(From the Oct. 1, 2012, issue of Rubber & Plastics News)
CLEVELAND—Automation and flexibility are the key attributes tire making customers desire most when shopping for new tire building and rubber product equipment, according to two officials from VMI Americas Inc.
Most tire makers undertaking the plethora of new tire plant projects and expansions are looking for automated equipment, said Arie Kroeze, VMI Americas' president and CEO.
“In North America, new tire machines don't have operators anymore,” he said. “They have people who load the machines with material, but nobody's touching the tire anymore. There are robots and applications systems that just take the labor out.”
Even on the technical rubber side of VMI's business, customers are looking to take out labor and replace multiple processes with one continuous process, according to David Grepp, account sales manager for VMI-AZ Extrusion (North America).
An example of this is the firm's final mix system, he said, where VMI uses a pump/extruder combination. That allows companies to mix master batches in their internal mixers, then blend multiple batches together to come up with a final compound. Grepp said customers then can strain or run profiles, run strips, go directly to batch off and come up with a completed product in one continuous operation.
Kroeze and Grepp talked about current conditions in the tire and rubber machinery industry during the International Tire Exhibition & Conference, held Sept. 18-20 in Cleveland.
“When you can combine labor savings efficiencies along with increased production and increased accuracies, you get the best of both worlds,” Grepp said. “You're not just saving money, you're actually providing a better product at the same time.”
Flexibility also is vital, Kroeze said, because in the past, car manufacturers would need just one tire size per vehicle model. Now each vehicle may require as many as 25 different tire sizes. So where tire production in the past would entail long runs for each size, today the equipment must be set up to easily handle lower batches.
“Our systems are built for flexibility,” he said. “We have tire machines now where every tire can be different.”
Technology the key
VMI spends roughly 5-6 percent of sales on research and development to stay ahead of its competition, Kroeze said. The Holland-based company employs about 900 worldwide, with production at its headquarters facility along with a factory in China. It has a staff of 15-20 in the U.S., with Stow, Ohio-based VMI Americas focusing on parts, service, sales and support.
He views VMI as the top company globally in terms of its tire building equipment, with the firm's other equipment components generally ranked No. 1 or 2.
The firm's biggest competitors likely are in-house engineering staffs from tire manufacturers, many of which still develop proprietary tire building equipment. However, Kroeze sees less and less of this in the business for various reasons.
“Some companies realize that their business is making tires, not making tire machines,” he said.
And while VMI will try to convince customers to rely more on it for machinery needs, each tire firm will make the switch only when its management adopts that as a policy change, Kroeze said.
“There are still areas where they do certain things because they have technology to try to protect,” he said of customers. “Secrecy is very important in their business. Sometimes things are very close because there are only certain ways to do certain things.”
Grepp said that even where customers have a homegrown attitude about their own equipment, the tire makers still will come to VMI to make some key components of the system.
Kroeze said the proliferation of tire cell manufacturing systems announced several years ago—such as Bridgestone's BIRD, Pirelli's MIRS and Michelin's C3M—haven't taken off as some had predicted. VMI even has its own version, the MTM or Modular Tire Manufacturing system, and is developing a new version of it.
But while the thought of the flexibility these tire making systems offered and the possibility of putting individual cells next to car plants for on-demand supply sounds great, the economic realities have yet to match the hype, Kroeze said.
“We look more at cost per tire in the end, to make it flexible but still have high output,” he said. “A lot of these cells are very high tech but their output vs. cost is not as good. That's why you don't see much of it.”
Business for VMI has been “steady to good” from 2010-12 and the forecast for 2013 looks promising, Kroeze said.
There is some hesitation in the U.S. market right now because of the upcoming election, he said, with many customers waiting to see how it turns out. Asia has been good, with lots of growth.
There have been good expectations for South America—particularly in Brazil—but concerns about inflation and the economic situation there have slowed some of the growth, Kroeze said. Europe has been tough lately because of its economic crisis, punctuated by a 13-percent decline in car sales.
He said VMI will benefit from the capital projects in the tire industry because not only does it make tire machines, but a lot of accessory equipment, including cooling components, extrusion equipment and stock prep machinery.
Grepp said the extrusion market on the technical rubber goods side of VMI's business has been strong the past three years. He believes companies that survived the recession are stronger and in many cases absorbed other firms that weren't so lucky.