AKRON—Bridgestone Americas Inc. is ushering in the new year by putting the finishing touches on its new technical center, getting ready for staff to start moving to the facility in February.
The current technical center is housed in a more-than century-old building where Firestone long ago built tires before converting it to a technology center.
“We've been in this building more than 100 years, so it was about time for us to have a new tech center,” said Steve Shelton, vice president of product development for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. He came to Akron for the company in November 2010 and besides his work heading product development oversees the tech center campus.
Everything will move to the new site from the current tech center except for race tire production, which will remain where it is under a lease arrangement with the city of Akron. “All the scientists, chemists and tire engineers will move over,” Shelton said.
The new center will be one of three operated worldwide by Bridgestone—the others being in Japan and Europe—and will concentrate on development work for North, South and Central America.
Bridgestone announced in early 2008 that it planned to replace the Akron center, but hadn't decided where it would be located.
After investigating a number of locations and hearing proposals for aid from various governmental entities, the world's largest tire manufacturer said in July 2008 Akron would continue to be the center's home.
Ground wasn't broken, however, on the $100 million project until the end of February 2010.
As 2011 came to an end, some equipment already was set up, and Shelton said the center would house roughly 550-600 employees, including 400 from product development along with some staff from pensions and benefits, IT and part of the legal team. The land is adjacent to Bridgestone buildings that already conduct research and IT functions.
Shelton said the switch to the new facility will help the North American arm of the company be more innovative than it has in the past few years.
“From a global standpoint we've been very innovative, but locally we haven't,” he said. “We want to try to improve on that. This is a first step.”
A lot of it really is more about a cultural change, he said.
What Shelton will be looking for from his technical staff is what he calls the “I” words: intelligence, inquisitiveness and innovation.
“The last year has seen a lot of good movement to being a real leader in how we develop technology,” Shelton said. “I think we're even starting to see some excitement here that we're going to start to work on some things that are further down the road than just relying on the global corporation to do some of that work.”
Having the new center will allow closer collaboration and communication in understanding the marketplace and what's going on there, he said.
The new building will house everything that's involved in the development of tires other than the ability to manufacture them.
It will have test labs, tire engineers, and chemical and reinforcement analysis, among other capabilities.
“It will be all close together—one group taking care of what we see that the marketplace needs,” he said. “I call it a technology toolbox. We want to start putting technology in the toolbox ahead of when the consumer needs it.”
Bridgestone officials expect the new technical center to be certified as gold under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design—or LEED—standards. That means such benefits as less energy usage, places for bicycles and hybrid cars to park, and a system to catch and reuse rain water.
“We think we are very environmentally friendly,” the product development VP said. “Our CEO in Tokyo has a message for us to be that way. We just expect the tech center to be that way. It's where we're going to make our leading technology, and so the building should be leading how buildings of the future should be.”
Shelton can see both the pros and cons of making the decision to keep the technical center in Akron.
“The good arguments for being here are the tradition that we have here,” he said.
“We have a lot of talented people here who, if we had moved, might not have moved. We didn't want to lose that talent.”
Historically, Akron has been a good location for tire and polymer science, so there is ample opportunity to collaborate with researchers at such entities as the University of Akron.
On the negative side, it's hard for the company to get many outsiders to move to Akron.
“There probably were some locations that we could have moved people from other places easier,” Shelton said. “I'm actually the first non-Akron guy in this job. I don't particularly love the cold weather and the snow, but I love the job.”
Akron also isn't near any of Bridgestone's tire production facilities, other than racing tires.
“It's a little bit of a drawback, but we're working on a couple of fronts there,” he said. “We're working on what we call a virtual tire center that allows us (to work on projects) in multiple locations in multiple ways.”
Balancing customer needs
Over the years, original equipment makers have driven a lot of the advancements in tire technology. Bridgestone, however, believes it's time for that paradigm to shift a bit.
“We want to drive some of the technology in the replacement market more than just what OEMs are driving,” Shelton said. “We're kind of working through a transition period of time where we want to do both, but we think we can do some leading edge stuff in the replacement market.”
That would benefit the tire maker by not having a third party at the table and by being able to address the desires of the end users. He believes drivers are more interested in the total performance of the tire, and really rank wear as one of their biggest desires.
“The car manufacturers aren't so interested in wear,” he said. “When you drive it off the lot, nobody is thinking about wear that day. The end user is really interested in wear. There is a disconnect I think between the end users and what the OEMs are looking for. You try to balance that always.”
For example, survey results rarely show any feedback from drivers about a tire's dry stopping distance or how it corners at 100 miles an hour, Shelton said.
The tech center also has to handle everything from consumer tires up to off-the-road radials that can be as large as 14 feet tall.
While there are a lot of similarities, there are differences that must be addressed, especially in what he calls the “business-to-business” sectors.
Users of commercial truck tires, for instance, are looking for wear, fuel economy and retreadability; farm tire customers want good traction and less crop compaction; and operators of mining equipment are looking at tire life to avoid equipment downtime.
The tech center for the Americas already boasts expertise in such areas as compounding and polymer science, and will look to start pushing the envelope on such areas as virtual tire development to aid in speed to market.
While the move is projected to be completed in February, a grand opening is tentatively slated for April. “It's a huge positive for the whole company,” Shelton said. “It's an exciting time. I think people are looking forward to moving over there.”