Evolution, not revolution. That is the future of tire building technology, according to an industry consultant.
Meanwhile, global production will be the aim of serious players in the industry, said Robert Lightfoot, who works with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and other firms.
China has emerged as the fourth primary market for tire machinery, joining the U.S., Europe and Japan. Historically, the main tire machinery makers have concentrated production in their home country and maintained a global sales effort, he said. This, combined with the fact that tire building machines are now virtually custom-made for each factory, means that local service and technical support is increasingly necessary to keep customers happy.
As a result, people are another key component of the industry's globalization, Lightfoot said. If one culture is dominant for a machinery maker, ``it is necessary to have more international people as well as locations.''
Culture also affects machinery design, Lightfoot said. Japanese customers look for different things in a system than European customers might.
Machinery firms should hire people with ``the expertise to customize your own machine to the customer's requirements within that culture. That is a key factor,'' he said.
Regarding the tire building process, Lightfoot said he doesn't foresee any change to the basic idea of pre-fabricating components and then assembling them onto a drum. That process may get more sophisticated, and the machinery used to make the subassemblies may change.
The pressures on tire makers mean tire building machines will develop in two directions, he said: flexibility and speed.
``There will be a place for those very high speed machines with highly automated technologies, but there will also be a place for automatic machines which are very flexible,'' according to Lightfoot, who said the auto industry is increasingly demanding a tire unique to a certain vehicle. ``Factories now have to be so flexible, so quick to change size-producing much smaller batches than they ever expected.''
As a result, some factories will need highly automated, flexible machines aimed at strong repeatability and short batches, whereas other plants will use less automated equipment making longer runs to the same quality standards, but much faster and with greater efficiency, Lightfoot said.
In a tire factory, Lightfoot said, ``the technology for manufacturing is decided almost entirely by the core tire building machine. Everything emanates backwards and forwards from that-especially backwards. The assembly of those components determines almost everything that goes before it-how you cut it, how you pre-assemble it.''
And there is more than one way to build a tire. Lightfoot said people talk about tire building as if there is some mystery to it. But in fact all the different technologies are a result of the industry's history, with people developing their own ways of building tires. These have continued in the technological histories of the companies.
During his initial 10 years in the industry with Michelin, Lightfoot said he learned how to build a tire. When he moved on to Pirelli, he discovered the company had different ideas about how a tire should be made.
Other firms, he said, have their own technologies. This means independent machinery makers need to be able to adapt their own machinery to the demands of different ideas about how tires should be made-and the engineers and sales people need to be able to adapt to a different way of thinking about tire manufacturing.
One of the limitations of upgrading existing plants, however, is the size and layout of the floor space. Modern, automated tire building systems take up a lot of space, and this can create a planning problem.
Another problem faced by machinery suppliers is the ``add-ons'' invented by the tire maker to improve the performance of the tire building machine.
The difficulty occurs when the machinery supplier needs to view the machine in operation-for maintenance, for on-going service, etc.
Usually it is possible to get around these difficulties through non-disclosure agreements or royalties, if the customer allows the supplier to use the idea in the future.