GREENVILLE, S.C.—The technology for the tire might have been around for the last 15 years, but the Tweel tire and its business model represent a considerably different approach for Michelin.
That was the message delivered April 28 by Ralph Dimenna, a senior vice president who directs the Michelin incubator program office, during his keynote address at the ACS Rubber Division's 187th Technical Meeting, held at the Hyatt Regency.
As part of his responsibilities, Dimenna oversees the Tweel initiative, which reached fruition on Nov. 20, 2014, when the tire maker's first Tweel manufacturing plant opened in Piedmont, S.C., near the firm's headquarters in Greenville.
The Tweel is an airless tire that is the first product Michelin has manufactured in which rubber and plastic is “actually married together in the same product,” Dimenna said. The Tweel's highly-engineered shear beam and spoke, with rubber encapsulated between the cords, can accommodate 4,400 pounds.
Though the cost of these tires is significantly higher than single-ply bias tires, the benefit, Dimenna said, is three-fold: No compromise, no downtime, no maintenance.
“Those three attributes are incredibly valuable to our customers,” he said.
The Tweel has several applications, including skid steers, industrial “golf carts” and commercial zero-turn lawnmowers manufactured by John Deere, which is a key player in the Tweel project. Not only do the tires deliver durability and wear, Dimenna said, they also provide additional comfort over foam-filled tires usually found on skid steers.
Skid steer operators had to wear mouth guards while working in rugged environments to prevent teeth from chipping, Dimenna said. “Now we're providing a solution with a comfortable tire, allowing them to do all the work before and even more, because they never get flat tire, and in environment much better for them. It's the whole value.”
The structure of the Tweel plant is unique for Michelin, Dimenna said. The entire business is housed in the 135,000-sq.-ft. facility, including sales, industry, marketing, quality and technical.
“The sales team knows exactly what we're producing yesterday, when it will be available, when it will be delivered to the customer; the marketing organization gets direct customer feedback because they're sitting right next to the quality organization, who are getting information every day. The technical teams know what they need to continue to improve on; the sales organization and the marketing organization know when the new product is going to be industrialized in the plant.
“Everything is very, very flat. For a big industrial company like Michelin, it's a very interesting new model to have everyone co-located in one facility, working together, communicating constantly to understand how to serve the market as fast as possible.”
The Tweel is part of the boarder, aggressive Michelin incubator program office that Dimenna said the company developed in order to take new innovations into the market and organically grow the company outside of the firm's core tire business.
The incubator program office, with locations in Greenville, Clermont-Ferrand, France, and Shanghai, is tasked with delivering new ideas, new business models, new ways of working and new processes for bringing innovative products into the market in a “very profitable, sustainable manner,” Dimenna said.
The company is funding five initiatives in North America and currently, while examining other areas to pursue. In Europe, Dimenna said Michelin has launched five startups, providing mentoring and an “a to z approach in terms of product to market, the financial support, the marketing support, the business acumen.”
Michelin has identified five main domains as “emerging ecosystems” and is determining where and what it can do to capitalize on those domains. They are:
• Flexible composites, which encompasses everything about rubber, rubber composites and technology;
• Farm to market logistics: How do you deliver from the farm to the places that those products need to be;
• Connected mobility, which includes everything from intelligent tires to fully autonomous cars;
• Maintenance service, to make life simpler and easier for the customer, playing a role in finding a place to maintain a tire or vehicle; and
• Travel business: What else can the company do outside of its current involvement in travel to build new business?
Dimenna said Michelin is the only tire company to offer every type of tire in every single segment, and the mission of the incubator program is trying to look outside the core business of producing and manufacturing tires for all the different types of vehicles and markets that exist in the world.
“What we've seen is that in the last few years is we need to go even further than what we've done in the last 125 years and focus not just on products, but on services and on other ways to improve mobility for people,” Dimenna said.