You'd think testing four new Pirelli tires on the racetrack at Road Atlanta racing circuit would be the most thrilling event for dealers attending Pirelli Tire North America Inc.'s (PTNA) product launch and dealer convention in Atlanta March 20-23.
While most dealers enjoyed pushing the new tires to their limits driving some of today's hottest vehicles, what was equally exciting to many was the chance to see the company's state-of-the-art tire plant in Rome, Ga., site of Pirelli's U.S. headquarters.
``They have the production of the future today,'' said Dan Wire, CEO of East Norriton, Pa.-based Treadways Corp., after seeing Pirelli's fully automated MIRS (Modular Integrated Roboticized System) tire manufacturing facility for the first time.
Pirelli used the dealer meeting and product launch to unveil the Scorpion STR and Scorpion Zero Asimmetrico sport utility/light truck tires, the Pirelli Zero Nero M+S (mud and snow) ultra-high performance passenger tire and the super low-profile P Zero Corsa tire for the street and track.
It also provided the 110 North American dealers in attendance with a tour of the MIRS plant, located in rural northwest Georgia, about an hour and a half drive from Atlanta.
While the robot-driven factory, which produced its first tire last July, impressed many dealers, its very existence also sent a powerful message.
``The fact that they're (Pirelli) producing tires in this country again means they've made a commitment to stay in this market,'' said Bill Bloomfield of Phoenix Tire Service Inc. in Fairfield, N.J., which does business as euro-tire.
Added Bob Green, director of purchasing and marketing for Reliable Tire in Blackwood, N.J.: ``It's a statement of commitment that they're going to be a player in the North American market.''
The Rome MIRS plant, one of four Pirelli operates worldwide, symbolizes the Italian tire maker's resurgence in North America after years of falling sales and what even Pirelli executives would admit was an inconsistent strategy.
The ultra-modern plant, with its Italian-marble entryway, oozes Pirelli's high-performance heritage. Inside, the company makes only low-profile, ultra-high performance passenger and SUV tires using robots directed by software to perform the work of the entire tire production cycle, from rubber extrusion to finished product.
The robots build the tires around a toroidal drum, which is passed from machine to machine without stop-ping and without human intervention.
The Rome plant, the result of a $100 million investment, consists of modules, or mini-factories, each capable of producing 350 tires a day. The process is highly flexible to the point of being able to make a single tire per size without interruption.
MIRS robots can produce one tire every three minutes, said Piero Misani, MIRS director for Pirelli worldwide, during a tour of the plant. Because of its automation and flexibility in changing molds, the average lead-time needed to put a tire into production is 72 minutes compared with three to six days in a traditional manufacturing process, Mr. Misani said.
Pirelli has three MIRS modules in operation at Rome producing 300,000 ultra-high performance tires annually, and plans to install the fourth and fifth modules early next year. In all, the 400,000-sq.-ft. plant can house a total of 20 modules, for a potential capacity of 7,000 units a day.
Production at the plant for now is limited to OE and replacement tires destined for ultra-high performance cars and SUVs in North America, or as Mr. Misani put it, tires that require ``critical construction.''
These types of tires, which include the Scorpion Zero, Scorpion Asimmetrico and P Zero Nero M+S currently made at the plant, benefit from the jointless construction and consistent high quality of the MIRS process, he said.
For some dealers, this high level of production quality is a characteristic that should help distinguish the Pirelli brand from the myriad of other tires on the market.
``I think the fact that there's going to be uniformity of tires relative to the types of tires they are producing is a strong selling point,'' Reliable Tire's Mr. Green said. ``The degree of precision that they can obtain is beyond my comprehension.''
Treadways' Mr. Wire, whose company just added the Pirelli brand and will be offering the line through its new Treadmasters dealer marketing program, also was impressed with the flexibility of the MIRS plant and the consistent quality that modular manufacturing brings.
``Once you get it right, it's right,'' he said. ``There are no humans touching it. What I think everyone wants of every supplier is high quality and consistency overall.
``Consistency of production, consistency of supply and consistency of market,'' he added. ``We're seeing Pirelli is well on the way to developing it.''
Pirelli's North American dealer convention and tire introduction were part of parent company Pirelli S.p.A.'s worldwide product launch that attracted more than 250 automotive and tire journalists from Europe, Asia, North and South America and the Middle East to Atlanta for seven separate sessions that took place March 18-28.
The worldwide introduction focused on the Scorpion STR and P Zero Corsa. The U.S. introduction included those tires as well as the P Zero Nero M+S and Scorpion Asimmetrico.
While Pirelli is offering the Scorpion STR light truck tire internationally, the company has tuned the version that will be sold here for the North American market, said J. Steven Carpino, director of research and development for Pirelli in Georgia.
The all-season Scorpion STR has a flat tread profile for good treadwear as well as a robust shoulder to reduce irregular wear, he said. It features wide ribs and intensive siping for braking grip and a continuous center rib for high-speed steering and uniform wear. In addition, it has particularly high load indexes for its category.
The tire is available in T, H and V speed ratings and comes in 33 sizes from 75- to 55-series aspect ratios, 15- to 18-inch rim diameters and from 205 to 275 millimeters in tread width. Mr. Carpino said the size range covers 84 percent of the crossover/SUV tire market.
Built by Pirelli in Brazil and in Europe, the tire is currently available in six sizes and will reach 18 sizes by the end of March, said Riccardo Cichi, vice president of sales and marketing for PTNA. The full line will be available by the end of the second quarter.
The tire is original equipment on the Ford Excursion and Ford Super Duty F-250 and F-350 pickups in the U.S. and the Volvo XC-90 SUV in Europe.
The Scorpion Zero Asimmetrico is a Rome MIRS-produced tire targeted specifically at the U.S. tuner market.
Made to the most exacting tolerances, the tire combines performance with uniform wear rate and comfort, both acoustic and ride, Pirelli said in a press release.
The tire is currently available in five sizes, including 305/40R22 extra load, which is original equipment on the new Viper-powered Dodge Ram SRT-10. It will eventually come in 10 sizes from 265/35R22 102 W extra load to 325/30ZR 21 104W extra load.
The P Zero Corsa will be made in Europe. It is a Y-rated, semi-slick, street legal track day tire, which gets its grip largely from its ultra-high performance compound, Mr. Carpino said.
The tire also is available in the P Zero Corsa System option, which comprises tires of asymmetric tread pattern for a car's rear tires and directional for the fronts. The P Zero Corsa System has the same structural design as the slick but contains an aquaplaning channel, which gives it more street capability, Mr. Carpino said.
The tire will be available in 11 sizes from 205/50ZR17 to 315/30ZR18, with a left and right application. Nine sizes are currently in stock.
The P Zero Nero M+S is a mud and snow addition to the P Zero family of ultra-high performance tires. Since it's an all-season type tire, it's tuned for better treadwear than the typical high performance tire, Mr. Carpino said.
Many of the sizes offer extra load ratings for changeovers when plus sizing vehicles, he said.
The tire, produced in the Rome factory, is available now in six sizes with the full range of 18 sizes offered by the end of the year.