The job of a research department is varied and wide-ranging. Take the projects on the drawing board at Bridgestone Americas' Center for Research & Technology in Akron.
At any time, the center's team may be looking at improving a technology like run-flat tires, which haven't caught on like once predicted.
Or the researchers may be aiming to improve something that by some measures is nearing the extent of its development, as is the case with rolling resistance.
Even more, they have to balance long-term projects with working on improving products; spend time on corporate directives such as running a company that is more eco-friendly; and ensure that all of the R&D dollars spent on a high-profile activity such as racing have an impact on the company's consumer tire lines.
In the end, though, having such a full plate of projects is a blessing for the researchers, according to Jason Poulton, the center's director.
One advantage of working for Bridgestone is they are committed to long-term breakthrough technology, said Mr. Poulton, who has worked 11 years for the company.
Even in difficult times, we have still remained committed. We intend to be well-positioned for when the economy turns around. It will be the products that display technology that will win customers.
Bridgestone's third generation of run-flat tires will begin appearing on 2010 model vehicles and will incorporate several upgrades in technology.
Most significantly, the company has used what it touts as NanoPro-Tech to create a sidewall-reinforced rubber with improved carbon dispersion. The new rubber compound reduces the friction between carbon molecules when the tire is loaded, thereby reducing heat generation. Bridgestone claims the rubber will cut by half the heat generation caused by deformation of the tire sidewalls when driving on tires that have lost air pressure.
The new run-flats also will have a new ply adapting a leading-edge fiber for use as tire material that also prevents a rapid increase in temperature when driving under run-flat conditions. In addition, the tires include a cooling fin technology that uses protrusions on the sidewall surface to create disturbances in the airflow and cool the tires. The technology helps to reduce the heat generated in tire sidewalls when driving on tires that have lost air pressure, the company claimed.
When run-flats were first introduced, inserts that were thick and stiff supported the tire, said Marty Yurevich, Bridgestone's executive director of consumer and race tire development. It did a good job when running with no air in it, but made for too harsh a ride in its inflated state.
With the NanoPro-Tech development, the tire produces less heat but still gives the same kind of mileage performance. And in its inflated state, it gives a softer ride, said Mr. Yurevich, a 33-year company veteran.
While run-flats haven't taken over the tire market as some observers once predicted, Bridgestone said many inroads have been made in recent years. The firm noted that the first generation of the tires lasted from 1987 to 2004, while the second generation was around for just four years before giving way to this newest incarnation.
Since 1999, global auto makers have brought more models to market with run-flat tire specifications. Consequently, while it took until August 2006 for Bridgestone to ship its first 5 million run-flats to car makers, it took only 20 monthsuntil April 2008to ship the next 5 million.
Most of the run-flat business comes from original equipment (OE) fitments, and Bridgestone's development work is driven by auto maker input. If the feedback is that the ride is not where it's expected to be, that certainly comes back to us, Mr. Yurevich said. So OE customers set new targets and we develop new technology. If the ride gets closer to a traditional tire, it gets close to where customers don't notice.
Mr. Poulton said Bridgestone is a leader in run-flat technologyand intends to remain so. The competition will continue to work on it, so we can't sit still, he said. The reason we're going to generation three is to keep moving ahead. It's difficult when you're in front. You have to keep moving to stay there.
While it's easier to measure large gains in technology with a product like run-flat tires, it's getting difficult to measure improvements in something like tire rolling resistance.
On one hand, the government keeps pushing for cars with better gas mileage, even moving up corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) targets by five years. That leads to pressure from car makers on tire producers to keep looking for further reductions in rolling resistance.
On the other hand, tire firms over the past two decades have slashed rolling resistance by 50 to 60 percent, bringing them now to the point of diminishing returns, Mr. Yurevich said. The remaining amount of rolling resistance is not all available for reduction, he said. It's needed to stop, turn and goforces that are diametrically opposed to rolling resistance.
Another important point, he said, is the 10:1 ratio that is the general rule of thumb in rolling resistance equations. That means every 10-percent reduction in rolling resistance yields just a 1-percent boost in fuel mileage. So a car getting 30 mpg will get only another 0.3 mpg with such a rolling resistance decrease.
Bridgestone is in constant communication with its OE customers regarding the matter. We tell them the tradeoffs and the technology that's required for further reductions, and that the technology doesn't come free, Mr. Yurevich said.
Still, it remains an area where Bridgestone continues to conduct ongoing research, even knowing that improvements will be incremental in nature.
Even though we're getting to the point of diminishing return, it just means we've got to raise our game, Mr. Poulton said.
The Bridgestone research center has various initiativesincluding rolling resistancethat fall under the eco-friendly banner, Mr. Poulton said. That includes developing new polymers, making processes in factories easier on the environment, and looking at all raw materials to see if they can be made more eco-friendly or renewable.
We've clearly been told that this is a priority of the Bridgestone Group, he said.
The company has made progress in some areas. For example, it has developed a technology to significantly reduce the amount of emissions in the production of silica tires, according to Mr. Poulton.
Of course, there's always a trade-off on costs, he said, along with the need to get approvals by OEM customers whenever process changes are made.
With infinite financial resources, there's a lot of things you can probably do, but that's not the real world, Mr. Poulton said. On the longer-term research side, that is something we consider.
He declined to share much about the R&D work related to raw materials, but did say the firm is working on potential alternativesincluding one involving obtaining rubber latex from dandelions. We're still exploring the value of this possibility; it's very early in the process, he said.
One difficulty in this work is getting the dandelions to grow uniformly. That's hard enough with a domesticated product such as corn, let alone doing the same thing with what basically is a weed. That technology is still several years away, Mr. Poulton said.
This report originally ran in Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business.
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