By Bruce Meyer, Crain News Service
AKRON (April 8, 2014) — Looking strictly at the rising import penetration of passenger and light truck tires in the U.S. replacement business, it might be easy to get the impression that tire manufacturing in the U.S. is a dying industry.
But that impression couldn't be further from the truth. Looking outside the low-cost radial and entry level tire markets — the majority of which are imported — new plants and expansion projects are popping up in various parts of the U.S., with South Carolina getting a large piece of the investment pie.
For the year ended August 2012, tire makers earmarked $2.75 billion for expansion projects in North America, and in the following 12 months announced planned expenditures of $1.8 billion. Some recent projects have included:
• Continental Tire the Americas L.L.C. opened its $500 million passenger and light truck tire facility late last year in Sumter, S.C., and has spent heavily at its other U.S. factory in Mount Vernon, Ill.;
• Bridgestone Americas Inc. is spending roughly $1.2 billion just in Aiken, S.C., building a new off-the-road tire plant and expanding capacity at its existing passenger/LT tire facility. It also has projects ongoing at a number of its other U.S. factories;
• Yokohama Tire Corp. broke ground on its $300 million truck and bus tire plant in West Point, Miss., its first greenfield site in the U.S. to join the Mohawk Rubber Co. tire plant in Salem, Va., it acquired in the U.S. about a quarter-century ago;
• Michelin North America Inc. christened its new OTR plant in Starr, S.C., saying the facility — part of a $750 million capacity expansion project — was built with expansion in mind, and is boosting capacity at a compounding facility on adjacent land;
• Toyo Tire North America Manufacturing Inc. continued to expand its tire plant in White, Ga.; and
• South Korea tire maker Hankook Tire Co. Ltd. and Kumho Tire USA Inc. are adding capacities in North America — Hankook is expected to break ground this year on a passenger/light truck tire plant in Tennessee and Kumho Tire USA Inc. hopes to restart a long-stalled project in Georgia.
“If you look at the tire market in North America, it's very competitive,” said Steve Shelton, Bridgestone Americas senior vice president of technology, manufacturing and procurement. “But I also think we look at tire manufacturing here in a very positive light. If you look at the last couple of years, we've probably spent $1.5 billion in capital improvements. I think that speaks well for how positive we look at tire manufacturing, especially in the U.S.”
Conti is proud of its new plant in Sumter as well as the Mount Vernon facility, according to David Johnson, the firm's manufacturing coordinator in the Americas. “We have Sumter on track for this year to produce 800,000 tires and to continue growth along the next decade or so until we get it up to 8 million tires,” he said.
“At Mount Vernon, we just completed our cornfield expansion. We're ramping that up to get the tires out of there. I think it's very clear that Conti has a commitment to the two U.S. tire plants to continue growth in this area.”
The exodus subsides
Many tire makers believe it's important to have production near the region where the tires will be sold, thus saving heavily on logistics, shipping costs and inventory needs.