AKRON—Pirelli is all about the image.
The tire maker doesn´t look to make commodity lines or be original equipment on high-volume vehicles, opting instead to seek its business mainly at the top of the tire industry food chain.
And that´s where Maurizio Boiocchi comes in. As senior vice president and director of research and development for tires at Pirelli Pneumatici S.p.A. in Italy, the 36-year company veteran was instrumental in helping forge Pirelli´s name in high and ultra-high performance passenger tires.
"The point is very easy. We have a philosophy and we have a mission in our company that is quite clear," said Boiocchi in an interview following his keynote speech at the recent International Tire Exhibition and Conference in Akron. "We cannot one day be a competitor on Ferrari or Aston Martin, and the day after try to be competitive with every last Chinese company."
In today´s tire industry, that means innovation has to move quicker from idea to product. "The game now is to have that little gap in what is the innovation and what is offered in the product on the market," the exec said.
Pirelli looks to its R&D department to give it differentiation from its competitors, according to Boiocchi. That might come in terms of better mileage, rolling resistance, grip or superior winter tires, among other things. "In general, the challenge is to go faster," he said. "In between innovation and product, there is a great stomachache."
One thing the Pirelli R&D director expects to see more of in the future is the use of modeling and simulation technology as a way to speed along the development process.
Being able to look at several different concepts on a computer and decide which is best to move forward on can shorten the testing cycle and also keep costs down.
But for a company like Pirelli, balancing quality and performance versus cost is one of the keys to success. "You have to be careful not to damage an image that you´ve taken years to build up," Boiocchi said.
MIRS an R&D jewel
One of the top innovations during his Pirelli tenure is the firm´s MIRS-Modular Integrated Robotized System-automated manufacturing system for tires. Boiocchi said the only system by a competitor that may be as advanced as MIRS is Michelin´s C3M tire production process.
"(MIRS) is for sure the extreme of the technology in terms of processes," he said. "We designed MIRS not for large volumes or long runs. We designed it to have as much flexibility as possible."
The short-run capability is one reason for the explosion of competitors in the sport-utility vehicle market, he said, because the tire maker could easily manage small lots of sophisticated tires.
MIRS accounts for about 10 percent of Pirelli´s tire unit volume, but accounts for roughly double that percentage in revenue because of the types of tires that are manufactured. Boiocchi called MIRS a "technical masterpiece of manufacturing," that cuts the traditional tire making process to three steps from 14. He said Pirelli has protected MIRS with more than 40 patents.
Tough current market
The job of Boiocchi´s department has been more difficult recently because of the rising costs of raw materials and energy, along with competition from tire makers in China, South Korea and elsewhere.
"If the market would accept a different level of pricing, it would be different," he said. "But we are in a very competitive market. We have to find competitiveness in raw materials, energy and logistic costs. Otherwise we can´t be competitive."
Pirelli and other Western tire makers also are impacted, he said, by a playing field that isn´t always level. While Western manufacturers must use clean processes and materials, and follow strict safety measures, some producers in low-cost nations don´t have the same limitations.
Pirelli, though, follows the same standards wherever it produces tires, he said, because to do otherwise would go against its mission and tarnish that all-important image the Italian tire maker has worked so hard to maintain.