Digital manufacturing opens doors for tire makers

- Jun 28, 2018-

While it might not yet be fully apparent, major tire manufacturers and their suppliers now are fully embracing the opportunities being presented by digital manufacturing and smart tire technologies.

"The digital transformation is showing that all tire producers and, as consequence their machine and technology suppliers, have to face the risks and obstacles coming from the obsolescence of their production assets," said Enzo Sorrentino of Rockwell Automation.

He added that the way tire manufacturers had become more open to these innovations "was maybe one of the most significant developments." According to the Rockwell Automation official, all technologies related to network access, maintenance and safety will have a key role in factories of the future. He highlighted the potential role of RFID tags as a traceability device in the tire industry of the future.

As a big supplier of rubber accelerators, Shenyang Sunnyjoint Chemicals Co., Ltd. will keep an eye on the digital manufacturing of tires.

"Because of the deep digitalization, manufacturers need to build a modern, secure and reliable information infrastructure to connect assets with people and information flow," Sorrentino said.

Mesnac Vice President Karol Vanko voiced similar opinions, forecasting that RFID chips would become standard for each tire.

"Tire-building machines of the future—comparing actual TBM construction—will see its building process and will be able to self-adjust its parameters according to results of self-inspection," Vanko said. "This is not science fiction, this is near future, which we are developing (at Mesnac)."

Jyrki Anttonen, technology director at Cimcorp Oy, said current step-changes in technology such as the development of automation software for production was a key industry achievement. Automating the material flow and controlling the production process from raw materials to the finished tire would increase productivity dramatically, he said.

"It seems that the tire industry is changing faster than ever," Anttonen said. "Take, for example, the issue of data growth: the handling of data is becoming a hot topic due to autonomous vehicles, data service needs, big data and growing e-commerce."

However, industry trends continue to put pressure on tire manufacturing. Trends such as lightweighting are making tire production more complicated. Erwin Zweers—research and development manager at tire building machinery supplier VMI—said lightweighting is making the process more complicated.

"Change is coming from all directions for the tire industry," he said. "The market is demanding new technologies for smart tires, but also technologies for lighter tires. With thinner components, the impact of splices and centering of components on tire appearance and quality will increase the need for tire building machines with advanced centering and application systems."

The most important future challenges, according to Zweers, will focus on collecting the right data out of machines and utilizing it to optimize production.

For Jacob Peled, executive chairman at Pelmar Engineering Group, the major changes ahead will be driven by a shift of manufacturing back to Europe and the U.S., and a separation of tire production from compounding at the factory level. "Tire companies (will) become smaller in size, automated and specialized for certain types of tires and sizes," Peled forecast.

Philipp Struck, head of tire line development, EMEA OE, at Continental A.G., highlighted the achievements of tire makers in developing next-generation tires.

"Car owners and car manufacturers both call for tires with lower rolling resistance and even higher safety and handling properties," he said. "In fact, both features are 'target conflicts' in tire development. To overcome this, high engineering and testing effort is required."

Struck said another goal is to maintain low cost while increasing technological input. Tire factories of the future must realize the needed product and component complexity while maintaining low production costs. Complete traceability of all materials and components throughout the manufacturing and supply chain will be mandatory in the future.

The introduction of A/A rated tires represents a significant development within the tire manufacturing industry, according to Bernd Lowenhaupt, managing director of Sumitomo Rubber Europe. The next step will be creating a tire with better than 'A' performance in rolling resistance."

That alone represents a significant challenge, particularly when it comes to using new materials.

"Another challenge is the mass production of those high efficiency tires where you need to balance a reduction in weight and material thickness without increasing production cost and waste," Lowenhaupt said.

Increased tire performance in the consumer and truck segments remains one of the most significant developments in the industry for Stephan Helm, chairman of BRV, the German tire retail and vulcanization trades association. The BRV official said sourcing raw materials will remain a challenge within the industry.

"We see a problem with the future availability of the raw materials, especially the natural rubber," Helm said. "The tire manufacturing industry will have to address the issues of sustainability including closed-loop recycling management."