BLACKSBURG, Va.—The Center for Tire Research is a consortium between industry and academia that largely has operated under the radar since its inception in 2012, but quietly has played an effective role in the tire business.
CenTiRe, as it is known, has been successful in conducting what is termed "pre-competitive" research for a relatively economic price, while at the same time giving students valuable lab experience that is proving to be an effective recruiting tool to bring them into industry-related careers, according to participants in the organization.
The center is based out of Virginia Tech University, with the University of Akron a second site. It currently includes 19 industry members, 14 of those tire manufacturers along with Ford Motor Co., General Motors, two testing firms and a company out of Canada involved in that nation's oil sands industry.
It operates under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, which oversees more than 50 similar university/industry cooperative research centers in a wide variety of U.S. industries.
CenTiRe was established in 2012, but the groundwork was laid in 2010, when Saied Taheri, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, wrote the proposal for NSF review. He also serves as director of CenTiRe, and brought in Celal Batur, a University of Akron professor of mechanical engineering, so the two schools could collaborate on the NFS application. Batur also serves as the UA site director.
"We're a true consortium between the industry members, Virginia Tech and the University of Akron under this NSF program, which gives us some structure and administrative support," said Ron Kennedy, the center's managing director.
Kennedy has been on both sides of CenTiRe. He joined Firestone in 1977, working as a research scientist, mainly specializing in simulation. He moved over to Hankook Tire in 1995. While at Hankook, he was the company's representative to the center for a couple of years before taking retirement in 2014 and moving into the newly created managing director role at CenTiRe.
Kennedy said about a year into the consortium, the industry members said there needed to be someone there to manage it. The center's Industry Advisory Board and the two universities agreed a managing director was needed, a position who reports to Taheri and is supported by the NSF funding.
"They wrote a job description and I thought that was something interesting to do," Kennedy said. "I really like the center and I was really behind what they were doing."
Taheri said at the beginning it was a challenge to get everything done correctly and on time. "When it started, I was doing my own job, Ron's job and my office manager's job," he said. "Ron has been awesome for us."
Kennedy said part of his role has been to raise the profile of CenTiRe, by attending expos and conferences to try to get the word out. For example, he was the keynote speaker for the ACS Rubber Division Spring Technical Meeting in May.
"Being university-based, we don't have a big marketing department," he said. "I mean, I am the marketing department in a way."
How it works
Kennedy sees CenTiRe as a place to produce good, fundamental research. It's not "pie in the sky" research done mainly for academic purposes, nor does it delve into company specific R&D that would be proprietary in nature. It is labeled pre-competitive because it's not research that is expected to be dropped right into a company's processes, but instead can be used as a building block for each industry member to use as it sees fit.
"It's a really good opportunity to have an outside organization and two really good universities to help advance the technology," he said.
Plus, it's a good way for industry members to leverage their investment. They each pay $40,000 a year in membership fees, and that is lumped in with the dues of the other members. CenTiRe currently is conducting about $600,000 in funded research, and that goes even further, he said, as NSF rules caps university overhead at 10 percent of costs.
The projects themselves are member-driven. The members get together as a group and determine what areas they want to have research on. That leads to a request for proposals, and faculty at each university can then submit proposals addressing those needs.
"Then our industry members as a group cull through them and decide what they are going to fund," Kennedy said. "To me it's a good model for the industry people, because as a center we're working on research they want to have done."
As projects move forward—they typically run for two to three years—industry members can assign mentors to help guide the research. Each project team—including students, faculty and mentors—has regular updates to make sure the work is going as expected, and also for the mentors to address any issues that arise.
Twice a year there are Industry Advisory Board meetings, in the spring at Virginia Tech and in fall at the University of Akron, where students both give presentations on current projects and faculty can lead pitches on new proposals.
"We try to get as much interaction between the student/faculty and the industry people," Kennedy said.
He added that the two schools have complementary strengths, with UA strong in polymer science and engineering, and VT more focused on mechanical and engineering sciences.
Typically, CenTiRe has about 10-12 projects running at any given time, involving at least one faculty member, one to three graduate students and any number of industry mentors.
The paid research positions funded by member company projects go to master's, doctoral and post-doctoral students, Taheri said, but the NSF also funds undergraduates through its Research Experiences for Undergraduates. During the tenure of CenTiRe, he said Virginia Tech has been able to fund roughly 65 undergrads, including four this fall semester.
Taheri currently has about 12 graduate students working on projects with him, with another five to 10 working on other tire-related projects at the school.
CenTiRe has tackled a variety of research projects since its inception, including a good bit on intelligent tires. He said this involves placing small sensors inside the tires to provide data that can provide information on such things as road surface conditions, the friction level of the road, how much the tire has worn out and the hydroplaning potential of the tire.
Taheri said the researchers even 3D-printed a sensor about 1/10th the size of a penny in a tire, one that would have a low cost in mass production. "We have tested it on-road and on the tire testing center we have designed and built here," he said. "The results we have gotten are very comparable to the data we collected using regular, expensive off-the-shelf microcenters."
Batur said the NSF supports centers like CenTiRe to ensure students are receiving either practical or theoretical education all the way from the undergraduate years to post-doctoral work. The faculty and students are monitored closely by the industry mentors, and this provides strong experience for the students in both the industrial and academic environment.
"There is continuous interaction between the industry members and faculty and graduate students," Batur said. "If there are any problems, they catch it immediately."
Depending on the project, students will work on such areas as transportation and vehicle dynamics, or on materials or modeling. They also may have the opportunity to go to the company to perform experimental research depending on the nature of the R&D work.
"Since this is company driven, the companies basically dictate what kind of conditions we should have to run this project, and they assign the technical road map," Batur said. "What they use to evaluate is entirely up to them because the project really is assigned by them."
The number of projects varies from year to year, he said, but over time there is a fairly even split between the workload for each of the universities.
Industry member focus
Each of the industry members can get as much or little out of CenTiRe as they want, depending on their level of participation. Generally representatives said the more involved they are, the more likely it is to bring benefit to the organizations.
Janice Tardiff, an elastomer materials technical expert for Ford, said the firm has been involved with CenTiRe from the beginning. She said many ask her why Ford is involved in elastomeric research when it doesn't make any parts, but she said the answer to that is simple.
"We want to be an informed consumer," she said. "Rubber is so critical to the performance of our vehicles. We want to make sure we are pulling the latest and greatest technologies for use on our vehicles."
As far as CenTiRe, she said that Ford has questions in the areas of materials, testing, modeling and manufacturing that may be answered—or at least get a nudge in the right direction—by this research. "From our perspective, we are looking for a fundamental understanding from a materials perspective, the interaction between polymers and fillers, and how we can improve performance, particularly in rolling resistance," Tardiff said.
She currently is mentoring several projects, including new ways to crosslink tire rubber and incorporating self-healing capabilities into tire rubber. Other Ford colleagues are mentoring on projects related to engineering functions.
Joel Lazeration is an R&D fellow at Goodyear and has been involved with CenTiRe from the start. He is a member of the Industry Advisory Board and also mentors on projects.
"What we're looking for as a company is some of the more fundamental research in the areas of science and engineering," Lazeration said. "That's what the universities are set up to do and can provide. We're looking to get that basic research that we can then take and apply to our tire programs here."
Saying he's kind of teacher at heart, he enjoys guiding the students' work as a mentor. "One of the great things they bring is, through CenTiRe they are exposed to tires," he said. "So they're familiar with tire terminology and tire performance and tire structure. You can communicate with them on a level that you're used to communicating daily in the office here."
Jan Terziyski, program manager at Nexen Tire's America Technology Center, first was involved with CenTiRe while working for Hankook, and kept up with it since joining Nexen three years ago. He is a member of the advisory board and figures he has served as a mentor on at least 20 projects, mostly on tire modeling and finite element analysis.
"I would say the students are very bright young people, and they are very disciplined in the way they do their research," he said. "They listen to suggestions, and come up with their own ideas."
Terziyski said another important part of CenTiRe is the ability to work on cross-industry projects and get input from their auto company customers, who also benefit from seeing what the tire industry has to offer in terms of new technology.
With the tire and rubber industry always looking for ways to bring new blood into the industry, CenTiRe has been particularly helpful on this front.
Taheri said about 30 graduates from his group at VT now work in the tire and automotive industry. "Nowadays finding a good tire engineer researcher is really hard, because there are not too many universities in the U.S. that do tire and automotive research," he said. "There are a few, but I don't think there is anybody in the U.S. that does what we do."
Batur reports similar success from UA. "It is very important for companies because eventually they will hire those students because they are the ones who already know the problems of the industry," he said, "and they have some basic grounding, either theoretical or experimental, on those particular problems."
Goodyear has hired a number of students over the years who have come from CenTiRe, according to Lazeration, and he has seen other students he's mentored go on to other tire industry firms. "It's a great avenue," he said. "You get to see how they work, and evaluate them through the experience. ... These students, when they graduate, they're ready to hit the job running. It's very good for the tire industry."
Terziyski said the students would be a good fit not only in the tire industry, but also in many other places where advanced skills are a requirement. "With the way the job market is right now, they may actually find a better place than the tire or automotive industry," he said.
Looking to the future, CenTiRe is in its second phase of five-year NSF funding cycles. Taheri said it can go through a third, five-year phase, but after that would have to continue as an independent entity.
He added that one goal is to bring some materials firms into the fold, along with related government agencies and possibly other universities.
Kennedy added that the road map the industry members are plotting also will concentrate more on the evolution toward autonomous vehicles and what the tire industry's role will be in that.