Technological breakthroughs truly are the lifeblood of the rubber and tire industries. It's what drives the sector forward, as the research and development teams work tirelessly to meet the evolving needs of its customers, be it for applications currently in use or those such as autonomous vehicles that promise to play a major role in the future mobility landscape.
But there's a few things to keep in mind when looking at potential game changing technologies: You can't always predict how a project will end up, progress rarely follows a straight line, sometimes you just have to follow where the experiments take you and there's a good chance there will be no set timeline.
Michelin's Tweel—the product that features a polyurethane spoked wheel—is a perfect example. It started out with two friends and colleagues talking about why run-flat technologies hadn't approached the promised successes in the mid-1990s, and that led to research that spanned two decades and yielded a product that likely wasn't envisioned when the whole process began.
Michelin researchers Tim Rhyne and Steve Cron weren't even involved with Michelin's Pax run-flat system. But Rhyne wanted to figure out why the technology, like virtually every other run-flat system of that era, didn't work. What they found was intriguing, that somehow the run-flats had "messed up the pneumatic tire." The design of the run-flat was counterintuitive in that it didn't carry the load from the top, putting the pressure on a small chunk of tire at the bottom.
From there, they followed where the research led them. They used part of the Pax system to design a new load-bearing design. They used modeling and mathematics Their team designed countless prototypes. They spent years coming up with Tweels for countless applications outside of automotive, mainly low-speed uses that led to the Tweel being a viable technology in skid-steer loaders, turf applications like zero-radius turn mowers and utility vehicles such as golf carts.
Michelin in a show of faith for the product's future eventually built a $50 million factory to produce Tweels.
It's been nearly 20 years since the term "Tweel" entered the tire industry's vernacular. And while it may not have proved to be suitable as a car tire—at least not yet—Cron has deemed it a technical success, proving once again that sometimes technology follows its own path.