For years, the tire industry had an image problem. Consumers viewed tires as a commodity, without realizing the amount of science that went into manufacturing the product. It was basically a nuisance purchase that had to be made.
Over time, the industry did its best to educate tire buyers. They stressed what characteristics had to be fine-tuned to yield desired performance characteristics; how tires now last much longer; and, most importantly, how the tire was the most important component of a vehicle when it came to safety.
It's clear, however, that improving the technology of a tire is a never-ending project. That was evident by the two keynote speakers who addressed the Tire Society's annual meeting and the International Tire Exhibition & Conference, held concurrently this month in Akron.
James Hawk, a 40-year tire industry veteran who oversees the Toyo Tire factory in Georgia, talked of how government regulations aren't going anywhere, and that the companies that want to stand out will do it by investing in R&D to showcase their products' reliability and safety.
Rolling resistance continues to be an area of focus with higher fuel economy standards on the horizon. Hawk said achieving improvement here isn't just a matter of throwing silica or sand into a compound. It takes research that gets down to the molecular level.
The industry veteran saw this as a way for U.S. tire manufacturers to thrive, by selling consumers on the benefit of technology to sell them domestic products over cheaper imports.
Michael Hochschwender, CEO of the Smithers Group, also talked about innovation and the benefits of collaboration—when done properly. He discussed three potential partners for collaboration: universities, governmental agencies and competitors. Working with others can help breed innovation with limited resources, but firms also must realize there are inherent disadvantages that come with collaboration.
One thing that can't be overlooked, the Smithers official said, is the spirit of the people. That is vital in overcoming obstacles to reach the desired results.
Listening to both speakers, it is evident the tire industry has come a long way, but it's a road where the work never truly will be done.