WHITE, Ga.—There´s no doubt the star of Toyo Tire North America Inc.´s grand opening of its first U.S. tire plant was the manufacturing process itself.
Japanese parent Toyo Tire & Rubber Co. Ltd. dubs its highly automated proprietary tire production system the Advanced Tire Operation Module, or ATOM.
The roughly 350 visitors at the December opening were given a peek—albeit from a distance—at the system, where no one touches the tire until after the first inspection after curing. The company said the process is designed for multiproduct, small-lot production and enables Toyo to reduce its space needs and manufacturing lead times.
Toyo invested about $180 million in the factory´s first phase, which will give the firm the capacity to make up to 2 million passenger and light truck tires a year under the Toyo and Nitto brands. Two future phases could bring capacity at the plant—located about 50 miles from Atlanta in the rural town of White—up to 6 million tires a year.
Toyo developed ATOM internally over the past five years and already is using it at one of its Japanese facilities.
"We´re trying to get as close to ´made to order´ as possible," said James L. Hawk, senior vice president and plant manager.
Hawk is a veteran of nearly 35 years in the tire industry and he said this technology is far beyond anything he´s seen. "I can remember being an engineering student at the University of Akron and in my wildest imagination I could have never imagined this," he said.
With ATOM, Hawk said there are no tire builders. Each tire assembly module is self-contained, with 12 extruders built into each module. Belts are made in one area, beads and inner plies in another, and sidewall and tread in yet another. Green tires are then taken by overhead conveyors directly to curing.
"Everything is being extruded in-place," Hawk said, "so the belts are cut to length and width in place."
Hawk previously worked for Continental General Tire Inc. and later with Yokohama Tire Corp. He was familiar with Toyo because he was plant manager at the GTY Tire facility in Mount Vernon, Ill., in which the three companies are partners.
But Hawk said he was more familiar with Toyo having expertise in materials technology, not tire making machinery.
He credits Shozo "Carlos" Kibata, Toyo Tire North America president, and Yoshio Kataoka, president and CEO of the Japanese parent company, for having a dual vision. First, he said the two took Toyo into the large-diameter, ultra-high-performance market, and then committed the resources to research and development to make the high-quality tires that are a must in that arena.
"Frankly, I was expecting to see a high-speed, semi-automated tire machine, like I saw at competitors," he said. "Not even close. They have virtually eliminated the whole preparation extruding department."
With ATOM, Hawk said tire uniformity improves dramatically because everything is precise and the process eliminates splices. "Uniformity´s not 5 or 10 percent better," he said. "It´s in the range of 50 to 75 percent better."
Phil Nussbaum, president of A to Z Tire & Battery Inc. in Amarillo, Texas, and a longtime Toyo dealer, said it was wonderful to see the advancements in technology. "The ATOM module, in particular, is where I believe manufacturers have to go in the future because of size proliferation," he said.
Why ´Made in the USA´?
While many manufacturers are looking at areas outside the U.S. to locate production facilities, Kibata said the state-of-the-art technology at this new facility allowed it to be built here.
"Our ATOM plant is very automated so we don´t need lots of labor. We need high-skilled labor," he said. "Another reason is that the American tire market is the biggest tire market in the world. It´s better to have a facility in the biggest market."
Kibata said Toyo visited about 15 locations, including some in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. In the end, Bartow County provided the 150 acres in a site that is near auto makers in the South and near Interstate 75 for easy transport.
And Toyo is working hard to become part of the rural Georgia community. A citizens group had sought to block the firm´s plans to locate the plant in Bartow County, but later dropped the action. As part of its opening, Toyo announced monetary and volunteer contributions to Bartow County Schools and the Margaret & Luke Pettit Environmental Preserve.
"To make Toyo Tire North America the No. 1 plant, we must ensure good communication with the local community, so that we may be recognized as a good corporate citizen," Kibata said.
Despite wanting to be close to the transplant OEMs, production for at least the first two to three years will be dedicated to the replacement market, according to Kibata. He said Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc. has requested that Toyo supply some tires, but the two firms are working together on development.
Toyo also moved a distribution center earlier this year from Austell, Ga., to the White site, where it will occupy about 400,000 square feet.
The tire maker said having the center at the plant will enhance distribution and inventory availability for Toyo´s expanding network of independent dealers facing an increased demand for high-performance tires. The White location gives proximity to rail, air and interstate highway transportation, which will streamline distribution to dealers by expediting shipments and reducing supply-chain costs.
Initially, about 60 percent of production will be for Toyo-brand products and 40 percent for Nitto tires, though that may fluctuate based on market demands, Kibata said.
He said the firm has no current plans to move its sales organization—Toyo Tire (U.S.A.) Corp.—from its Cypress, Calif., headquarters, but that it can´t exclude that possibility in the future.