The voice of the customer is what drives our business. So states the introduction to a Goodyear video that explains how a new model of tire is conceived, designed and tested before it is offered for sale.
But who is the customer?
For Goodyear and other major manufacturers, the customer may be an auto maker, a retail customer shopping for replacement tires or the company's own marketing department.
How tire makers approach each of those types of customers-and their needs and desires-are key elements in a tire's development process.
``When we're faced with developing a tire, we first look at the customer requirements and where the tire is to be segmented in the market,'' said Guy Edington, managing director of Kumho Tire Co.'s North American Technical Center in Akron.
Hankook Tire Co. Ltd. does a market analysis, and Michelin North America Inc. addresses market needs or opportunities as well. ``Marketing is where it typically begins. You weigh the performance aspects needed and build the tire around it,'' explained David Van Emberg, director of product marketing for Michelin Americas Small Tires (MAST).
Michelin always has a portfolio of products under development, Mr. Van Emberg said. ``Each has a set of characteristics including price, performance and the number of tires anticipated for production,'' he said.
Gary Zolton, director of replacement product development at Continental Tire North America Inc., said his company has product planning meetings involving marketing, manufacturing, sales and tire technology staff a couple of times each year.
From there, once an agreement on a potential new product is reached, Conti cross-functional product teams commit to goals and meet periodically. On average, it takes a year from design to warehouse, depending on the priority of the tires to be developed, Mr. Zolton said.
Many tire makers pay close attention to the new vehicles being developed and design tires for them against specific performance goals established by the auto makers-such as rolling resistance and ride quality. New vehicles mean new standards for tires, Mr. Van Emberg said.
Continental also partners with auto makers to develop OE tires that meet their requirements. ``As an OE tire maker, we are part of the development of new vehicles,'' Mr. Zolton said. ``An example would be developing customer-oriented tires for sport-utility vehicles with the ride, handling and uniformity characteristics that are needed.''
For virtually all of the tire makers, the marketing organization seems to be the leading force in determining where a company will invest its development, production and advertising dollars-particularly in meeting the needs of the replacement market.
Steve Carpino, director of research and development for Pirelli Tire North America Inc., explained how this takes place. ``Basically, for a replacement market tire,'' he said, ``the project starts with a request from the tire marketing group or management saying the market needs a tire with a certain range of characteristics.
``Typically, it's benchmarked against some internal product or a competitive product in the marketplace. And certain areas for improvement will be targeted. Depending on the product, it could be in treadwear or all-season performance or it could be high-speed handling, rolling resistance or a wide range of other factors. But a so-called marketing specification is really our starting point.''
Designing a tire to meet customer requirements is, of course, just the first step in the months-long process that leads to a new tire being offered for sale. And just as the tire companies follow similar paths in determining what the market wants, they also follow similar processes during the design, development and testing phase as well.
Engineering and style design teams typically work both on form and function since both performance and style play a role in selling tires.
Raymond J. Labuda, vice president of tire technology at Hankook's Akron Technical Center, said the process starts with a dual phase in which an engineering analysis specifies the needed features of a tire, while artistic designers work on the appearance of a tire. The engineers and designers work hand in hand to come up with a candidate tire.
At Goodyear, there also is a bi-functional ``advance engineering team.'' Designers develop tread and sidewall concepts appropriate for the tire to be made, while other engineers focus on the construction and mold details.
Of course, the biggest change in the tire development process over the years has been the availability of computer software that enables engineers to do a lot of predictive modeling. Prototype tires can be virtually built and tested at the desktop, which saves considerable time and cost.
For example, fundamental to Continental's design process, Mr. Zolton said, is a set of ``know-how catalogs,'' with tread patterns and other models, computer simulations and a finite element modeling process that divides the tire into elements for stress and strain tests and to predict footprint shape.
Kumho's Mr. Edington said computerized modeling has made possible what he called an engineering analysis. ``And from that,'' he said, ``we can pretty much predict winter performance, wet and dry traction, as well as noise. We still test, but we've done so much of this that the models are pretty good, and we can get about 80 to 90 percent confidence in some of these types of performance characteristics.''
At Pirelli, Mr. Carpino explained that a new tire goes through a tread design phase, where various proposals are tested. ``The testing normally starts with noise-related features, tuning a new tread design for noise characteristics to be sure that the pitch sequence, the sipe placements, the rubber-to-void ratio and other factors are optimized. You don't want to start making a prototype mold (only to) find out you should have used a different sequence for the elements.'' He said that usually involves extensive simulation via computer software.
Most companies also still build 3-D models. ``We will set out to do some hand-carving studies,'' Mr. Edington said. ``We do some pattern development work, which consists of our designers working with the engineers on basically the look of the tire.''
Because of today's sophisticated software and computer modeling, prototype tires are now built relatively late in the development process-and with reasonable assurance they will perform as expected while undergoing rigorous testing to ensure they meet federal, internal and customer standards and expectations.
The process described by Pirelli's Mr. Carpino is typical in that it begins with and usually goes well beyond the federal Department of Transportation's present requirements for tire strength, bead unseating and high-speed durability. ``Like most of our competition, we have internal standards that are well above the minimums set by the government,'' he said.
``Once those tests are all completed, you want to know other things in safety-related areas such as braking traction in both wet and dry conditions,'' Mr. Carpino said. ``Then handling is tested, including both `soft handling' at speeds normal to most motorists in which handling and noise and comfort are monitored, and then at `hard handling' or high-speed handling at the track.''
At Goodyear, several competing designs for the same new tire may be in the works, and the test results dictate which is chosen for production.
The type of testing done also may be dictated by the market segment for which the new tire is intended, said Kumho's Mr. Edington. ``The major testing we do is ride and handling-both wet and dry-snow handling and coefficient tests using a trailer. We do both lateral and longitudinal hydroplaning tests. Lateral testing is done on a curve, and Europeans do a lot of that in very deep water.
``The American method is more longitudinal, where you run through a water bath and just keep increasing the speed until the tire lifts off. Then you record that speed. But we do both because we have so much business in Europe,'' Mr. Edington said.
Kumho also does both objective and subjective noise testing and treadwear testing, he added.
Regardless of the tire maker in question, no tire is introduced to market until it has passed all required tests, Mr. Carpino stressed. ``That gets you to the point where we say, `This design meets the requirements that have been set forth,' and we're ready to begin a process we call the industrialization of the product. And that just means the introduction of this product into one of our factories.''
Time spent, competition
With the complexity of tire design and the imperative of getting a product to market fast, staying competitive in the tire industry is a challenge. Often, the first tire to market owns that market niche for years to come.
On the other hand, sending a tire to market that has not yet proven itself can have unfortunate consequences.
So, how long does it take to create, design, develop, test and market a tire? Of course, the standard answer to that is, ``it all depends.''
A relatively small change in a product's design could be accomplished in less than 15 months from start to launching it in the factory and having it on the market, said Mr. Carpino. However, ``if it's a more complicated project-let's say a more revolutionary design-it could be in the two- to three-year range.''
Conti officials said it takes them about a year from design to warehouse, depending on the urgency of the project. Meanwhile, Michelin's Mr. Van Emberg said the whole process usually takes two years or so, especially when it means putting a lot of tires into the marketplace, requiring launch quantities in all dimensions.
At Kumho, Mr. Edington said: ``Most of the development work we do is on new designs, say for a new touring tire. That takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months. What drives that is how many rounds of testing we need to do. If it's a fairly conservative program, it takes about 12 to 18 months. If we think we might need to turn that around and do another round of testing or involve the building of another prototype mold, it can run into 18 months or more.''
Of course, designing and producing a new tire is just the beginning of the story. No tire-no matter how well designed or tested-is of any value to its maker unless it is accepted by the customer.
So how does one attract a customer to a new tire? That is an entirely different story, but as Michelin's Mr. Van Emberg said: ``The key to marketing and sales is to understand the consumer you are targeting and then build a campaign around that.'' This, of course, means you don't try to market snow tires in Phoenix.
He also noted that dealer support is critical. ``The market is becoming more complex. There are 167 dimensions in the Z-rated market alone. For 90-percent coverage, you need 47 stock-keeping units. We have a strong partnership with dealers, and understanding area demographics can help you deal with their targets.''
Free-lance writer Chuck Slaybaugh contributed to this article.