AKRON—A non-pneumatic tire and a domestic source of natural rubber should make the scene within a decade, according to Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.'s vice president of global technology.
At the same time, the tire industry has to deal with difficulties ranging from raw material shortages and rising costs to an aging work force to market conditions that are inexorably altering where tires are made, said Charles G. Yurkovich Jr.
He discussed these and other issues April 26 in his keynote address and response to questions at the ACS Rubber Division spring meeting in Akron.
Cooper has a joint development project with Resilient Technologies L.L.C. to produce airless tires for use on military vehicles. “The NPT (non-pneumatic tire) is being developed actively by three companies, at least as far as we know,” Yurkovich said.
In the past Cooper has said the NPT is lighter than a traditional Humvee run-flat tire, doesn't require as much oil to manufacture and is fully retreadable.
The executive sees the long-desired development of a domestic source of NR coming to fruition because several companies, universities and government agencies are working very diligently to make it a reality.
“I'd say it's likely that in the next five to 10 years that source of material will be available. And that's a good thing, because it will help to offset a significant amount of raw material that we bring in from overseas,” he said.
Yurkovich reviewed many of the problems of the past several years as the global economic picture worsened. Rising oil prices' impact on commodities, transportation and shipping; the decline in construction; the rise of commercial and personal bankruptcies; home foreclosures; and bank failures all had a negative impact on the tire business.
The raw material situation was terrible in 2008, the executive recalled.
“Let's be honest, if you look back on 2008, you have a number of tire and supplier plants around the country that closed down for lack of materials,” he said. “There were a lot of reasons for that. One was high demand based on consumer needs, and secondly we actually had a natural disaster, the storm in the Gulf region, that took out some sources of supply.
“Essentially, some tire companies operated hand to mouth.”
Things are better now, but Yurkovich said there's a possibility that situation could occur again for materials like butadiene and NR as global demand increases.
“The threat is real. Our challenge is as an industry, can we find substitutes for the material? Have we enough flexibility as we move from one material or another?”
Another problem concerns employment.
“It is becoming increasingly tough to find good, qualified tire people,” he said, with many people migrating to other fields as the tire and rubber industry continues to downsize. “Let's face it—it's tough to get new graduates coming out of school to come and work in the tire industry. It's not a glamorous industry.”
He said Cooper, as it expands overseas, is looking to fill global positions, whether they are in North America, Europe or Asia.
Yurkovich identified another employment problem: a dearth of consultants.
Retirees typically could be tapped by domestic tire makers, he said. However, as tire manufacturers in India and other Asian locations grow, they have been hiring these retirees to consult.
“They are being removed to some extent from the labor pool. It is getting a little tougher to find good, qualified people, and I think we all know people are a little more mobile today than in the past.”
The Cooper vice president gave his take on several other subjects. Among them:
c Chinese and Indian tire companies. “What we see is much more active and aggressive momentum from Asian companies,” he said. “Tire companies in China and India in some cases are investing very heavily in R&D, quality and efficiency, and moving forward very quickly.
c Big isn't always better. While Cooper isn't one of the three giants of the world's tire manufacturing industry, Yurkovich said the top three companies ranked by operating profits as a percent of net sales puts Cooper and two other non-top-three firms as one, two and three. “My belief is that sometimes smaller is faster, sometimes smaller is more adaptable and sometimes smaller can be better,” he said.