This is an interesting idea, one that might not get into production however it could lead researchers in a direction that creates a new product that is safe and easy to manufacture. Michelin has developed an airless tyre that is 3D printed rather than moulded using several materials for structure and life.
The name of this project is “the Visionary Concept” and the idea was to create a smart tyre using more natural materials – and yes, rubber definitely comes from a natural source before vulcanisation! Michelin want to use biodegradable products from other processes, in other words recycling the waste into another useable product. They have spoken about using wood chips, sugar biomass, straw (the waste product of harvesting) and even fruit peels and skins.
Michelin mix all this waste together to create the basis of the tyre and then print a honeycomb structure that uses shapes similar to the innards of our lungs. Apparently our lungs have small sacks connected to bigger ones and so the boffins have created a honeycomb with smaller gaps near the centre and getting larger towards the outer layer of the structure. They say this provides a stronger product.
On top of that is layered a mix of rubber for the tread and sensors to report the state of wear. The idea being that when the tread is low, the sensors advise the car to be driven to a Michelin dealer where a new tread is fitted by a 3D printer. If that’s the case, could seasonal tyres become more common outside the northern hemisphere? I would also be interested to see the life of the tread and whether there is a chance that under load, the tread could separate from the honeycomb structure, which can happen today on retreaded tyres.
Essentially airless tyres are simply large wheels which take the whole weight of the vehicle in one unit, rather than having a steel or aluminium wheel covered by a traditional multi-compound tyre. Michelin do suggest that their tyre could last the lifetime of the vehicle, with tread top-ups, so that would mean that the tyre would need to be reprinted on the fly. To do that would require cold cure systems and that presumably means a restructuring of the tyre dealer/franchise owner with a different skill set than is currently deployed today.
Michelin states that they believe that mobility is essential to human development and that this tyre will facilitate that. I don’t fully agree with that statement because current communication systems means that humans don’t have to travel to broaden their horizons. However, there is a desire to reuse more of the natural resources that are mined or grown and to not waste as much. If Michelin can reuse waste products then that is a good outcome.
We might also find a battle between how to best to maximise the use of all the waste products – using a biomass that can be a source of biofuels could cause the price to rise and therefore make one of the products unsustainable! If the tyres are biodegradable, at what point does that degradation start and how would it affect the life of the structure?
The future of personal transportation is full of different ideas and concepts. I wonder what the impact would be socially if these tyres became popular. Would Michelin have to make a standard size or make them specifically for a car manufacturer’s model ranges? Would they need less factories and if the tyre structure lasts for decades, then gradually a reduced number would be needed, thus removing jobs from the economy.
If that is the case, would we see more local “factories” spring up to reprint treads or will humans not travel as much and therefore not need regular reprints. There are so many unanswered questions with concepts like these however it is a step forward to figure out what could be available in the future.