A recent study by Smithers Rapra that Mr. Charles cited in his talk warned that the supply of raw materials needed to manufacture tires is not sustainable beyond 2027.
“It's not surprising that we're going to run out of petrochemicals, but the year surprised me a little bit,” Mr. Charles continued. “But whether you believe it's 2027 or 2030 or 2035, it's pretty clear that the focus needs to be moving in the right sustainable direction.”
And the answer may come from those who attended the IISRP annual meeting. “I would say 99 percent of them are using petro-based materials to make butadiene (and other elastomers),” he said. “Whoever can build that better mousetrap to be able to make a bio butadiene is going to be very successful moving forward.”
With the need for car makers to meet rising corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, rolling resistance continues to be a major area of R&D focus.
“There's still room there, but obviously when you get to a steel wheel in terms of its characteristics, that's as good as you're going to get,” Mr. Charles said. “We continue to move down, but there's going to be a point where there are diminishing returns. But the pressure on rolling resistance is higher than it's ever been at the OEM level from our side. Even though the price of oil is down — maybe half or less than it was — there has been no let-up on rolling resistance demands.”
Greater use of modeling
Bridgestone is using more computer modeling in its tire technology efforts, he said, with virtual development used in some fashion on each of the tires it develops.
One benefit has been shortening the time to bring a new tire to market. In the past the tech center staff would have to go through a number of cycles where they would build a tire and then test it, repeating the process until they got it just right.
“Now we can model, build, test, go,” Mr. Charles said. “We've been able to bring products like the Champ Fuel Fighter to market in probably about half the time that we normally do by using some of the modeling characteristics and getting it right the first time.”
This is particularly helpful when dealing with OEMs, where tire makers typically have to go through three to five rounds of development before gaining approval. He said Bridgestone tries to balance its R&D efforts between both OEMs and the aftermarket.
“A lot of our technology that we have developed from our tool box actually goes into our OE tires, but it's more than just the OE demands and what we see,” he said.
“It's what we see in the aftermarket as well. It's a combination.”
The tire and rubber product firm also wants to get ahead of what customers are looking for, according to Mr. Charles.
“We don't want to be developing technology at the same time we're developing OE tires because you have to make sure they can be manufactured.
“So our mission is to fill our tool box with technology so when the OEM asks for it, we can pull it out of the tool box and apply it, and it goes through our manufacturing process smoothly.
“If you can't manufacture it, don't design it,” he said.
Push extended mobility
Bridgestone had made a large marketing push with its Driveguard line of extended-mobility tires, putting together a national television ad campaign. Mr. Charles said the firm has a strong sense that the market is heading toward run-flat tires, especially when looking at the long-term trend toward autonomous vehicles.
“You're not quite sure where that's going to be with car sharing and ride sharing, and all of the mergers, but at the end of the day it's pretty clear that if there's autonomy coming,” he said, “that the tire has got to perform, or it's got to be able to signal somebody or some service center that it needs some work.”