Specifically, the global centre is tackling a number of challenges that the tire industry faces in the coming years. According to Chuck Yurkovich, vice president of global research and development, those include two main areas — developing alternative, domestic sources of natural rubber and new materials that can enhance lightweighting capabilities.
“The Global Technical Centre is the centre of excellence for what we would call advanced materials — things that we know we’re going to need: Fuel-efficient materials, lighter-weight materials, better-performing materials,” Yurkovich said. “We develop those and put them on the shelf so when the regional centres need them, they can draw from those.
“The advantage we have is that the development teams in the regional centres still work on products, but they use the shelf technology that we develop centrally at the global centre,” he added.
“That essentially gives you ready technology that you don’t have to develop regionally. You just plug it in. It helps you shorten the development cycle and bring products to market much more quickly.”
Cooper’s network of technical centres aims to tackle significant challenges facing the tire industry, which Yurkovich said includes:
Lighter-weight tires that perform equal to or better than current products in the market;
Improved fuel economy and rolling resistance in tires;
New tire concepts associated with autonomous vehicles; and
Customer demands on a region-by-region basis, either an original equipment or a replacement customer.
“It’s a pretty complicated equation when you put it together,” Mr. Yurkovich said. “I can assure you we won’t run out of things to do in the tire industry over the next 50 years or more.”
The executive highlighted two recent success stories, the first of which came out of a $1.5 million Department of Energy grant to develop lightweight, fuel-efficient tires.
He said the goal of the program was to develop a prototype tire that reduced weight by at least 20 percent while improving vehicle fuel economy by at least 3 percent.
When the project wrapped up in 2015, he said Cooper had boosted average fuel efficiency by 5.5 percent – about 1.5 times that of the goal – and reduced weight anywhere from 23 to 37 percent in concept tires.
“We consider that to be a big success because it opened a lot of doors for future direction that we continue to work on,” Yurkovich said.
“We’ve actually deployed some of the modelling and testing and predictive technology that came out of that program into our current development process as well.”
The firm also is working with both guayule and the Russian dandelion TKS to produce a domestic, alternative source of natural rubber through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Biomass Research and Development Initiative grant worth $6.9 million. The program began in 2012 and runs through mid-2017.
Cooper and guayule developer PanAridus LLC hosted a ride-and-drive in 2015 at Cooper’s Pearsall, Texas, vehicle test centre that demonstrated experimental tires using multiple components made solely of guayule rubber produced by PanAridus.
“There’s almost a universal approach to head in the same direction, although the standards may vary,” Yurkovich said. “For us, we have a group that’s looking at new technology that accelerates that process in the global tech centre and then the regional tech centres to meet those needs utilising those materials. It works very efficiently.
“But if you don’t have the development, or the organization, at some point you run out of steam. You just can’t keep going to meet those needs.”
Cooper spent $52 million on R&D last year, or 1.7 percent of sales.