Trax Readies its ‘Universal Solution’
Germany is not just Europe’s largest single tyre market – sales of wheel balancing weights there account for a large proportion of the region’s total sales of this product, so a German market presence is naturally a very good thing indeed. Therefore it has understandably concerned UK manufacturer Trax JH Ltd that it has been unable to sell zinc weights into Germany since European directive 2000/53/EC came into effect on July 1, 2005. All this is set to change, however. Trax is tooling up to begin volume production of an innovative new steel wheel weight, and the company’s sights are firmly set on the German market.
“One of the motivations for moving to steel is that in 2004 a company called Franken Werke (since purchased by the Wegmann Group) put a patent through the German patent office and patented zinc,” states Trax managing director John Hallé upon introducing the Cam-Back universal weight for steel wheels. “We don’t know how, because our patent attorney said we couldn’t do it in the UK, but after four attempts they did it. After that we couldn’t sell zinc weights in Germany – and Germany accounts for 30 per cent of all European weight sales by value. It’s a huge market, so we started looking at some alternatives.”
Steel was the obvious material for a zinc alternative, and one of its advantages particularly stands out: Hallé offers evidence of zinc’s erratic price fluctuations in the years since lead weights were banned. “It’s just a pain to keep up with it,” he comments. “What we’re finding is that the big players need consistency – they want to do a deal on the price and fix it for one or two years. And that’s very difficult with the zinc situation. So we expect steel’s price stability to work in our favour. The big guys are tired of the price going up.”
Attractive as the more stable steel prices may be, cost factors alone do not make a good product. John Hallé admits that, for all its shortcomings, the lead used in weights years ago was a very easy substance to work with. “Steel is also a good solution, and it’s definitely a more environmental solution that either lead or zinc,” he adds. “But the problem is that it’s very difficult to manipulate. There have been steel weights coming in from China and Japan, but none of them have found real acceptance in the European market. We’re the first European manufacturer to launch a steel balance weight, and what’s unique about our product is that it’s got two cams on the back. What that means is that it’s a very universal solution. You can put it on almost any passenger car, and it will retain; in other words, it will not slide. With other products when you brake hard, the weight can slide and the wheel goes out of balance. Motorists experience this problem every day because poor quality weights are being used. With our weights, you knock them on and they will keep working. And that’s what we sell, we sell peace of mind. That’s what you get with a quality product.”
Trax intends to begin production after the summer and will install additional machinery to give a production capacity of more than a hundred million pieces per year. “At the moment, everything we’re doing is aimed at Germany and Central Europe, we’re giving them first priority with capacity and we’ve got targets to sell some product there this year,” Hallé explains.
In addition to producing a new design steel balancing weight, Trax also builds the machinery used in their manufacture. And this gives the British company a further opportunity. “By also developing the equipment to assemble the weights, we are in a position where we can look at franchising it globally. All the big automotive weight manufacturers have huge plants making hundreds of millions of products and shipping them all round the world. Our idea is that we will manufacture in the UK and supply Europe, but there are other markets where supply from the UK isn’t practicable. We’re not going to be supplying Indonesia or South America, for example. We can supply the components, we can supply the machinery, and they can make the weights themselves in Indonesia, or China or wherever. We’re the only company offering this.”
The Trax managing director foresees this option will be attractive in countries where lead weights are still being produced and used: “The manufacture of lead weights continues in many parts of the world as lead is a cheaper solution. But if these manufacturers have customers who want to be lead-free, they’ve got nothing to offer. Bridgestone, for example, have said that all of their tyre shops worldwide have to be lead-free. In addition, if a car company manufactures in Asia and the cars come to Europe or Japan, they have to fit lead-free weights. The volumes might be only 20 – 25 per cent of what they’re using, but they haven’t got the money or knowhow to invest in lead-free – so we can sell them a piece of kit which will do the whole thing for them.” At present Trax is taking expressions of interest from potential customers in advance of a 2011 launch.
Last November Trax opened a subsidiary in the US. While the company’s American portfolio currently covers a restricted range of products, John Hallé sees the potential this market holds: “We’re only selling adhesive weights there at the moment, but we’re creating brand awareness. We are showing ourselves to be an innovative brand that is making products to OE standards. We are looking for manufacturing opportunities for steel clip-on weights in the USA, either through a franchise or by ourselves. Market testing will be carried out later this year leading to discussions at the SEMA show in November where we have an exhibition stand.” Hallé shares that following California’s ban on lead weights in January 2009, US based manufacturers introduced lead-free weight solutions they make for OE customers to the aftermarket. However they were not well received. “The shops are not happy with the lead-free steel solutions. They said they’re not universal enough – what may work on a Ford, for example, may not work on a Japanese car. We believe our designs offer much better universal solutions. So in September we are visiting America to show the Californians, and we’ll be very interested in seeing what their answer is going to be.”
According to John Hallé, Trax is investing “a lot of money” in this new project. Initially the supply of the new weights will be limited to the aftermarket, however the managing director does acknowledge the steel weights’ potential for OEM customers further down the track. “It’s a better solution than anything the European manufacturers have to offer,” he shares. “This is a market leading product.”
This potential key for unlocking the valuable German market follows a prolonged slump within the automotive industry, and Hallé admits the balancing weight market has not been immune from the events of the last 18 months. Nevertheless, he sees the future as positive. “The market is slow, but what we’re finding is, is that our customers are staying with us as they find we’re innovative, and they want to be with a market leader,” Hallé states. “In our industry there’s nothing new. It’s the same products all the time. And why people are getting a buzz about this, is because it is new. We’ve hired an ex Tip Top Germany manager (Stefan Klopfer) full-time to work with us in Germany and Central Europe. We’ve got the right products, we’ve got the right people – now we just need to make it happen.”