Michelin’s microchip RFID/TPMS tyre first of its kind

In something of a coup for the UK, Michelin chose London as the venue for the global launch of its latest RFID/TPMS truck tyre technology on 19 June. The UK truck tyre business, which has previously been referred to as something of a model for other mature European markets, was selected because it is an area where the French tyre manufacturer is dominant in the truck and especially bus segments. This fact also provided Michelin with a clear opportunity to implement its technology on a large fleet and thereby also demonstrate the performance of its technology to fleets and the market as a whole. Tyres & Accessories visited West Ham Bus Garage in East London to attend the launch of technology and see it in action.

Michelin unveiled a specially designed bus tyre featuring the combination of embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) tag and specialist commercial vehicle orientated tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS). Currently only available in one size (275/70 R22.5), the Michelin X InCity tyres allow technicians to obtain casing specific pressure and temperature data quickly and accurately. At the same time the RFID part of the package offers the best traceability of commercial vehicles casings as they go through their multiple lifecycles that is currently available on the market. This in itself is not strictly pioneering, but the combination of the two technologies is.

While not generally employed yet, the use of RFID chips in various stages of tyre production and distribution is increasing – take Chinese manufacturer Triangle, which uses this technology in its distribution and logistics process for example. Other manufacturers such as Goodyear and Bridgestone are amongst the leaders when it comes to embedding chips in certain selected products. For its part Goodyear has been using RFID in its Nascar tyres for a few years and last November heralded the arrival of the Goodyear Regional RHT II RFID 435/50 R19.5 trailer tyre. Bridgestone is trialling RFID chips in selected markets and segments too, with its OTR tyres in Brazil being the latest example of this.

However, it must also be pointed out that fast growing tyre manufacturing equipment manufacturer Mesnac and Sailun Tire (two companies that have a history of cooperation) were jointly displaying 4×4 and truck tyres featuring this kind of capability as far back as the Qingdao, China tyre exhibition of 2008. This incidentally came about as a result of Mesnac purchasing some 100,000 of these chips “for a variety of testing purposes” from a UK-based niche supplier, which has since become part of Transense.

Bridgestone is also testing a bespoke commercial vehicle version of its own TPMS system, the prototype of which has been driven around British motorways for several months now, but in this instance there has been no mention of RFID technology. All this makes Michelin’s announcement something a first.

External bar codes and serial number labelling systems can always go awry when it comes to retreading but embedded chips tell you exactly what tyre you are looking at no matter what tread or sidewall veneer it is currently wearing. RFID dispenses with the need for checking each tyre’s identification number individually which can be problematic, especially when that number appears on the tyre’s inner sidewall, which is often the case. Even when the number is on the outer sidewall, it is sometimes hard to read because of constant rubbing and scraping against curbs and other obstacles.

Calling it latest CV development the “communicating tyre”, Michelin put it this way: by combining TPMS and RFID, the company is enabling London transport operators to “enhance the safety of the tyres fitted on their buses.” Making sure tyres have correct pressures and tread depths certainly will aid safety, but there are also commercial and strategic reasons why Michelin will be pleased to push a nose ahead of its premium competitors in this technology.

The clever thing about the RFID chip Michelin uses is that it doesn’t need a battery since it is powered by the electromagnetic waves emitted during data collection. The memory of the RFID chips used by Michelin is divided into four areas. Half of this is locked serial data (there are two types of virtual locking mechanism one permanent and one reversible) and half is user data space. According to the company, its lifespan is considerably longer than that of the tyre itself. And unlike with bar codes, there is no risk of erasure or of labels coming unstuck. Data is transmitted by a wireless, non-contact system that uses radio waves. (The TPMS system however does require batteries that need to be replaced every 7 – 10 years depending on usage).

Michelin reports that it takes 15 minutes on average to check the pressure and condition of a bus or truck tyre. That’s why fleet managers need to implement complex, costly maintenance systems to check tyres on several hundred vehicles, especially for dual-mount wheels, which further complicate the inspection process and make it even longer. And this is all assuming that the weather is clement and human error and paper and pencil don’t let you down. The technicians using a special tread probe/system reader tool showed how the new system records tyre IDs, pressures and tread depths could be check in literally seconds. Dual axle fitments hardly take any longer. The time, accuracy and health and safety benefits of checking tyre condition this way are clear.

Demonstrating quality

When you consider that this information, once downloaded to a computer, gives fleet managers fast access to the tyre condition data, the sales benefits are also evident. And while premium tyres such as Michelin’s have long led the market in terms of quality and innovation, the ability to objectively demonstrate the mileage and condition of specific tyres will no-doubt help the company communicate the quality of its products to customers. Despite the tightening of legislation that has taken place in recent years, the share of the tyre market occupied by Korean and Chinese manufacturers that sell at a lower price than European firms has increased rapidly across the European markets. This is especially the case in the UK where these competitors are fast approaching the top five in the overall truck and bus tyre market. Michelin representatives conceded that this makes it all the more important to the company to demonstrate the superior quality of products.

In addition to saving time, Michelin gave an impression of just how much fuel, money and CO2 emissions could be saved simply by keeping tyres in the right condition. Michelin estimates that a tyre inflated to 1 bar less than the recommended pressure increases fuel consumption by up to 0.4 litres per 100 km, where studies have shown that two-thirds of trucks in Europe could improve their tyres’ performance (choice of tyres, geometry and tyre pressure), thereby reducing fuel consumption. That’s how Michelin’s innovative solutions make a major contribution to more efficient, more sustainable mobility.

Greater longevity is also said to be on offer as correct inflation also helps to reduce wear. And at the same time Michelin reports that studies of fleet operations have shown that 75 per cent of tyre-related incidents and problems are due to slow leaks.

Olympic spirit, Herculean security

Launching the technology in West Ham also gave Michelin the opportunity to link its latest technology with the 30th Olympic Games which are being held in the same part of London (from 27 July to 12 August 2012 in case you somehow have avoided the plethora of firms seeking to capitalise on the Olympic spirit). And why not? The Olympic games will undoubtedly bring with them a strong influx of public transport uses and therefore a greater demand for reliability from bus fleet managers.

During the Olympic and Paralympic Games, no fewer than 10 million spectators are expected to be on hand to support and encourage 10,500 athletes who will compete in 26 sports on 34 different sites. In addition, there will be more than 21,000 journalists and 3,000 officials in attendance. This means an average of 500,000 additional passengers (with a peak expected for the eighth day of the Games, with an estimated total of 800,000 to 1 million visitors) for a public transport network that is often close to saturation during normal conditions of use.

Also for obvious reasons, bus depots will be placed under close surveillance and only accredited personnel will be allowed access, even for vehicle maintenance operations. At the same time, the need for mobility means that buses used to transport permanent or temporary residents of the city must be in service 22 to 23 hours out of 24. That’s why the entire system must be highly reliable.

All this is of particular significance to Michelin in the UK because it is quite simply dominant in the bus sector. According to the manufacturer, 33,000 buses are covered by Michelin service contracts (representing 80 per cent of the country’s bus market) and a 100 per cent market share for four of the five largest British bus transport companies and a 50 per cent share for the fifth (which is believed to be split with Bridgestone). What’s more, 85 per cent of all London buses are fitted with Michelin tyres.

Customers who entrust management of their fleet tyres to Michelin Group represent a total of approximately 300,000 vehicles, managed by 600 experts who are constantly in contact with transport companies throughout Europe. Michelin’s clientele includes some of the industry’s largest companies in nearly 20 European countries including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic and Turkey. And no doubt this technology will be making an appearance in these markets too in the fullness of time.

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