AIKEN COUNTY, S.C.-The staff at Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire L.L.C.´s passenger and light truck tire plant in Aiken County recently had two reasons to celebrate on the same day.
With Mark Emkes, chairman and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Holding Inc., and a number of South Carolina governmental officials on hand last month to celebrate the production of the facility´s 50 millionth tire, the firm also announced a $17 million capital investment.
The money will be used to add a fourth rubber mixer and modify five existing tire building machines to produce large-rim diameter tires.
The influx brings Bridgestone/Firestone´s total investment in the Aiken County factory to $477 million.
Plant Manager Mike Rose sees the investment as a reflection of what the site has achieved since it began operations in 1999. "Along with good results here, we realize we have to compete in a global environment," he said. "I think the confidence the company is showing here is confidence we´ve earned over the years."
The capital outlay will add 36 jobs to Aiken County´s roster of 923. Most will be in the mixing areas, but some will be in tire production, as the process for larger-rim tire assembly is a bit more labor intensive, Rose said.
Bridgestone/Firestone said it needs extra capacity for these tires to meet "market demand for world-class tires with larger rim sizes." The company´s rated capacity currently is 25,000 units a day, and that is not expected to change.
Rose said the demand for 16-inch tires at the plant already is declining, as more vehicles are taking 17- or 18-inch tires, and even larger. Aiken County already can make in excess of 20-inch sizes, he said. "It´s an investment in the future. It´s where the market is going."
Rose first joined Firestone in 1972 and worked at the firm´s Wilson, N.C., tire plant for 24 years before joining Aiken as a group leader.
Having been plant manager there the past three years, he said the Aiken factory is a result of lessons Bridgestone/ Firestone learned at its other locations, the biggest difference being automated equipment and technology.
"Tires can go all the way through to final inspection without being touched," Rose said.
And while meeting production demands is a priority, so too is safety, he said. Last November, the plant reached 2 million hours worked without a "lost time" injur. It also has been recognized as an Occupational Safety and Health Administration Voluntary Protection Program Star facility for its outstanding safety and health management.
Aiken County and Bridgestone/Firestone´s Warren County, Tenn., truck tire plant are the only two tire factories in the U.S. to attain the OSHA Star status.
"We do not compromise in any way on safety," Rose said. "We talk about safety several times a day. We start off every meeting with something on safety. We want to keep that in front of everyone."
The plant manager said any honors Aiken receives really are a reflection of a culture of everyone working together to improve everything, from job improvement to cutting waste.
"The credit for the success here at Aiken goes to the people here," he said. "It´s a great bunch of people working toward a common goal. I know that sounds like a cliche, but it really is true."