Tire giant Michelin outlined a vision of a very different tire future. The company hopes to in two years release a tire made out of rubber combined with wood. What’s more, the company hopes to 3D print this tire. Once the tire has been worn down the company then will rejuvenate it through 3D printing. In this vision, tire changes will no longer happen, but 3D printing will add new material to the tire via service points throughout the world. A year ago Michelin released its Visionary Concept an idea for a 3D printed tire. This was released with much fanfare but there was no talk of this being an actual manufactured part. Now Cyrille Roget has indicated that the company will produce these tires, with the first one becoming available in two years. At the same time he stated that Michelin will work for a decade on developing a 3D printing technology for rubber, including rubber derived from wood.
It may sound silly at first, but the French tire technology giant is very serious about elastomers from wood. Michelin’s Cyrille Roget, Director of Scientific and Innovation communication at Michelin, said that,
“The elastomers from wood chips will replace the oil content in tyres. 80 per cent of the materials in tyres are coming from oil. We have a project working with wood chips. We will use the waste from the wood industry to create elastomers that come into tyres. We believe it is a good solution for the future,”
Roget thinks that oil will only make up “20 percent by 2048” of the tire. This would be a considerable achievement considering that Michelin makes over 166 million tires a year. The company also would be able to get these wood chips from all over the planet which could lower costs.
“Trees grow everywhere. So you re-distribute the opportunity for everyone to have local sourcing. And they are renewable,”
In Brazil Michelin is also setting up sustainable plantations to grow bananas and cacao in areas alongside rubber. It now wants to expand these plantations.
“It’s not a dream. We should have the first industry machine in 2020. And then the industry will ramp up from there We hope in 2020 we will be able to show the first tyre made of wood.”
The company also joined forces with AddUp. AddUp was a metal 3D printing spin out of Michelin a few years ago.
“We have established a joint venture with a company called AddUp that is the leader in 3D printing for metallic parts. It has already made more than one million parts, so it is not prototyping.” It is interesting that Michelin would choose its former metal production partner to 3D print polymers. Many of us were impressed by AddUp’s metal parts, and the strong safety focus that the company had. It seemed that some serious thought had gone into developing a production system along with the ancillaries. Indeed AddUp’s parts and production numbers were a surprise for many as well who did not know that Michelin was using millions of metal parts in manufacturing.
Most surprising perhaps, apart from the fact that a European company would want to set up plantations overseas nowadays, was that the company stated that it was developing a 3D printing technology. “We are working with it to develop rubber printing or polymer printing. We are more in the early stages of this technology. But it needs to be industrialised and ready for the future.”
The company thinks that it will take it ten to fifteen years to industrialise these technologies. That the company may be developing a printing process for rubber is exciting news. The fact that from the get-go it may be explicitly developed from elastomers from wood could make it a breakthrough process for this application, as well as an interesting one for shoes and the like.
“We can print the tread, but it needs to be industrialised. We are making some very fast advances. It could be that eventually, the re-charge station for your electric car is also the recharge station for the tyres.” Roget thinks that “biggest hurdle for the moment is the network to be able to recharge the tyres.” I beg to differ and believe that industrialising a reliable rubber 3D printing process may be a bit more complicated. Although it does seem that Michelin could be quite far along in that regard.
I’m slightly confused about this. On the one hand, Michel moving into sustainable materials like this is enormous. The fact that the company wants to move to a “reprinting” model for 3D printing over used tires would also be fascinating and immediately make this a significant application for our industry. However, I’m not entirely sure how much of this optimism and how much is a portend of a massive industry changing its ways. Tiremakers have come under fire recently that tires may be carcinogenic and that ground up tires used in athletic fields may even be a cancer risk. So this may just be a shot over the bough by the company wishing to distance itself from an uncomfortable present towards a hopeful future.
One would have expected a bit more fanfare from a sea change in how tires will be made. Michelin knows marketing, and this feels a bit sudden and unscripted. Also, I’m not entirely sure that it is wise to be announcing that one is developing a rubber 3D printing technology with wood elastomers. I would have choked on my Musli if I were working in the Intellectual Property part of Michelin. It is not precisely handy unless the company is well underway and has secured IP. The company does have some patents on 3D printing. This patent outlines how the millions of 3D printed metal inserts are being used to mould and vulcanise the tires. They also have a patent for an injector based powder bed fusion technology. Most surprisingly still they have a 3D printed shoe patent as well. The overall retreading technology may be dispersed throughout these and other patents, or it could have been that someone spoke out of turn. Either way, it is a good thing that people are developing manufacturing processes from the ground up. By taking into account where supplies are made, where the product needs to go and what it is made of new methods could be integrally sustainable. It would be wonderful if something like this could happen at one point and 3D printing tires were something you did over a latte.