RAVENNA, Ohio—Smithers Rapra took another step toward expanding its global effort to work with tire producers with the grand opening of an expansion at its Ravenna facility.
The company showed off the new MTS Flat-Trac CT Plus Tire Test System and provided guided tours of its Tire and Wheel Test Center. The new CT+ will help with passenger car and light truck tire assessments and provides higher wheel torque and load limits.
Six tire manufacturers partnered with Smithers to bring in the new capability, according to a Smithers news release: Bridgestone Americas Inc., Continental Tire, Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., Goodyear, Hankook Tire America Corp. and Michelin North America Inc.
The CT+ will help Smithers in building higher fidelity tire models, which will help in meeting validation and timing requirements, according to the company.
The expansion, an investment of about $10 million, added about 10,000 square feet, according to Nat Leonard, president of Smithers Rapra and Smithers Pira. The new CT+ machine was installed according to the planned schedule and was on budget.
"We're investing a lot in people, technology and infrastructure to broaden the geographic breadth and technical depth to what we bring to the tire business," he said. "We're adding machines like this one to address the fact that there are bigger tires because there are bigger cars with high performance requirements."
The expansion also includes space for offices, conference rooms, storage and future planned testing capabilities, Smithers said.
The grand opening is part of a global investment strategy Smithers is undertaking, Leonard said. The company added a new mixer and analytical equipment to its Akron location, and expanded capacity at its tire and wheel operation in Suzhou, China, by about 35 percent in the last 18 months.
"The same time as we're trying to bring in new capabilities and innovations, we're also trying to help meet the need that's just a result of there being more tires produced in more places by an increasing number of players. We want to support them as they work globally so they can be agnostic about which Smithers site they send their tires to," Leonard said.
Smithers already is working on bringing in additional equipment to the Ravenna site to expand capabilities, some of which could come within the next year, Leonard said. The company also has hired a handful of employees at the site and has plans to hire more in the future.
The company has been growing faster than the market has, which Leonard attributes to two reasons. The first, with equipment like the CT+ that adds to the company's capabilities, it has been focused on expanding its tool kit. Second, with its locations globally, Smithers is able to support clients on a multi-region or global basis.
"When you look at our customers, if you look at companies in the tire and wheel industry, they're almost all global. In the past, they may not have operated globally. Now they do," he said.
Smithers has its Ravenna facility, which is focused on tire and wheel testing, and its Akron facility that focuses on chemistry and materials testing. Its Lansing, Mich., facility does non-tire testing for the transportation, industrial and consumer packaged goods sectors, as well as medical markets. In Raco, Mich., Smithers has its winter test track for tire testing. It has a facility in Leatherhead, England, which does chemical, packaging and distribution testing, and one in West Midlands, England, that does chemistry analysis for medical testing. Its Suzhou, China, facility has tire and wheel testing capabilities, and is starting product testing for rubber goods there.
The company is seeing customers across regions as well as all along the value chain with the need for tests for larger tires that need to be able to support higher speeds to be put on bigger vehicles, Leonard said.
"That's true here, that's true in Asia and it's true in Europe," he said. "We're trying to make sure that we're investing in the machines and expertise to allow us to meet that requirement. There used to be an assumption that it was really only happening in the U.S., but with a look at the market data now, it's happening everywhere."
The market share for SUVs and small trucks is higher in the U.S., but by vehicle type and tire size, for Asia and Europe, people are driving bigger vehicles and they need bigger tires, Leonard said.
Smithers is preparing by making certain that the machines, procedures, data and outcomes are consistent across its facilities, regardless of where the tire is sent for testing, he said. He wants to either have the same capabilities across labs, or if a capability is in only one place, access to that location is seamless from anywhere globally.
The different locations share projects within regions, as well as around the globe, Leonard said.
Smithers also is preparing to deal with electric vehicles, he said. There could be a shift away from high-speed, high-performance tires toward more of a focus on rolling resistance and noise and vibration control, but the market still seems undecided.
"We're trying to prepare ourselves to handle the scenario where those people are right. But we're also trying to deal with the fact that they may be wrong, and that's one of the reasons that machine is here," he said.
The advent of electric vehicles could sound like a promise for less work with more efficient systems. But electric systems use just as many hoses in a wider variety than a combustion engine, especially in keeping batteries cool, Leonard said.
"It's a big challenge. It's driving a whole new wave of investing," he said.
Even with more electric vehicles on the road, the vast majority are still combustion engines, which leaves the Smithers teams worldwide with their work cut out, Leonard said.
"Auto manufacturers and their tiers have that challenge, and they have to invest in both. So their R&D budgets are being challenged," he said. "And the variety and volume of product in general that we see coming into the Akron, Lansing and Suzhou labs is impressive."