Turning worn-out tires into useful products is one of the many pieces used to solve the nation´s scrap tire puzzle. At Lakin General Corp., it´s nothing new.
The Chicago-based company has been producing die-cut goods from scrap tires for 88 years.
"We make anything you can punch or die-cut out of a bias tire," said Dick Gust, president of the company´s Lakin Environmental Industries division.
Recycled rubber goods represent 10 percent of its business because only specialized tires, like those used in aircraft, agricultural and intermodal, are suitable for reuse in this way, Gust said. You don´t die-cut radial tires, he said.
Within those limits, however, privately held Lakin makes products for the agricultural, automotive and industrial/construction industries, according to the company. The basic material used in these products is TICOR, a rubber reinforced with steel or synthetic fiber.
Among the products made from TICOR are vibration isolators, tailpipe and muffler hangers, flexible couplings, snow thrower blades, snow plow deflectors, end gate seals, straw spreader blades, gaskets, connectors, baffles and coil protectors.
Lakin employs 30 in manufacturing at the company´s headquarters in Chicago, out of about 200 people it employs directly. Besides making rubber products, it provides tire shred, used tires and crumb rubber feedstock.
Big in tire collecting
Meanwhile, Lakin is the nation´s largest tire collector, claiming to process more than 10 percent of the used tires generated annually in the U.S.
Lakin´s tire collection customers include major retailers and mass marketers, as well as a network of individual tire dealerships and tire maker-owned tire stores, Gust said.
Once at a collection center, all passenger and light truck tires are studied by a series of inspectors, according to a set of criteria well established in the tire industry, Gust said. Any tire with significant tread left is set aside for possible use as a used tire, though it will be subjected to an air inflation test to ensure its integrity hasn´t been compromised.
Tires that aren´t good for the used tire market have all sorts of potential markets at Lakin. These include tire-derived fuel-both tire chips for TDF and whole tires for cement kilns-as well as tire shred for civil engineering applications and crumb rubber feedstock.
Lakin does not handle or inspect medium truck tires. "Those go into another side of the business, and retreaders do their own inspections," Gust said. The company also doesn´t use shearography, which is too expensive and time-consuming for its purposes, he said.
For years Lakin was famous for its "Achievor" bead-to-bead remolded passenger tires which it sold through Sears, Roebuck & Co. It stopped making them some years ago, however, because they were no longer cost-effective, according to Gust.
"Radial costs declined, and it was expensive to make a good bead-to-bead tire," he said. "We just couldn´t compete against a new tire."
Searching for new markets
The biggest challenge for Lakin as a recycled rubber product manufacturer, according to Gust, is finding new markets for raw materials.
"Tire-derived fuel is a value-added product right now, and tire chips offer a tremendous opportunity in the construction and energy markets," he said. "We looked at the availability of raw material from China, but we can´t afford to bring tires across a significant distance because transportation costs are too high. This is a very fragile business in terms of market creation and recovering your costs."
It´s hard to make customers understand when you have to adjust your prices because of fuel, insurance and medical costs, Gust said. Also, a number of states don´t enforce their rules and regulations on scrap tire handling and hauling, which makes the playing field less level for reputable companies such as Lakin, or encourage the purchase of recycled rubber products or tires for civil engineering projects on the state level.
Lakin promotes the use of rubberized asphalt in road projects and is collaborating with Cook County, Ill., in laying two different test sections of rubberized pavement on county roads.
Exports, particularly from China, have hurt Lakin´s business in some agricultural and automotive part areas, according to Gust. Re-evaluating Chinese currency and trade policies probably wouldn´t be a major help to Lakin.
Lakin, however, is constantly evaluating markets that may promise higher-value products for the material it sells.