Expected to carry the weight of giant containers and loads across increasingly under pressure port and logistics hubs, tyres are often unheralded workhorses. Continental’s Commercial Speciality Tyres team have to develop rubber that can cope in wildly different conditions from the icy platforms of the Artic Circle to the searing heat of the Gulf’s own ports.
Sitting with T&FME on the edge of Europe’s biggest port in Rotterdam, Julian Alexander explains the first stages of development.
“Well, it’s basically learning how the customer is using the tyres first of all. So the important thing, is what’s going on in the market. For that we have basically three main sources. We have field engineers which are basically purely visiting customers, visiting sites to look at how the tyres are performing,” he begins. “What does he see? He sees maybe a little bit more in detail about the operation of the vehicles, the loads, the weights and how the tyres are being used.
“Together, with our sales people who are in daily contact with the people who are using the tyres – whether it is a dealer or the end user. And of course they’re also getting feedback. What is good? What’s not so good? And additionally we have our R&D who are tuning into this all the time: listening and learning. We do, of course, our own internal testing of the tyres, taking tyres back from the market to analyse and really understand what’s going on.”
The ultimate reason for the analysis and feedback and data gathering is to assess how Continental can improve its existing products or whether it needs a new product altogether. June’s TOC Europe taking place a short water taxi or bicycle ride away from our discussion was an opportunity to show how the company has re-thought its tyre offering.
Announced last year, its new radial tyre portfolio started as a response to ports that are running their load and carry vehicles for longer distances; adding strain and stress while generating greater heat in their tyres.
Alexander flashes a picture of tyre scrapyard at a port to demonstrate on a huge scale of what happens when tyres can no longer cope with the demands of modern port operations.
“Ultimately they all failed,” he muses. “When you start analysing these tyres, you can find out really what happened to that tyre throughout its lifetime. You will see if it’s been heat damaged, we will see how the tread been used; you will see this because of the grain on the tread surface. How the tyre was used, which directions it went on. It really tells you the life history of the tyre. We can also see why it failed. Was it in the bead area, the inner lining, the basic construction?
“Everything tells us why this tyre failed and when we know why it failed, we can learn how can we improve that or do we need something else?”
The most common reason for failure over the course of forensically analysing thousands of failed tyres is low pressure. Consequently all of the radial tyre portfolio will be fitted with sensors that can read temperature or pressure, explains Alexander.
Head of R&D Commercial Speciality Tyres Martin Welzhofer says that the company is continually looking ahead as well as at the past performance of its tyres when it makes decisions on the direction of travel for its products. He adds that he and his team must also look at the types of vehicles currently in use as well as those that are heading towards being deployed in the field. A jigsaw puzzle of what the tyre will look like begins to come together.
“The core of that is our requirement book and with that we will then start to design the tyre. We put several segments together, put the tyre layout together, start to simulate how the tyre would work and build our first prototypes. Once we have those prototypes, we start test them. First, internally on a drum and then later on in the field in order to validate the product performance.”
A requirement book? Before continuing on, Welzhofer explains.
“It’s the story of the tyre. How we see it. This is not only (put together) by R&D and while that’s probably very important it also has input from the marketing person such as a product line manager, from the field engineers who are often in contact with our customers, the sales people and of course my engineers who put together what they what they see and what they have learned and analysed.”
According to Welzhofer, the information drafted into the requirement book can include everything from tyre sizes and descriptions of applications to the road surfaces and even the desired price.
“All of that we try to put into key performance requirements. Something which we can use at the very end to evaluate if our development was successful,” he continues.
A team is then formed around the idea with a tyre designer acting as a project leader, “to keep all the strings together” including a specialist that analyses what the materials it will be made of (cue thoughts of a mad chemist experimenting in their lab), a simulation engineer to do test the design, a creative head (who gives the tyre its “fancy look” that fits with Continental’s product story).
In the case of the radial tyre, the original design took included sharp grooves that resembled a crane but Welzhofer says that the realities of designing a tyre that must perform at optimum levels eventually reigned back the stylised look.
“We said, we can do that but we will get a lot of negative press because it’s not going to work,” he recalls. “The battle between design and function starts but basically design should be more about function. At the end you probably do not see much of a crane in the final design but we tried to give the tyre a technical look. I would say on Straddlemaster it’s a bit hard to see.”
Welzhofer says that one of the biggest differentiators of Continental compared to its competitors lies in the compound used.
Using an analogy of the team acting like a cook in a restaurant he sums the process up neatly: “We have recipes which we are following and we are creating in a lab and then later one rolled out into the world.”
He continues: “The chemical engineer working on our tyres is a very essential person. The materials which are in contact with the surface plays an important role in the performance at the very end. We at Continental insist the chemist is not only on a laptop in his lab environment but joins the field engineers in going to the customers. And visiting the scrap yards and seeing why the tyres are failing. What has gone wrong? Where are the pain points?”
Once the tyre design is put together, testing in simulations in the lab begin leading to the creation of a mould that can be used for production. That is, in turn, then taken to a testing drum, such as one of the largest test machines in the world for tyres at Continental’s facility in Texas (which has diameter of 5m and can test tyres sized up to 61in).
“What we do there is testing until failure,” he says. “We let it rotate under load and the tyre heats up and at a certain time it simply fails. And we hope that it’s late enough in the process that we are satisfied with what we see and that the picture of the failure is what we expect. And in that case, we are happy people.”
He adds that this process can take up two years, meaning that new technology can sometimes alter the course of development.
“And if that new technology is fitting with what we see actually out there, we apply it. And that’s probably the time when you want to launch a new generation.”
Returning to the theme of having to the create tyres that can cope in different environments, Alexander says that Continental uses 17 different testing locations, including the UAE.
“Testing isn’t as easy as it sounds. Container handling is a global business and isn’t just happening in Germany,” he explains. “We’ve been testing in the UAE but we also look where it is cold like Finland where its very cold. You also have different vehicles like straddle carriers and reach carriers. You also need customers that are happy for you to do it. You also have very different environments. You need the biggest mix you can get.”
Alexander remarks that the field testing is essential as “we might find where improvements are possible.”
Welzhofer adds that Continental has invested more than 100 million euros into its production, refining its processes – even ensuring that the equipment used on the line is ergonomic for workers – to make sure the finished product matches the development performance.
Continental as an organisation has stressed in recent years that it wants to be regarded as technology company. While the B2B world of Speciality Tyres may not neatly fit into this vision, both agree that the use of ContiConnect and ContiPressureCheck are critical components in avoiding tyre failures. During TOC Europe, T&FME was shown how the system works in action, and how low tyre alerts can be relayed to ensure uptime.
Welzhofer says, “If you have the right tyre pressure, the tyres are working at their optimum and taking the lowest energy.”
“Our tyres are smart. All the tyres from our factory will be fitted with sensors that can use ContiConnect and ContiPressureCheck to monitor the tyre and inform the user of the temperature and pressure of the tyre as it’s running,” adds Alexander. “You probably know that riding on your bike, when don’t have much air in your tyre it uses a lot of energy, and a lot fuel, and the tyre will heat up much quicker which will lead to an earlier failure.”