Tires sit on a rack at a shop
By Mike Weinhammer | December 21, 2021

Why You Should be Looking Harder at RFID Tire Tread Labels If You Want a Faster Way to Find and Move Inventory

New identification solution makes it easier to locate, maintain and even recall tires, whether they’re currently on a passenger vehicle, semi-truck, or tall rack.

Time travels fast. So do tires. And not just when they’re on the road, either. With the high rate of speed that tire retailers are clocking these days, it can be hard to ensure they have – and can locate – the tire make and model needed for a customer appointment. This also impacts each tire manufacturer’s brand reputation and success, as sales are either lost or won based on availability.

However, it can be easy to keep customers, workers and other stakeholders happy when you put Zebra’s new UHF RFID Tire Tread Label on your tire inventory – or ask your manufacturer, distributor or other supply chain partner to do so.

How RFID Tire Tread Labels Help Your Team Move Faster

There is growing interest in decreasing wrench time. (You can read about what Discount Tire is doing here.) And there’s a prime opportunity right now for tire retailers to both reduce wrench time and improve inventory accuracy with radio frequency identification (RFID). It helps retailers ensure tires are in stock at the time of a customer’s appointment to deliver a great customer experience. Tire manufacturers also benefit as they can retain revenue from customers who want their brand or gain revenue from customers switching to a different brand that is in stock.

However, not all tires are being tagged at the source today.

That’s why we designed a new RFID tire tread label that can be applied by manufacturers – or even tire distributors or retailers when a new tire is received. It can be removed at the time of tire installation, and enable accurate, reliable encoding and readability as the tire moves through the supply chain and into a store. RFID – and this tire tread label, in particular – can work wonders when trying to maintain accountability for order fulfillment or simply count on-hand inventory that could be scattered across a huge facility or stacked 30 feet in the air.

As a warehouse or distribution center operator, you can…

  • make better stocking decisions and avoid overpromising/underdelivering. With RFID counts happening often, and covering your entire tire inventory, you’ll have an accurate picture of what you have on hand, the throughput of certain SKUs and any potential shortages. You can level-set your safety stock to avoid overages or plus-up when needed to account for production or shipping delays from the manufacturer to ensure you’re able to meet customer demand.
  • improve the accuracy of deliveries from the manufacturer or to the retailer and expedite claims processing when needed. RFID labels can be read automatically – and accurately – as tires are loaded or unloaded to confirm proper quantities are being sent or received. No one will question whether the person manually counting each tire accidentally missed one since RFID helps reconcile the advanced shipping notice (ASN) with the actual delivery types and quantities. You can even integrate read data into the ERP for better loss tracking, administrative and financial audits, and claims processing related to supplier over- and under-shipments. Should you receive a claim from a customer, you’ll be able to verify shipped inventory quantities to either confirm or dispute the chargeback’s validity. Though, to be honest, you shouldn’t be surprised if RFID helps reduce the number of claims that need to be filed either by you or your customers. Once you get better control of your inventory and logistics with RFID, it will be easier to ensure the right tires get to the right store – and get incorrectly delivered inventory routed to the right place.

If you own or run an automotive service center or other retail tire business, you’ll be able to…

  • understand inventory management metrics. RFID helps you confirm how often inventory counts are occurring, how long they take, how many associate hours are being dedicated to inventory, and if you missed any sales.
  • locate tires quickly. Tires are easily misplaced, yet not easily found. Plus, it can take a long time for workers to find the right tire amidst rows of rubber. It’s not easy to tell them apart from each other from a distance…unless you have an RFID reader that can read a label from several feet away with perfect accuracy and help them pick a needle out of a haystack.
  • save sales. Tell me if this sounds familiar: a customer walks into your shop and is told you only have three of the four tires they need because that’s what the system is showing. So, the customer turns around and walks back out – without the tires, the oil change or possibly even the groceries they would have grabbed while waiting for the vehicle to be serviced. The kicker is that the fourth tire was on the shelf all along. But no one had the time to go searching for it. They just trusted the system. With RFID, you’ll be able to “trust but verify” quickly and hopefully save the sale. If the tire is truly out of stock, then you can simultaneously verify what four tires you do have available and offer the alternative to the customer.
  • better balance and utilize inventory. Ultimately, you would always want to have enough inventory on hand to meet every customer’s needs. But that requires shelf space and proper forecasting. With RFID tire tread labels, you can conduct accurate inventory counts every day to identify bloat and staleness, see where you should reduce or increase safety stocks, and ensure you’re replenishing the right items with every order. This will simultaneously reduce waste, help you determine which specialty or seasonal stock to promote to encourage movement, and prevent the sale of tires that are past their “best by” dates.
  • simultaneously increase supplier accountability and give technicians more wrench time. Much like RFID tire tread labels help distributors ensure they’re receiving the right items from manufacturers, they can help you quickly confirm that you’ve received the right tire types and quantities with each shipment. If there is a discrepancy between what was expected and delivered, the RFID-generated data will help you quickly reconcile delivery against the ASN and file the claim. Trust me when I say it will save you hours on administrative tasks and ensure your workers are focused on revenue-generating activities, such as tire installations and other automotive services.
  • stay compliant. If you’re in the U.S., you can use RFID to uniquely identify each individual tire to comply with sales reporting requirements. You can also digitally incorporate the Department of Transportation’s tire data into your inventory management app layer to streamline recall/safety checks during the sales and servicing processes.

What’s the Catch?

The label is the most important and challenging component of this RFID tire tracking solution.

Embedding RFID tags in tires at the time of manufacture is challenging for retailers and distribution centers with hundreds or thousands of tires on metal shelves due to their shorter read ranges, the impact of tire density on tag readability, and the fact that metal racks create a challenging read environment. So, placing an RFID label on the tire tread offers longer read ranges. However, a tire tread label is not as simple a solution as you may think. 

As my colleagues have stated before, not all labels work the same way. The key to achieving the optimal return on investment from an RFID solution is choosing the right inlay, label facestock, and adhesive combination. Proper label and inlay selection are especially critical to ensuring inventory, fulfillment, and logistics operations run smoothly.

So, let’s talk about what it takes to optimize your ROI when deploying RFID to track and manage tires, regardless of your business’ size or IT maturity…

Q: Are tire manufacturers going to be responsible for applying the RFID labels? Or could I add them at my warehouse or shop? 

A: Unless all tire original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are tagging at the source (or mandated to tag by your company or other retailers), you won't get the benefit of using RFID without taking matters into your own hands. Therefore, you could add the RFID tire tread labels further downstream in your supply chain to improve last mile inventory tracking. If added at a warehouse or distribution center, you could monitor movements to your stores and throughout stores. Or worst case, you could add the labels as part of the store receiving process to ensure inventory is visible to sales team members and technicians and being utilized in a “first in, first out” manner. If you choose to label the tires yourself, make sure you look for a printer that is designed to print and encode tire labels – as well as the right labels and inlays.

Q: If I’m already putting RFID tags in my tires, do I also need an RFID label?

A: RFID tire tread labels are complementary to embedded RFID solutions and solve different business pains. An embedded solution helps tire OEMs in the manufacturing process and makes it easier to review warranty claims, as it stays with the tire throughout its life. RFID tread labels have a much longer read range but get removed upon sale to a customer. These labels help retailers better receive, track, and manage their inventory, providing them and their customers with a better experience.

Q: Does it make more sense to use RFID tire tread labels instead of embedded RFID tire tags?

A: Only OEMs can embed RFID tire tags and, to date, RFID read range and adoption of these embedded tags has been very limited. Retailers or distributors looking to better manage their tire inventories have the flexibility to add a secondary, more readable RFID mechanism with the tire tread label.

Q: Does the construction of an RFID tire label differ from a standard label?

A: It’s similar, but definitely not the same. The RFID tire label design must account for the challenges of the tread surface. Many adhesives simply won’t stick to a tire tread, and the tire’s texture, oils and plasticizers all impact the reliability of label adhesion – as does the low surface energy. So, we specially engineered the Zebra RFID Tire Tread Label’s facestock, adhesive and liner combination. It has a “dry edge” that reduces adhesive ooze outside the label. This feature also protects your printer (and time) as thick tire adhesives also tend to ooze out of label rolls when wound too tight and don’t have space to expand. This damages the printhead and/or platen roller, bringing printing and operations to a halt. The label also has a barrier coat on the back of the facestock to prevent migration of plasticizers and oils and ensure the readability of the label’s text and barcode throughout its lifecycle. Our goal was to ensure adhesion to the tire tread while making sure these more hard-core adhesives don’t harm your printer or increase printer maintenance requirements.

Q: Are there specific inlays required for these RFID tire labels?

A: Yes, but you have two options today that are widely available and meet ARC Spec T for Tires: Zebra’s ZBR8000 and Avery Dennison’s AD-600.

Q: Not all tires are created equal. So, how do we know these RFID labels will be readable on all tires?

A: I don’t want to get too technical here, but let me answer that question by first explaining our design and testing process for the Zebra RFID Tire Tread Label:

  • Material properties such as the dielectric constant (the presence of carbon black) and metallic structures in tires vary dramatically between brands, and the carbon content of the tire could cause RF fluctuations. That’s why, when designing these RFID labels, we made sure forward link and backscatter bandwidth were maximized on a wide variety of dielectrics to deliver peak performance on tires that are both pure rubber and blended with other materials. We also accounted for the possibility of metal in the tires to ensure it wouldn’t interfere with the RFID label reads.
  • Along with appropriate design considerations, proper testing for this unique solution is important to the success of the tire tread inlay and label. We used Voyantic Tagformance equipment along with an array of four wideband antennas, a rotational table, anechoic chamber and several different tires. We followed the stringent Auburn University “T” specification testing methodology to ensure label success, and we conducted inlay testing on rubber, tire and cardstock materials, gauging both the sensitivity and backscatter. There were strict process controls in place and frequent management reviews to ensure we could be confident in the label’s performance rating.
  • Furthermore, we used a properly designed Stage Gate Process to validate that the performance achieved early in the Design Verification Stage was ultimately re-validated in the Development Stages as well as during High-Volume Production.

In short, we were committed to ensuring the label and inlay performed effectively, even in difficult tagging environments and orientations, so you can effectively manage your tire assets.

Q: What type of RFID reader is needed to extract data from these labels?

A: Any of our UHF RFID readers will work in this application. Both handheld and fixed readers could support this use case, and your reader decision will ultimately be dependent on your processes, workflows, and operational layout.

Q: You say one of the benefits of RFID is better inventory control and accuracy as well as trackability of items and orders. How does RFID differ than barcode scanning?

A: The differences really depend on the use case, volume of tires and even your operational setup and speed. So, I recommend you sync up with one of our Zebra Supplies team members – or even one of our supply chain industry specialists – to walk through the prime use cases for the RFID Tire Tread Label within the context of your business environment. They’ll be able to clearly articulate the benefits of adding RFID into the mix as compared to barcode-only processes. They can also tell you exactly what type of RFID printer, reader and inlay is best for your business based on your inventory and objectives. And, if you want to take the new Zebra Tire Tread Label out for a test drive, they can arrange that, too.


Related Reads:

The Zebra RFID Tire Tread label
Transportation and Logistics, Warehouse and Distribution, Retail, Manufacturing,
Mike Weinhammer
Mike Weinhammer

Mike Weinhammer is currently the Global Product Manager for RFID Supplies at Zebra where he is responsible for driving and developing the RFID Supplies strategy and product solutions. 

Mike has more than 22 years of experience within thermal printing industry, including the last five years managing the RFID Supplies portfolio at Zebra. Mike holds a B.S in Chemical Engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and an MBA from the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business. 

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