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Rubber pricing

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What with soaring prices and severe shortages, the last 18 months have been an extraordinarily challenging time for anybody attempting to buy bus and coach tyres. “Over the past year-and-a-half prices across the industry have risen by no less than 30 per cent,” says Hankook UK sales director, Barrie Horrocks.

It has been the escalating cost of raw materials that has driven the size of the invoices presented to customers steadily upwards. At one point last year the cost of natural rubber rocketed by an astonishing 60 per cent says Tracey Hyem, UK marketing manager, commercial tyres, at Continental.

Fortunately natural rubber prices appear to have stabilised, says Horrocks: and while tyres certainly aren’t getting any cheaper, the pace of price increases appears to have slackened, at least for the moment.

Longer-term the cost of everything that goes into a tyre – principally rubber, steel, and oil – and the energy required to produce it will only head in one direction, and that’s upwards. That means that it is essential that companies get the maximum possible mileage out of their tyres without compromising safety.

“As a consequence we’re trying to work with operators to ensure they use the right tyre for the right application,” says Michel Rzonzef, vice president commercial tyres, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Goodyear Dunlop.

The shortage was created by the length of time it took the tyre industry to gear itself up to the expanding demand for its products after cutting output during the last recession.

“However supply and demand are now increasingly in balance,” says Horrocks. “We’ve got virtually full availability.”

“We’re filling the delivery pipeline,” says Rzonzef.

If anything supply might just be on the verge of exceeding demand industry-wide suggests Bridgestone’s UK marketing manager, commercial, Roger Moulding. He’s detected a downward trend in the demand for replacement tyres so far this year, but doubts it will lead to a sudden spate of price-cutting.

“Tyre manufacturers cannot afford to go that route because they need to maintain their profitability,” he observes.

So do operators: and that means using diesel more efficiently. As a consequence many of them are looking at fitting low-rolling-resistance tyres such as Bridgestone’s Ecopia, although the only people who can really benefit from them are coach operators on long-distance work points out Moulding.

“Fit Ecopias and you’ll see rolling resistance fall by around 12 per cent which equates to a 3 to 4 per cent drop in fuel consumption,” he observes.

Hankook too is promoting low-rolling-resistance products – it offers the e-cube range – with the same end in view. One argument against low-rolling-resistance tyres is that they may not offer the same mileage as conventional ones, but that has to be weighed against the fuel economy benefits they can bring at a time of escalating diesel prices says Horrocks.

“The saving is still worth having even if they don’t do the mileage,” he remarks.

Rolling resistance will soon be much easier to assess.

Come November all tyres produced after this July will have to be sold with a label displaying standardised information about their rolling resistance, wet grip and noise levels similar to the energy ratings given to household appliances. The first two will be expressed as an A to G grading while the last-named will be expressed in decibels.

The rules governing labelling look set to be updated in 2016 and are likely to be made stricter. “We’d like to see winter performance included,” says Rzonzef.

The labels are intended to help purchasers make better-informed choices. “If you take rolling resistance for example then choosing a Class C-graded tyre could result in up to 10 per cent more fuel being used by your vehicle than it would burn if you chose a tyre graded Class A,” says Hyem.

She believes that such labelling could give producers of premium tyres such as Continental an edge over some of their less-well-known competitors.

TD Tyres executive, Adam Fletcher, does not believe that the labels will dent the appeal of the products the Malvern, Worcestershire-based company markets. Many of the tyres it sells are sourced from China, and Fletcher argues that their quality has improved dramatically over the past five years.

“The technology the Chinese employ these days is second to none,” he contends.

Chinese tyres still have a pricing advantage however he adds.

“We’re now in a situation where you can buy two Chinese-branded tyres for the price of one Michelin,” he claims. “Not surprisingly, a lot of people have moved from premium to budget brands.”

Front-end price is a hugely important consideration for many operators he adds who in the current economic climate do not know whether they will be in business in a year from now. “There are firms that are in such a tight financial position that they’re having to purchase part-worn tyres to keep going,” he states.

Going the part-worn route is of course highly ill-advised. While the tread depth may still be legal, the tyre may have suffered difficult-to-detect internal damage while in the hands of its previous owner: damage that may only become apparent when it suddenly fails on the motorway with catastrophic consequences.

“I think the Chinese have made inroads into the British market,” reflects Horrocks. “They had the availability when we were struggling to supply.”

Giti in particular has made significant progress.

Depending on the sort of vehicles they run and the type of work they are on, retreads sourced from a reputable supplier represent an alternative for the budget-conscious and for the environmentally-aware too.

Recycling casings that still have some useful life left in them makes sound ecological and financial sense. A number of big fleets have long adopted the practice of re-grooving tyres, re-treading them and re-grooving them again prior to final disposal, always assuming the casing remains sound through the entire cycle.

Continental has recently expanded its ContiRe bead-to-bead hot-cure retread range. Furthermore, under a joint agreement with Italian retreading systems supplier Marangoni Group, it is to start selling ContiTread cold-cure retreads in Britain from April onwards.

ContiTreads are already marketed extensively in continental Europe and the Republic of Ireland.

Not that retreads are as cheap as they once were. Premium retread casings are in high demand at present says Hyem and values are increasing accordingly.

As the threat of winter recedes, operators may be putting any thoughts they may have about the use of winter tyres onto the back burner. Now is the time when the best policy to be adopted needs thinking about however: not in nine months time when the snow is thick on the ground and the yard looks like a skating rink.

That is especially the case if the company is on long-distance European work – ferrying skiers to the slopes of Austria and Switzerland for example – because some countries apply strict rules when it comes to the type of tyre that must be used in winter weather.

Continental has just updated its winter tyre guide. Available as a free download, it is packed full of useful information, pointing out that in Austria for example winter tyres are compulsory from 1 November to 15 April, with fines of up to 5,000 euros liable to be visited on those who fail to comply. In Germany fines can be dished out to drivers who disrupt traffic in winter because they’ve got unsuitable tyres fitted to their vehicles: a sensible policy.

“Continental offers dedicated winter products such as the HSW2 and HDW2 Scandinavia tyres,” says Hyem.

Michelin points out that according to Department for Transport statistics either ice or snow was reported as the main factor behind 317 bus and coach accidents in the UK in 2010.

Having sold it in mainland Europe, especially in the Nordic countries, Michelin now markets the XDW Ice Grip in Britain. Designed to cope with severe cold weather, it boasts 2,000 bi-directional sipes: incisions on the surface of a tyre designed to enhance traction.

Also available are the all-seasons X Coach XD and X In City XZU3 M + S (mud and snow) rated tyres designed to keep vehicles rolling in the majority of winter weather conditions likely to be encountered in the UK.

Intended for use on drive axles, X Coach XD is said to offer up to 10 per cent more grip in wet or slippery conditions and up to 15 per cent more grip in snow and ice when compared with the XDA4. X InCity XZU3 is said to offer up to 18 per cent more traction in urban driving conditions when compared with Michelin’s XZU+, not to mention up to 15 per cent better mileage

X InCity XZU3 users include Stoke-on-Trent based bus and coach operator Bakers Coaches. It had the tyre fitted to its first three hybrid buses, all Volvo B5 RLHs with Wrightbus Gemini bodies, which went into service last October.

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