It's a sad day -- and expensive -- when the rubber tracks on your tractor wear out.
Camso, a Quebec-based track specialist, now has a plan to give new life to old tracks. It opened a remanufacturing plant this summer in Emporia, Kansas, that incorporates a new process the company claims can give tracks multiple lives -- at a cost of 40% less than new.
The process means that two or three new lives for tracks are possible, maybe more, said Martin Lunkenbein, Camso director of service and aftermarket sales. "What is the limit? We have not found it yet."
Camso is a major force in high-quality rubber tracks for the North American ag market. It provides original equipment tracks for most of the tracked vehicles that roll off assembly lines at John Deere, AGCO, CNH, Claas and Buehler factories. These include tracks for tractors, combines, grain carts and implements. Camso also supplies track systems for Kinze grain carts.
"Almost anything [on tracks] that comes out of factories for the ag market, we are there either exclusively or with a large share," Lunkenbein said.
Even with this strong base, launching a new venture in a weak farm economy might seem risky. But, the weak economy actually might partially explain Camso's timing: Farmers want to cut costs where they can, and remanufactured is cheaper than new.
Camso also seems confident farmers will buy more tracked vehicles in the future. Company officials point to a recent upward trend in tracked vehicle sales as a percentage of the national ag fleet. They also point to a burst of new products on tracks.
In the past five years, for instance, Deere has added to its line the 9RX, a four-track tractor. Case IH launched the two-track, two-wheeled Magnum Rowtrac tractors. New Holland released SmartTrax combines. And, AGCO this year introduced the White Planter 9924VE, which uses tracks to support the weight of its central-fill delivery system.
The new machines reflect farmers' faith that tracks can reduce compaction, improve ride and increase their ability to work in damp conditions. And, all of these new machines will one day need replacement tracks.
Finally, if the remanufacturing strategy is successful, Camso's dealers could build new loyalty in their customer base and spawn repeat sales almost indefinitely. "We want to be a cradle-to-grave supplier," said Sylvain Dube, Camso director of remanufacturing.
Camso's process for remanufacturing tracks will be unique but straightforward. Worn tracks arrive at the Emporia, Kansas, facility, where technicians peer below the worn or damaged tread to examine the core, or "carcass." They decide if it is structurally sound and suitable for remanufacturing.
If it passes that test, the carcass is "buffed." That is, a machine strips off the old tread bars and guide bars. From there, the now-flat track moves to the "skiving" station, where a worker fills by hand any holes left by the buffer. Next, the track goes to a station where two workers apply adhesive then attach new guide bars and tread bars.
Finally, the remanned track spends three to four hours in a curing system. Inspectors then make sure the track meets standards and release it for delivery.
Remanufacturing introduces a new level of complexity to Camso's traditional manufacturing model. "Over the years, we have become very good at delivering product [from the factory]," Lunkenbein said. "Now, we have to learn how to get it back [from customers for remanufacturing]. It's like putting the toothpaste back in the tube."
A worn track has two routes to and from the Emporia plant. In one route, worn tracks arrive at the plant from distributors who acquire them as trade-ins from customers. These remanufactured tracks become part of a used inventory distributors can later sell.
The second path is more direct. A customer [farmer] can make an appointment to bring or ship a worn track to Emporia. The plant will process the track and have the remanufactured track ready for pickup in 24 to 48 hours.
This direct second path offers an attractive option to farmers. If they want to change the original configuration of their track, they can request the change as long as Camso engineers find the new configuration is feasible on the old carcass.
This option might be especially useful if a farmer has changed cropping practices since his original purchase and wants to try a different tread pattern.
Camso understands that remanufactured tracks currently might have an image problem in some minds. "Remanufactured" is another way to say "retread." When people hear "retread," they likely get a mental image of highways littered with strips of rubber falling from retread tractor-trailer tires. It's not a pretty picture.
But, while that image was true in the past, it is not as true today, Dube said. Thirty years ago, retread tires were inferior and unreliable. Today, technology has improved, and 80% of all truck tires on the road are remanufactured and reliable.
A parallel scenario involves remanufactured rubber tracks, Dube said. In recent years, a few small companies have offered retread tracks. These companies were not tracks manufacturers and did not have the expertise to do the best job, Dube said: "Competition out there created a bad reputation for reman."
Camso officials have a plan to rebuild the reputation for remanufactured tracks.
First, Camso has more than 20 years making rubber tracks for the ag market. When it decided to remanufacture, it knew it could tap into its institutional knowledge to do the job correctly. Second, Camso will only retread its own tracks. "We know the chemistry of the original core," Lunkenbein said, which means Camso knows the rubber compounds, adhesives and technologies that work best with those cores.
To test its knowledge and its remanufactured product, Camso spent months testing and refining its remanufactured tracks. This winter, Camso did field tests with tracked tractor farmers in Kansas and Texas.
One of them was Tom Phillips, an Allen, Kansas, farmer who put 500 hours on a set of reman tracks with his AGCO MT765D. "We abused the crap out of them, and they hardly even scuffed," he said.
To further help the image of remanufactured tracks, Camso will offer a two-year, 2,000-hour warranty similar to what it gives with its new tracks. "We have worked very hard to make sure we have the same quality [as new]," Dube explains. "We're not going blindly to the market."
Camso and Michelin reached an agreement in July for the French tire maker to acquire Camso. The announcement from Michelin said the two companies' off-road operations would be combined to form a new division to be managed from Camso's Magog, Quebec, headquarters. Reporting net sales of $1 billion, Camso has been designing, manufacturing and marketing off-road products since 1982.
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