So apparently America has a tire shortage — or at least a specialty tire shortage. And according to Automotive News, this has been going on for a while (Pirelli plant in Ga. masters small-batch, premium tires, Oct 11).
Over the last decade or so, the number of tire 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 carmakers want more variety and performance, particularly for performance vehicles. They are trying to make cars more unique, and consumers seem to like them.”
Cool tires would seem an easy way to make a vehicle distinctive — if only because their production is outsourced. Any complexity that comes with manufacturing low volume items is an issue for the tire maker, not for the car maker. But producing a wide variety in low volume could create problems in an industry accustomed to banging out hundreds of thousands of identical tires. That gets us to Pirelli’s Rome, Georgia, plant.
Pirelli, which has considerable experience producing specialty tires in Europe, has developed a tire production system meant for low-volume runs — which is where the Rome plant comes in.
A traditional plant typically might produce tires in batches of 80,000 to 100,000 units. By contrast, the Rome plant can comfortably produce tires in batches of 10,000 or so units, Gravalos said.
That’s perfect if you’re producing, say, an optional dealership-installed 21-inch tire for the Chevrolet Camaro.
The factory uses what Pirelli calls a “modular integrated robotized system,” or MIRS, to switch production quickly between different types of tires.
As long as the tires’ reinforcing belts and rubber compounds are the same, Pirelli’s factory can switch production back and forth quickly among different types of tires.
With only 250 employees, the Rome plant has a relatively small staff. It produces only 400,000 tires a year, according to Gravalos, while a typical mass-production tire plant might produce more than 5 million tires a year.
This is an interesting technology choice story. Automation typically invokes high volume and limited variety. Pirelli’s plant, however, sounds like what everyone thought we should be getting from flexible manufacturing systems back in the 1980s (see here, for example).
The article goes on to say that many other tire makers are investing in North American plants. Part of that investment replaces inefficient plants that were closed during the recession. However, one has to wonder what the balance is between premium and standard tires.
I accept that there are models like the Camaro that cry out for special wheels. Tire makers can charge a premium and customers happily pay. But the Camaro is not exactly the main part of the US car market. Chevy has sold around 70,000 Camaros through September. That is more than I would have guessed but it is also more than 100,000 units below the sales level of the Cruze or the Malibu. The extra investment needed to make a plant flexible may not be worth it if it is going to be supplying factories making plain vanilla family sedans.