WAUSAU, Wis. — Rarely does one come across a business where the phrase “reinventing the wheel” is not just a metaphor, it’s an operating principle.
An ambitious startup company in central Wisconsin is exploring that very challenge with a project to develop tires that can withstand extreme punishment, even those meted out in military combat zones.
Resilient Technologies LLC is working on a four-year, $18 million project with the U.S. Department of Defense and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to research and develop a non-pneumatic tire for use on heavy-grade military vehicles such as Humvees.
The project could literally be a lifesaver for the military: In many situations in Iraq, tires have proven to be weak links in Humvees that enemies target with improvised explosive devices.
“You see reports all the time of troops who were injured by an IED or their convoys got stranded because their tires were shot out,” said Mike Veihl, general manager of Resilient.
“There’s all sorts of armor on the vehicle, but if you’re running in the theater and get your tire shot out, what have you got? You’ve got a bunch of armor in the middle of a field.”
The company has made remarkable strides in just over two years of operations, cycling through hundreds of prototypes, developing subscale airless tires for lawn tractors, and finally the featured product: In April, Resilient installed a set of its creations on a Wausau-based National Guard Humvee, where it is undergoing rigorous on- and off-road tests.
Resilient partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Polymer Engineering Center for the project. In addition to conducting basic polymer research, the center works with dozens of companies on materials testing and product development.
The Resilient project presented one of the more complicated challenges his lab has seen, given the complete rethinking taking place in the design and the high levels of performance the tire must meet.
The Wisconsin design breakthrough, first developed by Resilient’s in-house design and development team, takes a page from nature.
“The goal was to reduce the variation in the stiffness of the tire, to make it transmit loads uniformly and become more homogenous,” said Tim Osswald, mechanical engineering professor. “And the best design, as nature gives it to us, is really the honeycomb.”
The patent-pending Resilient design relies on a precise pattern of six-sided cells that are arranged, like a honeycomb, in a way that best mimics the “ride feel” of pneumatic tires. The honeycomb geometry also does a great job of reducing noise levels and reducing heat generated during usage — two common problems with past applications.
In June, the company installed a massive flywheel device called an Akron Standard road wheel, which can inflict wear and tear on prototype tires, simulating hundreds of thousands of miles at interstate speeds.
While the military application is the most urgent primary market, Veihl said the tire has potential for virtually any vehicle where a flat tire causes significant headaches. That includes ATVs, mining equipment, farm machinery and construction equipment.
The passenger automobile industry may be on the horizon as well. But right now, Veihl is concentrating on his customers at the National Guard.