Polaris Industries Inc. has surely unleashed what every soldier driving on the battlefield would want: a tire that can't go flat.
Last month, Polaris unveiled its airless "never-flat" tire at the U.S. Army's 2012 Annual Meeting & Exposition in Washington. The tire is a technological feat for a company better known for making ATVs, snowmobiles and motorcycles, and rugged off-road vehicles for the military.
Each airless or "non-pneumatic" tire core is made with a web of plastic honeycombs and surrounded by a thick band of rubber tread. The plan is to roll the tire out to the Army first and then focus on consumers who drive Polaris ATVs on their farms, ranches, factories and fields. The implications for the Army could be huge.
"Even if up to 30 percent of the web is damaged, the tire can still function," said Richard Haddad, general manager of Polaris' defense division. He noted that the technology is a big improvement over "run-flat" tires now on the market. Run-flat tires allow drivers who get a flat to keep driving for another 50 to 100 miles before the tire goes completely dead, Haddad said.
Determined to prove the might of its non-pneumatic tire, the Medina-based Polaris shot a .50-caliber bullet into one tire and then rode it 5,000 miles.
"We drove one with a railroad spike in it for over 1,000 miles. The thing drove like it was brand new," Haddad said. "These are designed to last the life of the vehicle. This capability gives our troops an edge when operating in rugged, war-torn terrain."
The plan is to first test the rugged tires on Polaris' military ATVs and then commercialize them by selling across Polaris' consumer unit, which makes about 200,000 off-road, all-terrain and utility vehicles each year.
If successful, the tires will offer one more product line for the fast-growing Polaris, which has about $3 billion in annual sales. Polaris hasn't determined exact pricing for the new tire. But officials say prices could easily exceed $500 each. That would be a 30 to 50 percent premium over a traditional ATV tire and rim assembly, Haddad said.
Haddad envisions a day when 60 percent of Polaris' consumer customers may opt for the new tires. If true, it could mean tens of millions of dollars in new revenue and a seat at the industry table with Michelin, BMW and others working to develop indestructible tires.
But for now, Polaris has captured the interest of the military. The Army began testing eight Polaris tires on military ATVs about four weeks ago. "The Army is always looking at innovative next-generation technologies that improve capabilities for our soldiers," said Dov Schwartz, a U.S. Army spokesman at the Pentagon.
Polaris didn't invent the technology. It bought Wisconsin-based Resilient Technologies in April, a 12-person start-up that first made airless lawn mower tires and sought to jazz them up for bigger applications.
"I told Polaris that you may want to look at this," said inventor Ali "Doc" Manesh, a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who came up with the idea for a new tire after working for a firm that was designing a new aluminum rim.
"I thought we were putting too much effort into this process. After spending all this money, your tire can still go flat. So I came up with the solution," said Manesh, who now is president of Chicago-based American Science and Technology. He shopped his idea, and the Department of Defense jumped on it.
Four years ago, the U.S. Army paid Resilient Technologies more than $1 million to develop an airless prototype for military Humvees. Once that contract expired, Manesh and two partners developed an air-less tire for consumers.
They started with wheels for riding lawn mowers. And then called Polaris, which liked what it saw. The tire could handle debris, heat, hefty weight loads and absorb shocks easily, Haddad said. The tire's honeycomb core acts as a shock absorber.
Manesh is happy with the outcome. "We developed the idea, had a design and proved that it worked. But we could not take it into full production. So Polaris took it from there. I am grateful because that is my baby. I am glad that somebody grew it."
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725