When will airless tires, 3D printing and morphing trends make it into mass production?

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Chuck Yurkovich, senior VP of global research and development at Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, discusses when 3D printing, airless tires and morphing trends may become a reality

Advances in technology in the areas of 3D printing, airless tires and a morphing tread are under exploration and/or development by many tire companies, which means that all of them have a chance of making it to market.

In my opinion, the 3D printing of complex ‘tire mold features’ to enhance performance aspects such as traction (snow, ice and wet) and treadwear, along with ease of manufacturing, is likely to see application prior to the other technologies.

However, the 3D printing of a highly functional tire in a commercial operation is not within reach for current technology. This will require a technological break-through in material/polymer science development to make it a competitive proposition for the future with respect to cost, performance, and durability.

On the other hand, the airless tire has already been applied in niche fitments for small tires like bikes, mowers, golf carts, ATVs, and slow moving tires needed in heavy equipment applications.

These milestones may help catapult its use into passenger and light truck tires once ‘new’ designs and materials make the technology competitive with pneumatic tires and inherent airless tire issues – including durability, ride/comfort, tire weight, manufacturability and cost – are solved.

The morphing of a tread that responds to different road conditions is a very desirable performance attribute and potentially exciting technology. Tires with different tread layers have already been produced and can be considered ‘morphing tires’ given that their performance changes as each individual layer is reached over time. However, true morphing tread tires are something completely different.

This technology, in comparison to the others discussed, appears to be the furthest away from mass market use. This is because a highly concentrated effort is needed between auto and tire manufacturers to enable communication between the vehicle and the tire/the tire assembly (examples: air pressure, electrical stimulus, etc.) to maximize the responsiveness of a morphing tread. Durable polymers that respond to electrical stimulus to control stiffness/compliance will likely be a requirement for this concept. For now, this is some time into the future.

Overall, this is an exciting time to be in the tire industry with so many truly visionary concepts under development. Which technology will become a reality first is not easy to predict, but what can be said without a doubt is that with so many tire companies working toward improvements driven by this type of innovation, the public will be the real winner.

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