BRADENTON, Fla.—It's not so much that Gregory Smith found the rubber industry. It's more like the rubber industry found him. Right over there, across the pond, at Jaguar Land Rover Automotive P.L.C.
Early in his career with the company, Smith was assisting with vehicle design through predictive computer modeling.
"I was only about six weeks into the job and I went to the tire team and said, 'Hey, I need a tire model.' Nobody knew what I was talking about, that I needed a model for a computer simulation of where the tire goes. They never heard of such a thing."
So, Smith did what he's always done.
He took matters into his own hands.
And his vision to create a tire modeling program that predicted the movements and subsequent impacts of the tire's performance on overall vehicle performance took shape.
"It grew from just me building tire models, to growing a team to kicking off all kinds of research and development projects to doing tire modeling to building the models that test the tires."
Eventually, the tire modeling program he developed while working on his Ph.D. at Coventry University—a program Smith dubbed GS2MF (Gregory Smith 2 Magic Formula)—was presented at the Tire Tech Expo and garnered the attention of industry professionals, earning him the Young Scientists Prize for its innovation and efficiency. It did, after all, reduce some vehicle modeling costs by 72 percent.
"That's kind of how I got into (the rubber industry)," Smith said. "I just sort of took on the challenges of building tire models when … nobody else knew how to do them. I thought, 'what have I got to lose? I'm brand new into the company, and I have everything to prove and nothing to lose.' "
Fundamentally, Smith challenged the industry to rethink how tires are designed, tested and built on the OE side.
"At the moment, you tend to build a tire and then work out how it behaves, it's very difficult to design a tire to a performance spec," he said. "That is what tire companies try to do, and they do it successfully. It's very challenging."
Six years after joining JLR, Smith leapt into the tire industry, joining Goodyear as a senior engineer in 2016. At the tire maker's global headquarters in Akron, Smith continued to push his vision for OE tire development, working to help develop a process that aided with virtual tire design.
For Smith, tire design was a perfect fit. It challenged him professionally and personally. But more than that, it allowed him to be on the cutting edge of industry technology.
"I like being at the forefront of technology and doing things that people say you can't do," Smith said. "Tires are extremely difficult in that regard. How solid bodies move around is far more predictable. Whereas, with rubber, it's got metal in it and all sorts of materials. It's dependent on its history and everything else. It is a much more challenging material to capture in a computer simulation.
" … (Tires) are the single toughest thing on a car to model. To truly understand how tires work is much, much harder than engines or suspensions or chassis or architecture. They are extremely difficult."
Smith admits that many engineers—and other industry professionals—underestimate just how much technology is rolled into every tire that hits the roadway. And that makes it difficult to attract young talent to the industry.
Overall, he said, it makes sense. Tires, on the surface, just don't have the attraction that other automotive parts may have.
"They are not sexy," he said. "Like, engines are sexy. They are big, they are noisy, they are great fun. People love engines and power systems.
"Tires are ugly things, they smell bad, people don't tend to like them. But they are exceedingly complex and they are true pieces of technology. People don't get that."
Just about five years after proudly taking on the challenges that Goodyear had to offer, Smith transitioned again. In April 2021, he stepped into a new role, becoming senior tire modeling and simulation engineer for General Motors.
It's a position, he said, that allows him to grow personally and professionally. It offers new challenges and new perspectives, and he's ready to embrace both.
And so, the rubber industry did what it had done twice before: It found Smith at the right place at the right time.
It has a funny way of doing that, and always when he least expects it. The rubber industry just shows up, offering new challenges and business opportunities. And it does that in his personal life as well as his professional life.
"Funny enough, I bought a vulcanizer on Monday," Smith said. "My wife and I run a crafting business as well. It's called Maker Forte, and we just acquired another company. (We) just bought a flat-surface vulcanizer that we are using to make rubber stamps.
"So, funny enough, my complete other side of my life—working with my wife and this company—also is based around rubber, but a totally different application, nothing to do with tires at all."
Smith's wife, Alexandra Stapleton-Smith, laid the foundation for the couple's newest venture. When Smith moved to the U.S. to grow his career at Goodyear, Stapleton-Smith's visa did not allow for her to work. So she did what she does best: She tapped her creativity.
Stapleton-Smith made paper crafts and taught others how to do the same, using her YouTube channel, The Hedgehog Hollow, to amplify the messages of creativity and inspiration.
The success of that venture allowed her to grow her talents into a business, which she pursued wholeheartedly. Today, the couple is sharing inspiration, selling paper crafting supplies and, yes, making rubber stamps in their garage.
"I can't get away from rubber," Smith joked, "no matter what direction I look."