By David Sedgwick, Automotive News
Rome, Georgia -- A small Pirelli tyre factory in Rome, Georgia, may play a key role in solving the North American auto industry's chronic shortage of premium tyres.
Tyre makers are struggling to produce enough low-volume speciality tyres in plants that have been retooled for mass production. With their large rims and low profiles, speciality tyres are difficult to produce in a conventional factory.
And consumer demand for premium tyres shows no sign of abating, recession or not.
Over the last decade or so, the number of tyre sizes used in the United States has nearly doubled, according to the consumer Web site TireRack.com.
Tom Gravalos, vice president of marketing for Pirelli & C. S.p.A., says, "All the car makers want more variety and performance, particularly for performance vehicles. They are trying to make cars more unique, and consumers seem to like them."
Pirelli, which has considerable experience producing speciality tyres in Europe, has developed a tyre production system meant for low-volume runs - which is where the Rome plant comes in.
A traditional plant typically might produce tyres in batches of 80,000 to 100,000 units. By contrast, the Rome plant can comfortably produce tyres in batches of 10,000 or so units, Gravalos said.
That's perfect if you're producing, say, an optional dealer-installed 21-inch tyre for the Chevrolet Camaro.
The factory uses what Pirelli calls a "modular integrated robotised system," or MIRS, to switch production quickly between different types of tyres.
As long as the tyres' reinforcing belts and rubber compounds are the same, Pirelli's factory can switch production back and forth quickly among different types of tyres.
With only 250 employees, the Rome plant has a relatively small staff. It produces only 400,000 tyres a year, according to Gravalos, while a typical mass-production tyre plant might produce more than 5 million tyres a year.
Despite its relatively low output, the Rome plant is efficient because it employs only technicians and inspectors. The factory does not have any hands-on assembly line operators. "This is a fully automated production system," Gravalos said. "Nobody assembles a tyre."
Pirelli developed its production system in Italy, where it produces high-performance tyres for such customers as Ferrari, Maserati and Bentley. Now the Milan facility is testing a second-generation version of its manufacturing process.
Meanwhile, rival tyre makers recently have announced plans to invest large sums to beef up North American production.
Bridgestone Corp. is spending $211 million to expand production in its plant in Aiken, S.C., to 13.4 million tyres a year.
Likewise, Continental AG is spending $500 million to build a new plant in Sumter, S.C. and expand production at its plant in Mount Vernon, Ill., to 12.5 million tyres a year.
Meanwhile, Pirelli is spending $210 million to build a plant in Silao, Mexico. The Silao plant, which will open next year, will produce up to 5 million tyres a year by 2015.
In part, the tyre industry is making big investments to replace inefficient plants that were shut down during the recession. Despite these costly expansions, North American automakers are likely to suffer spot shortages of premium tyres for years to come, Gravalos predicts.
"Everybody in the industry is trying to figure out how to make small batches efficiently," Gravalos said. "Everybody has a different way to approach it."
From Automotive News (A Crain publication)