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.