MILAN, Italy—The first thing you notice about Pirelli S.p.A's new tire manufacturing process is that it's compact—taking up about the same floor space as a large ranch home.
It also lacks people.
The working prototype module of Pirelli's MIRS (Modular Integrated Robotized System) plant, which the tire maker unveiled to about 100 journalists and analysts July 11 in Milan, requires only two people to operate.
Robots handle the entire production cycle from compounding to finished product, without human contact, without interruption and with minimal storage requirements.
The result, Pirelli officials said, is a highly flexible and efficient manufacturing process that will allow the company literally to build tires on demand.
The operation Pirelli showcased at its headquarters in the Bicocca region of Milan is the first of five MIRS facilities the company plans to build in Europe, the U.S. and the Far East over the next three years.
The plants will produce only ultra-high-performance and high-performance passenger and light truck tires, although efforts are under way to widen the application to motorcycle and truck tires, said Marco Tronchetti Provera, Pirelli chairman and CEO.
Pirelli is installing the plants in countries where it hopes to gain or to strengthen its original equipment position with vehicle manufacturers, Mr. Tronchetti Provera said.
Sometime prior to the end of February 2001, the company will add a second MIRS module to the Bicocca plant.
As for the U.S., Pirelli expects to complete feasibility and site selection studies by Aug. 10 and have a MIRS facility on stream before the end of 2002, said Giovanni Ferrario, head of Pirelli's tire sector worldwide.
Pirelli has earmarked $500 million Euros (about $475 million U.S.) for the project, with funding coming entirely from the tire sector, Mr. Tronchetti Provera said.
In all, Pirelli expects to have 80 MIRS modules in operation in 2003, each capable of producing 125,000 tires a year, for a total annual production capacity of 10 million tires.
This would represent an increase in Pirelli's worldwide passenger tire capacity of about 25 percent.
The company expects to add 850 jobs across the entire project.
Mr. Tronchetti Provera said Pirelli chose to target the initial MIRS production at the ultra-high-performance and light truck tire segments because of the high growth opportunities (12 to 16 percent annually) they offer.
Pirelli, whose market share is particularly strong in these areas, expects to gain half of the targeted 10 million units from natural growth in these markets. The remaining 5 million units will come from new—primarily original equipment—business.
The MIRS manufacturing project represents a radical departure from traditional tire-making practices, reducing the usual 14 process phases to only three, company officials said.
Each MIRS module features six building robots and two transfer robots, which construct tires in a continuous operation.
Contrary to traditional practice, tires there are not assembled in successive batch operations but are built continuously around drums using the robots.
"This makes it possible to reduce the lead-time, from raw materials warehouse to the products warehouse, from six days with the traditional process to 72 minutes with MIRS," the company said in a press release.
Eliminating the storage phases allows the MIRS plant to operate in "an extremely concentrated area," Pirelli said.
Rubber mixing is done off site.
In MIRS tire-building, robots pass the drums from one mechanical hand to the next while extruders gradually apply the different components of the tire.
Unlike conventional factories, where the green tire looks barrel-shaped before being placed in the mold, the uncured MIRS tire already has the dimensions of a finished tire.
Once the green tire is built, a robot hands the drum to another machine that feeds it into the curing press.
Each press has six molds. Tires are cured for 18 minutes and a finished tire is turned out every three minutes.
The process is precisely controlled by integrated software, which governs the robots' movements, the automatic supplying of materials and the selection and size of the tire.
This program, Pirelli said, is part of a global software complex that also presides over the engineering process to the tire design.
Besides automation, MIRS plants offer a number of other advantages, Pirelli said.
Since a module requires only about one-fifth the space of a conventional plant and uses one-third the energy, the initial investment to produce high-performance tires is cut in half, while that for UHP tires is decreased 15 percent, the company said.
Plant efficiency is improved by 23 percent, work-force productivity increased by 80 percent and product quality bettered by 100 percent.
In addition, the small size of a MIRS plant makes it possible to locate a facility wherever customer demand exists, company officials said.
MIRS plants also are highly flexible, even to the point of making the production of one tire per size a practical possibility.
Mold changes that take 375 minutes under the conventional Pirelli process require just 20 minutes under MIRS, the company said.
"The concept of a tire on demand—this is the level of flexibility we've reached," Mr. Tronchetti Provera said.