Vacu-Lug: Our eco-tyres compete with premium brands
After more than 60 years in the business, Lincolnshire-based Vacu-Lug has grown to the point that it can claim to be the largest one-stop industrial, truck and OTR retreader in Europe. And what’s more, the latest products in the Vacu-Lug portfolio are said to offer eco-qualities that outstrip the premium brands. Tyres & Accessories met with managing director Tim Hercock and fleet sales director Dave Alsop to find out more.
Despite the effects of the recession in recent years, the total UK retread market is said to have remained at around the 900,000 to 1 million unit level. The fact that this market was less exposed to the crash in OE demand than new tyre manufacturers and that retreads continue to be an economic option for fleets appears to have sustained demand for retreads during the downturn. However the flip side is that the collapse in demand for new vehicles and trailers (and the OE tyres fitted to them) – as well as some fleet tightening their belts away from the most retreadable first life tyres in favour of some cheaper products – has made sourcing casings difficult for everyone.
In the meantime the high level of raw materials costs have pushed new tyre prices up. Therefore there is said to be increased demand for “cost effective products”, a demand that that Vacu-Lug is increasingly positioning itself to fulfil: “Our job is to produce environmentally friendly and cost effective products,” managing director Tim Hercock told Tyres & Accessories during our recent tour of the Grantham headquarters and production base. The thinking is that customers need tyres that not only perform reliably, but also economically. And when you are dealing with professional businesses like haulage and construction companies, the best way to demonstrate this is with tyres that last and save on the most expensive part of the fleet budget (fuel consumption) through improved rolling resistance performance.
Working with its compound partners (Vacu-Lug works with a number of supplier firms, all companies you would associate with quality in this market), the company started experimenting with a batch of what it calls “green silica-based compound” in August 2009. This first generation 17.5-inch eco-product was designed with an electric 7.5 tonne, curtain sided truck operating on routes around the London orbital M25 motorway.
In order to produce the green colour of these tyres, Vacu-Lug used a compound that replaced the traditional carbon black with silicas that enabled colouring to bond with the polymers in the compound. And of course all this silica has resulted in the low rolling resistance, improved heat dissipation and better wet grip properties we have all come to expect from silica based compounds. There are even benefits when it comes to keeping trucks moving in cold winter weather.
Independent tests carried by Tarrc on the initial batch of Vacu-Lug eco tyres found that the new green generation of retreads offered something like an 18 per cent improvement in rolling resistance performance compared with the “standard” control tyre. The next round of development (December 2009) saw the company produce a batch of 385/65 R22.5 WRE2 trailers and 295/80 R22.5 WDE2+ drive tyres based on a related eco compound. All the retreads were produced using premium first-life casings and were drum tested to ISO 18614 standards in January 2010. These tests produced even more marked improvements in fuel efficiency – this time the green tyres produced just 70 per cent of the rolling resistance of the standard tyre.
Bearing in mind the fact that a 10 per cent improvement in rolling resistance equates to a 3 per cent or greater reduction in fuel consumption (approximately 0.9 litres/100 km on a vehicle consuming 30 litres of fuel per 100 km) this means the latest generation of Vacu-Lug eco rubber could offer as much as a 9 per cent fuel saving to fleet customers, according to the retreader. Based on these figures, in real terms a vehicle travelling 150,000 km a year could save as much as £4050 while reducing carbon output by 10.8 tonnes per vehicle. And this is based on a £1/litre figure. Obviously more would be saved on higher fuel prices.
170,000 km trial shows that Vacu-Lug retreads offer lower rolling resistance than the best known names
In order to demonstrate what its fuel-efficient retreads can do, Vacu-Lug tested its latest generation product on the trucks of one its largest customers. You’d know the company involved if we mentioned the name, but T&A has seen the data and has agreed to keep the name confidential for reasons of commercial sensitivity. Even after factoring in the initial increase in rolling resistance you would expect between a worn tyre and a fully treaded product, the overall calculation shows that Vacu-Lug’s latest products compare favourably with some of the best retreads on the market. So how did the company test them and what were the results?
Vacu-Lug Duramold WDE2+ and Yokohama 104ZR tyres were fitted as normal on the drive and steer axles respectively, with Vacu-Lug’s Duramold WRE2s being added to the trailer for test purposes. For the next 170,000 km fuel consumption was strictly monitored over the next year of the Iveco Stralis 400 4×2 truck’s life and compared to archive data of tyre supplied by one of the market leaders. The impressive results show that the Vacu-Lug retreads offered average fuel consumption of 10.49 miles per gallon (mpg) compared with 10.07 mpg.
Improved production facilities
Vacu-Lug’s Gonerby Foot Hill-production base still covers 11.8 acres, but there have been a number of significant improvements in terms of efficiency, emissions and worker environment/comfort since the last time T&A visited.
Now all pre-inspection information goes straight into Vacu-Lug’s bespoke Apollo system, allowing the company to keep track of casings sourced from customers and other means throughout the entire production process. Working this way also gives the company a clear insight into the workings of its fleet customers. The impact of regrooving (or the lack of re-grooving) on total mileage, damage reports and wear rates is all key feedback that can be obtained in this way.
Tracking casings through the production process used to be done on a paper based system, but nowadays everything is controlled by barcode tagging. And its not only the casings that are tagged in this way. All the staff involved in the production process also have a unique barcode identifier, meaning that every technician is a accountable member of not only the production, but also the quality control team.
The tyres that survive the initial VFM/visual inspection process are then passed onto shearography. 100 per cent of casings used in Vacu-Lug’s retread manufacturing process go through sherographical examination first. They are all also tested after curing, meaning every retread produced is examined twice in this way. Any rejected tyres go to the company’s tyre collection and disposal partner Murfitts Industries, which recycles or disposes of the waste products in a zero-landfill procedure.
Currently roughly 50 per cent of casings are sourced from contracts Vacu-Lug supplies. It could be more but of course not all casings that come back from the fleet customers the company supplies are suitable retreading. The remainder are brought in from a selection of casing supply companies made up of the some of the largest and best known firms in this sector. Nevertheless the company still rejects 10-15 per cent of the tyres brought in through this channel.
Operating as Vacu-Lug does can put the company in danger of being a victim of its own sense as far as casing supply is concerned. At the moment acquiring enough of the right quality casing is the only limiting factor, as managing director Tim Hercock said during T&A’s visit, “Success as a remoulder also makes it more difficult to secure enough casings.”
And this could be an area that becomes more difficult over time as rental fleets (in the UK at least) are extremely busy nowadays playing an increasing role in the haulage businesses recovery post-recession. Demand for vehicles is said to be returning (albeit at a slower rate than mainland Europe), but fleets are either struggling to raise the necessary finance to purchase new vehicles or are reticent about the prospect of investing so much money on new vehicles when economic stability still needs to prove itself.
To demonstrate the point, in February Scania Truck Rental for example expanded its UK operations with the opening of three new rental locations. Company representatives said the decision was based on demand for premium quality long and short-term rental vehicles “running at an extremely high level” and furthermore they have “every confidence that this will continue.” As a result this firm alone are also increasing our fleet strength by 15 percent to meet our customers’ needs.”
The reason this is significant to retreaders in general and Vacu-Lug in particular is because increasingly rental companies are looking at economical supply options including retreads. Do these include Chinese-produced products? In a word yes, but continuity of supply is said to be the best argument against Chinese tyres for retreaders and premium manufacturers alike. Which brings us back to the original point, while in the past retreaders have been portrayed as competing on the bottom end of the scale with low-cost imported tyres and being a value added part of the new tyre chain, with the latest developments in the product development at the forefront, companies like Vacu-Lug are increasingly seeking to demonstrate that their tyres compete and can even beat the best when it comes to performance and value.