To gain insight into how the tire industry perceives the tire of tomorrow, Rubber & Plastics News surveyed a handful of major tire makers, asking about a number of game-changing aspects of tire design.
Bridgestone Americas Inc.; Contintental Tire the Americas L.L.C.; Cooper Tire & Rubber Co.; Goodyear; Hankook Tire USA; Michelin North America Inc.; Pirelli Tyre S.p.A.; and Sumitomo Rubber North America responded. An abbreviated version of the tire makers' answers to our questions appeared in the June 11 print issue of Rubber & Plastics News. The manufacturers' full responses to the questionnaire are being presented online as a three-part series.
This is part two of that series.
Q: Do you see continued proliferation in SKUs—more sizes, more specialty fitments; etc.—or will this taper off/plateau? What are the influences here?
BRIDGESTONE: We expect to see continued SKU proliferation as OEMs remain focused on differentiating their vehicles and models. Tires are an important tuning knob used by the OEMs to achieve desired vehicle performance attributes such as sporty performance, a quiet, comfortable ride and more. At Bridgestone, we are committed to helping auto makers meet the needs of consumers, and we'll continue to innovate and engineer tires that are uniquely designed for a specific vehicle to ensure each vehicle achieves its maximum performance.
Because we expect increasing complexity in the market, Bridgestone is taking steps to address complexity by accelerating its distribution strategy to ensure dealers and retailers have access to the company's complete passenger and light truck tire portfolio, including original equipment fitments. The company announced earlier this year it is launching TireHub, a joint tire distribution venture with Goodyear, and the company is prioritizing dealers and distributors that sell the full depth and the breadth of the Bridgestone and Firestone product portfolios. All of these steps are intended to give dealers and consumers more access to the products they want and need.
CONTINENTAL: We see the number of SKUs increasing, at least for the next five years or so. There are a number of reasons for this. We have the standard approach of having a range of upward sizes per vehicle. In addition to each new successor vehicle the standard size often changes. In many OEMs the range of vehicle variants has increased. Some of these increases have been limited by use of vehicle platforms but the overall increase continues. A further factor is the addition of the electric vehicle architecture which then often adds different sizes vs. the existing sister vehicles. We see the launch of over 100 electric vehicle variants between now and 2024, which will influence the number of SKUs.
COOPER: If categories of vehicles such as electric, autonomous and fleet become commonplace, tires made with specialized materials and additional tire sizes will be needed. Additionally, vehicles are being driven longer, as the average age of cars in the U.S. continues to increase, so tires will continue to be needed for that segment of vehicles as well.
HANKOOK: As for OE tires, SKUs are expected to increase for many years to come.
The automobile industry is marked by small-quantity batch production methods in order to satisfy diverse consumer demands. Steady growth of SKUs is predicted as tires are diversified to meet the growing number of automobile models in the market.
However, a different situation is taking shape in the replacement market. A plateau level is expected to maintain and converge at a specific point, since optimization of the products' pattern and SKU is operated for production efficiency.
MICHELIN: We see a continued proliferation of SKUs in both sizes and their specific capabilities due to new needs of vehicles. Vehicle design remains important and some cases will be personalized.
PIRELLI: A proliferation in SKUs is expected, and it will be influencing the tire manufacturing process, requiring high flexibility for very diversified, specialized production
SUMITOMO: We see the proliferation of sizes and SKUs to taper off during the next 10 years. Short term, we will see increases as the CUV growth takes sales from sedans and traditional SUVs, the older vehicles still will be in the market for another decade. We also will see a more diverse style of CUV as the style taste differences of consumer's creates differing styles of the same CUV model. As tire performance windows broaden and vehicle diversity reduces (like the Ford and FCA announcements of greatly reducing sedan production), we will have the need for fewer variations.
Q: What new component materials do you anticipate coming to market that could influence tire development? How strong is the push for renewable-resource-based materials?
BRIDGESTONE: As the No. 1 tire and rubber company in the world, we have set a long-term vision of manufacturing products from raw materials that are fully renewable and sustainable by 2050. We continue to explore and expand its research into new, sustainable domestic sources of natural rubber. Earlier this year, we announced a strategic partnership with Versalis to develop and deploy technology focused on commercializing guayule in the agricultural, sustainable-rubber and renewable-chemical sectors.
CONTINENTAL: The strong improvement in tire performance and technology of the past years originated from further innovations and modifications of the typical raw-material base of the tire and rubber industry. New generations of polymers, silicas, reinforcements and some special additives and innovative compounding have proved to boost the material and component properties strongly forward, especially converted into benefits in rolling resistance, grip and wear resistance.
Along with the raw-material technologies, the processing technology gained importance to maximize the performance potential inherent in the latest material technologies. The trend to increased diversity on the raw-material market continues, generating new and innovative versions of the typical rubber ingredients. What we have not seen in recent years is a revolution by introduction of a completely new material into the tire rubber world. However, the community is very active, maybe more active than ever, to work on improvements or innovations.
Materials from renewable resource will gain importance, but the pace is a topic of debate. The topic has long been a subject of research and many such materials have been proposed. However, in many cases the step to volume production was not done, partly due to performance reduction, partly due to a lifetime assessment that exhibits no benefit over conventional material. This is due to the strong dominance of the tire use phase compared to its raw material base.
It continues to be an interesting field of research for the tire industry. However, for natural rubber as the renewable material with the biggest volume by far, the topic of sustainable sourcing is of high priority. Continental is working in various areas to contribute to identify a suitable way for a sustainable NR. In addition, we strongly believe that the growing demand and hunger for NR needs a different source than today: adequate growing conditions for Hevea trees put a strong limitation for the regions where the NR can be generated. Therefore we are continuing to move on our innovation path to establish the Dandelion plant as a source for NR. This year we will open the new "Taraxagum Lab Anklam" an R&D facility purely focused making this innovation a reality.
COOPER: Lighter weight, more durable materials will continue to be important in tire development.
HANKOOK: Finished products should have low rolling resistance and strong resistance to abrasion. To lower rolling resistance, materials such as high-performance polymers or silica should be developed and used. Light and high-intensity materials are used to reduce tire weight and enhance fuel efficiency. High-performance synthetic rubber often is used to make eco-friendly tires. Styrene-Butadiene Rubber (SBR) and butyl rubber are good examples. Butyl rubber has lower air permeability than rubber normally used to make average tires and is therefore good for maintaining optimal air pressure. It is considered as the key material in making eco-friendly tires, as 90 percent of the products are used in tires' inner liners. SBR is mainly used for silica compound tire tread. Nowadays, it is being used for research on biomaterials to prevent pollution.
Tires are made by mixing chemicals into rubber. Lots of materials are used. Natural or synthetic rubber is combined with carbon black, silica, oil of paraffin, anti-ozonants, antioxidants and other materials to make tires. Eco-friendly tires focus on reducing rolling resistance to increase efficiency. Strengthening durability and using eco-friendly materials are also important. To make this possible, high quality synthetic rubber, butadiene polymer compound and silica are used. Hankook Tire also has developed non-pneumatic tires for this use and simplified the tire structure to reduce the amount of raw materials needed. Moreover, urethane UNI-material is used to prevent environmental pollution.
MICHELIN: There will be an increase in sustainable materials in tires (recycled and renewable). This will include both bio-sourced materials (see BioButterfly) and increased use of Micronized Rubber Powder (MRP) (see Lehigh Technology).
New generations of "functionalized polymers"
Ultra lightweight reinforcing materials, including nano technologies
There is an increasing interest towards renewable-source based materials, such as bio-materials (e.g. bio-polymer or bio-oil) i.e. materials which exist in nature (e.g. cellulose, natural plasticizers, natural rubber) or which can be produced from natural occurring precursors.
SUMITOMO: The consistent focus on lower and lower rolling resistance over the past decade has driven tire makers to search for materials that will help achieve this, while at the same time look for ways to control costs of materials and production. In addition to low rolling resistance, we have put more emphasis on sustainability, such as materials from end-of-life tires that can be reused in new tires or sustainable materials that can reduced the amount of material used or alternatives to petroleum. The use of these materials has a big influence not only on tire development and design, but on production methods as well.
Q: What developments—if any—in manufacturing technology will influence tire design? Or would progress in this area have greater impact on SKU management, tire availability/fulfillment, etc?
BRIDGESTONE: We see significant promise in emerging technologies such as 3D printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, big data and more. All of these technological advancements will influence the tire manufacturing process, and ultimately lead to tire design improvements. We expect new technologies to allow for a faster and more flexible tire design process, which will help tire manufacturers respond more quickly to evolving consumer demands.
CONTINENTAL: The basic processes will look the same, but with the Industry 4.0 approach we will realize intelligent machines and processes. Real-time control and optimization will give us the chance to work with tighter tolerances and at the same time to reduce scrap. Tailor-made vision systems are supporting this trend. Furthermore we are using data from our interlinked machines to increase the transparency (volume, quality, efficiency, maintenance, etc.) as we already do in our lighthouse production cell HPTC in Korbach, Germany, and thus to manage the increasing complexity. With this "totally reliable production technology" we will achieve the highest reliable forecast.
However the basic technology is going to be modified toward a higher flexibility. In extrusion, for example, the tooling will give us the chance to make changes on the fly, and further on for extreme small lot sizes, a strip winding technology will be industrialized. A real disruptive technology giving us a lot of chances will be additive manufacturing especially the 3D printing application of various materials.
Non value-added operation will continue to be replaced by a higher automation level using autonomous automated guided vehicles and automated storage systems.
COOPER: No response
HANKOOK: No response
MICHELIN: No response
PIRELLI: Highly flexible manufacturing technology for very diversified, specialized production; Digitalized, IoT-based manufacturing processes.
SUMITOMO: Continued automation of the building and curing process of tires will improve performance in many areas, such as tire uniformity and improving methods to develop lighter weight tires. Higher production precision will allow for the use of new materials and design elements that have not been possible in the past.