of passenger retreads.
"To remain in business, you had to sell retreads at $5 to $10 cheaper than the imports," he said. "Cheap Chinese radials set prices that were hard for retreaders to meet, and the quality of retreads got worse and worse."
But 21st-century technology-including shearography, computerized buffing and computerized balancing-is making retreading competitive with new tires, with an adjustment rate of less than 1 percent, according to Barlow.
"I believe that if you use quality casings and retread using the latest technology, you´ll have better quality than an entry-level new tire," he said.