GRANITEVILLE, S.C.—Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. celebrated the grand opening Nov. 11 of its state-of-the-art passenger and light truck tire plant in Aiken County, S.C., with company officials heralding it as a technological breakthrough in tire manufacturing. The $435 million, 1.7 million-sq.-ft. facility is the first in the world to fully incorporate Bridgestone Corp.'s advanced tire-assembly system, called ACTAS: Automated Continuous Tire Assembly System.
Speaking at the grand opening ceremony, Yoichiro Kaizaki, chairman, president and CEO of Bridgestone Corp., said the new plant ushers in the next wave of tire-manufacturing technology.
"The Aiken County plant represents the very best that Bridgestone Corp. has to offer in automated tire-manufacturing technology," Mr. Kaizaki said.
"We have tested our new systems and processes individually at plants in Japan, but the Aiken County plant is the first place in the world where we have put them all together in a mass production flow."
The ACTAS system represents a productivity breakthrough that Bridgestone intends to emulate at its plants all over the world, Mr. Kaizaki said.
Managers at the Aiken plant, also known as Bridgestone/Firestone South Carolina, said their goal is to make the facility tops in the world in productivity, product quality and customer service. Production is slated to reach 25,000 units per day by the end of next year—20,000 per day by April—with a work force of up to 800.
Currently, the plant is producing about 12,000 tires per day with just over 500 employees. At full capacity, the plant would average more than 31 tires per day per employee.
Most of the plant's output—75-85 percent—is destined for the original equipment market, officials said. The growing popularity of light trucks and sport-utility vehicles has shifted the product mix in that direction, officials said, and already has plant management planning an expansion of its rubber mixing capacity.
The heart of the ACTAS system is a highly automated—and highly proprietary—tire-building machine that completely assembles the green tire, including belts and beads, extrudes the tread rubber onto the built carcass and affixes a bar code identifying the size and type of tire it is intended to be.
Each builder has three tires in various stages of production at any given time, and the plant's entire output is generated by a total of 22 of these machines, which feed 150-160 curing presses.
From the builders, green tires are delivered automatically to the curing presses, which are located in close proximity.
After curing, the tires are placed on an elaborate conveyor system with bar code readers at critical junctures that send each tire through the various finishing stages, including trim, white sidewall grinders and what is called a "tire uniformity optimizer" (TUO).
The TUO machine inflates each tire, measures various parameters for uniformity and improves them, if necessary, by grinding off small amounts of rubber at strategic locations.
Tires are not touched by human hands until they reach the inspection stage, where most OE tires also have their high-point determined and marked for proper mounting.
After final inspection, tires go back onto the conveyor system and are sorted automatically by type and size, separated into groups of 24 like tires and stacked on metal pallets by a machine appropriately called a palletizer.
ACTAS also involves improvements to other aspects of the tire-manufacturing process—including rubber mixing, fabric calendering and steel belt and bead production—as well as optimizing the plant layout to minimize transportation and storage of materials and components.
Once the Aiken plant reaches full production, Bridgestone/Firestone plans to begin installing elements of the ACTAS system in other North American tire plants, including its passenger/light truck facility in Wilson, N.C., BFS Chairman and CEO Masatoshi Ono said.
The plant will help BFS close a gap between supply and demand that has existed since 1994, officials said, and may help the company reduce the need to import tires from Japan. Those imports currently are running at more than 5 million units per year, Mr. Ono said.
Mr. Kaizaki said the Aiken facility will play a part in increasing Bridgestone/Firestone's contribution to total Bridgestone corporate profits from 35 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2000.