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UTI Chemicals Says It’s Rolling Into Age of Plastic Tires

Times Staff Writer

People who make car tires have long dreamed of producing plastic tires that never go flat, need no repairs and cost less to make. But no one has been able to manufacture a plastic tire that can withstand heat and hard turns and still give a comfortable ride.

Now the age of the plastic tire is drawing near, and an Irvine company believes that it is at the forefront of the technology that will make dreams come true.

“We’ve reinvented the tire--and the wheel,” said Richard A. Steinke, chief executive officer of UTI Chemicals Inc.

UTI has come up with a solid tire for heavy-duty industrial uses and is far enough along on revolutionary car tires, both spare and full-size, to sign a five-year pact Thursday with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio.

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UTI already sells plastic bicycle tires in China as well as shoe inserts and plastic wheelchair tires in this country. But it is the technological leap to tires for heavier vehicles and the promise of everyday car tires that interests Goodyear.

Tires for Forklifts

Next week, Goodyear will begin using UTI’s chemicals and patented process to produce plastic tires for forklifts and other heavy industrial equipment. And UTI’s spare tire for passenger cars should be ready for production early next year, both companies said.

Goodyear has been paying for UTI’s research for the last year, and the two companies have been working together to come up with plans for a variety of products besides tires. The plastic--polyether urethane--already is competing with another plastic--polyester urethane--in padded dashboards, bumpers and other automobile parts.

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UTI, which expects revenues of about $5 million this year, hopes to garner at least $500 million in revenues during the contract period with Goodyear, Steinke said.

UTI’s director of research, Vincent F. Panaroni, who helped invent polyurethane wheels that touched off a skateboarding craze in the early 1970s, said UTI could have passenger car tires ready for production by the end of next year if all goes well.

UTI’s technology and the patented process for making the non-pneumatic, or airless, tires for industrial or highway uses has impressed Goodyear. But the company is slightly more restrained about prospects for the future than UTI executives.

“We’re taking it step by step,” said David Russ, a Goodyear spokesman. “At this point, the market is for pressed-on solid tires--mainly forklift tires. We’ll crawl before we walk.”

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But Goodyear, which has been trying to develop a viable plastic tire, isn’t about to let a potential breakthrough go by. Part of the deal gives the rubber company an exclusive right to negotiate for the purchase of UTI at the end of the exclusive contract period.

Millions for Research

Tire companies alone have spent more than $500 million in research and haven’t come up with a viable technology, Steinke said.

Regardless of any breakthrough, some are skeptical about the wonders of plastic tires, which entrepreneurs and companies have tried to build since 1925.

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“Someday, somebody is going to make that tire,” said Harry W. Millis, an industry analyst with McDonald & Co. in Cleveland. “Maybe this is the time. But I said in the mid-1960s that I didn’t expect to see it before the year 2000, and I still don’t.”

Despite elaborate claims by American and European companies in the last few decades, Millis said, no one has been able to develop a plastic tire that can withstand high speeds for long periods, handle severe cornering and still give passengers a comfortable ride.

But Panaroni said the small, closely held UTI has solved those problems and more.

“Part of the problems we’ve overcome are (the effects of) heat build-up, cornering and flat-spotting, which occurs during a power stop,” Panaroni said.

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And the more comfortable ride is achieved through UTI’s unique manufacturing process.

A small amount of the chemical foam is poured into a spinning mold, and the centrifugal force spreads the foam into the tread and walls. In a few seconds, the outer casing is hardened and the rest of the foam is poured into the interior of the tire, where it doesn’t harden as much and acts a little like foam rubber, Panaroni said.

“That gives the tire its cushion,” he said. Previous plastic tires have been filled with air or other material that has resulted in a stiff, jolting ride.

Near-Perfect Picture

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Panaroni and Steinke paint a near-perfect picture of the UTI product-to-come:

For consumers, the solid tire will weigh about the same as a current car tire, will come complete with a wheel and will be perfectly balanced for mounting directly on the car. It will last twice as long and will never go flat. And you can order it in different colors.

For manufacturers, the cost of producing the product is drastically reduced. It takes 50 workers in 50,000 square feet of plant space to make 2,880 rubber tires in an eight-hour shift, but only five workers in 2,000 square feet of space can do the same job. And the used tire is recyclable.

For workers, the new tire would mean less jobs, but the working conditions would be greatly improved. All the chemicals are nontoxic and non-carcinogenic, and there are no gases used in the production that would affect those with asthma.

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The spare tires that UTI and Goodyear hope to start producing will be smaller than full-size tires and designed for speeds under 50 m.p.h., as spares are designed already. Panaroni expects the spares to be orange-colored to encourage motorists to fix their regular tires as soon as possible.

One other feature of plastic tires could make heavy equipment companies and most motorists happy--the tires don’t leave skid marks. Joy-riders and accident investigators, however, would be disappointed.


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