Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio – Steelastic Co. LLC is playing the long game as the company realised it will take time to gain a foothold in the tire industry with its new "calenderless" approach for making textile body plies.
The Cuyahoga Falls-based equipment maker sees a more nimble future where smaller tire manufacturing plants will become more commonplace, one where the company's technology will make sense to more and more manufacturers.
"It's really a new approach. We're doing it by an extrusion-based technology where the market, generally speaking, does it with very large, very expensive calenders. It's an alternative method," said Greg Hamilton, vice president of sales and marketing.
Instead of using rollers in a calender system to combine steel belts and rubber to make components of the tire, Steelastic offers an extrusion approach that combines the material.
Steelastic is using the time-tested extrusion technology for the textile plies portion of tires, which are reinforced with materials such as nylon or polyester instead of steel.
While calender systems manufacture with higher output than Steelastic's extrusion approach, the company said its systems can help keep costs down and reduce the amount of space needed for manufacturing.
"We can't produce anything near as much or as fast as a calender can produce. But we are smaller and more flexible. That is our niche in this market," said Bob Irwin, Steelastic's manager of business development.
Steelastic sees its market for the new textile extrusion system as smaller, but by no means small: new manufacturing facilities that would push out 1 million to 4 million tires per year.
Existing larger plants already have their larger calender systems in place, so Steelastic doesn't see its approach as a replacement in those settings. But those facilities could use a calenderless approach to add to production and complement existing equipment, the company believes.
Steelastic touts lower machinery costs and more flexibility to switch out production more easily on its machines compared to calenders.
"One of the other things is there's an expanding number of SKUs," Irwin said. "There's a lot of different materials that are required. And our process lends itself easier to that.
"If you are going to go build a plant, especially in an area where it's not going to be a major high volume and you want to get a quick return on investment in that area, we're talking 1 to 4 million tires per year. … You can put this calenderless system in and get your return on investment a lot faster."
The material is pulled from the loop with tooling that is used to control length, and then cut, indexed, and the splice is stitched.
Steelastic introduced its new system in 2019 and has run several trials for interested customers, and they are showing interest in the new technology, the officials said.
"The tire industry is a very slow-moving market. They do not move fast from one technology to another. So for us to get these trials and for them to do it, everything was validated and compared to be equal to or better," Irwin said. "That was a big step. It's been well received."
And while Steelastic looks to put its first extrusion-based textile ply system into the market, the company continues to produce its machinery for calenderless extrusion with steel belts.
COVID-19, like it has around the world, certainly has impacted Steelastic, but the company never shut down completely. There was a skeleton crew for about a month at one point, and production has ramped back up on the shop floor.
"From a manufacturing standpoint, we never really shut down," Irwin said.
Steelastic machines typically take between 32 to 38 weeks to deliver after being ordered, so the company has a book of business to keep it busy coming out of the Covid-19 related disruptions.
"We didn't have any cancellations, though we did have some push out (of delivery times)," Hamilton said.
Some customers have asked for delivery of their orders to be delayed into 2021 and 2022 as they regroup from the economic impacts of the virus. "What you see is a push. People are saying 'I'm not canceling this order,' " Hamilton said, but they just need more time.
Steelastic is part of the Heico Tire & Rubber Group, which also includes Bartell Machinery Systems LLC of Rome, New York. Bartell is an equipment maker, serving the tire, rubber, oil, gas, and wire and cable industries. Bartell's equipment portfolio includes tire bead making machinery.