AKRON—Until now the major tire makers have been making all the waves with new tire manufacturing technology that will revolutionize the industry, but that may be about to change.
At least two tire manufacturing system developments bear watching: One is a joint Dutch-German machinery advancement undergoing trials at a U.S. tire maker's plant in England, while the other—a supposed "revolutionary" system designed by a small Japanese engineering firm—has won the backing of one of Japan's largest car makers.
With Group Michelin and its C3M system, Pirelli S.p.A. and its MIRS technology, Continental A.G. and its Modular Manufacturing Process (MMP), along with advances by Goodyear and Bridgestone Corp., making all the headlines, industry observers have wondered where this would leave lower-tier firms in the technology race. Now it appears that independent machinery makers may be stepping in to help close the gap.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. currently has some equipment manufactured by VMI Epe Holland B.V. in place at its Cooper-Avon Tyres Ltd. factory in Melksham, England, according to Fran Brennan, technical director for Cooper Tire.
VMI and Berstorff GmbH have been collaborating for the past five years on automating the process by mating Berstorff's tread extruders with VMI's tire builders. The machine undergoing trials at Cooper-Avon is the first practical test of the technology.
Mr. Brennan said the tire-building equipment looks promising, but it's still too early to tell how much of an improvement it will be. "It's a highly automated approach to conventional technology as opposed to radically new technology," he said, noting that MIRS and C3M still are "the next level up in terms of technology."
Cooper also is looking to make incremental improvements to its current technology to maintain productivity and quality levels, he said. "Tire building is the most labor-intensive part of tire manufacturing. We're trying to do the best we can in the area," Mr. Brennan said. "We think we're competitive from a cost standpoint, but we realize we can't stand still."
Another push for a new machinery-maker-driven tire technology is happening in Japan. Toyota Motor Corp. is championing a new tire manufacturing system under development by Fuji Seiko K.K., a privately held engineering firm that is not related to Fuji Seiko Co. Ltd., a Japanese maker of precision machinery processing equipment.
Neither Toyota nor Fuji Seiko K.K. would divulge details of the process, other than to say it shrinks the size of the manufacturing plant by 95 percent or more and appears to do away with a lot of the component preparation and assembly.
Toyota denied reports that it intends to go into tire manufacturing itself. Instead the company is seeking to persuade its tire suppliers to consider the new process, which reportedly allows tires to be made lighter, according to Tadaaki Jagawa, Toyota's top procurement executive. Toyota estimated the new system could cut procurement costs by 20 to 30 percent.
While these developments may play a role in the tire industry's future, the tire makers that already have launched new manufacturing technology are confident their systems still will lead the way.
"We believe that the MIRS process is the most advanced and reliable, particularly to produce high-performing tires," said Guglielmo Fiocchi, an official in Pirelli's e-Pirelli business unit.
Pirelli already has one MIRS line in production in Milan, Italy, and said it will invest $500 million to have 80 MIRS units in operation by 2003, all expected to focus on high- and ultra-high-performance tire lines. The first U.S. MIRS line is expected to be in place in 2002.
The process is used to produce the tire maker's "e-tire," which means the process is entirely computer-controlled. Because each line takes up just roughly 3,600 square feet, Pirelli foresees putting "pocket factories" in place that could, for example, service an individual original equipment customer.
"MIRS will enable Pirelli to better compete with any producer," Mr. Fiocchi said. "It slashes costs, heavily improves product quality and uniformity, and transforms logistics from a problem into an opportunity. With MIRS, the incidence of labor costs on total product costs will sharply decrease, but our aim is to compete preeminently in the high-technology segment with products of the highest quality and performance."
While Pirelli and Michelin—which has been characteristically quiet about C3M—have received much attention in the industry, Conti believes its MMP system matches or exceeds those systems in quality, productivity and cost improvement, said Denis Garvey, Continental General Tire Inc. vice president of manufacturing operations.
Conti currently is using the modular system at its plants in Austria and Germany and at the San Fernando, Argentina, plant of its technical affiliate FATE S.A.I.C.I. In addition, its new plant in Timosoara, Romania—due on stream by year-end—and a plant planned for Brazil are designed around the system.
The company has stated it expects to have 15 percent of all passenger tires produced in MMP plants by 2003. "MMP enhances our delivery capability, particularly on small-volume sizes," Mr. Garvey said.
While advances in tire-manufacturing technology are a key to future survival, Conti has an advantage in that it looks to become a true systems supplier to the automotive industry. Its Conti Wheel System combines run-flat technology with its Conti Teves Chassis System.
"The OE manufacturers have a clear expectation of their tire suppliers in enhancing a car or truck's performance, and the replacement market—whether through dealer channels, mass merchandising or private brands—has its set of expectations on delivery and cost. Whatever manufacturing system you employ, it must be capable of delivering to both markets," Mr. Garvey said.