It's easy to paint Akron's rubber story with black-and-white or sepia tone strokes. The city's relationship with the tire industry, in particular, can feel distant. Once a bustling tire manufacturing hub, Akron has seen its fair share of shuttered tire factories and lost blue collar jobs.
But there's more to the city's legacy than a collection of historical plaques or neighborhood namesake identities—Firestone Park and Goodyear Heights.
Yes, the tire industry's roots run deep in Akron, but that ensures the industry remains alive and well, blossoming into a tire technology and development hub.
Kumho Tire USA Inc. is proof of that. The South Korean-based tire maker maintains its North American technical center just outside of Akron. The team there recently welcomed Rubber News, offering a glimpse at the work the staff does daily.
It became clear during discussions with Managing Director Rick Cunat that Kumho is proud to have a presence in the Akron area. The company, he said, plans to invest in those research and development operations with upgrades to equipment and facility renovations.
But Kumho is just one part of the bigger, more vibrant picture.
There is Goodyear, of course, which chose to keep its global headquarters and innovation center in Akron. It remains, perhaps, the most visible reminder of the tire industry's presence, particularly when the company's namesake blimp takes to the sky.
But there are other major players investing in Akron's future. Bridgestone Americas Inc., Kenda Tire U.S.A. Inc., Linglong Americas Inc., Nexen Tire America Inc., Triangle Tyre Group Co. Ltd. and Hankook Tire America Corp. all maintain technical operations in and around the Rubber City.
Bridgestone is putting the finishing touches on its $17 million Advanced Tire Production Center, which is slated to open next year. With a focus on race tires for the NTT IndyCar Series, the facility will feature state-of-the-art production technology that supports race tire manufacturing.
Plans to expand ATPC's capabilities also include a new track that would complement the company's established testing operations in Texas, Ohio, Mexico and South America. The track is designed to replicate the conditions of real-world driving with a long straightaway to assess lane change performance; a noise, vibration and harshness course to test ride comfort and road noise; and a wet- and dry-weather handling course.
Nexen, meanwhile, is eyeing the greater Akron area for its North American headquarters, slated to move from Diamond Bar, Calif. The company plans to integrate its corporate and sales staffs into its North American technical center in Richfield, Ohio, more than doubling the number of employees there.
Together, these investments help to fill in a more complete picture of Akron's ongoing relationship with the rubber and tire industries. And they're just a part of a much larger picture that includes suppliers, R&D, lab and testing firms, and educational pursuits.
For Akron and the rubber industry that has come to define it, the future is promising. Made possible, of course, because of its rich and storied past.