Last month in Spain, Michelin demonstrated how it could set up capacity in 24 hours to manufacture high-quality tires that are cheaper than those made in a traditional factory.
Reporters who attended a presentation near Almeria in the Andalusia province had to take a lot on trust. All they could see was the top of a big box surrounded by screens. The box had not been on the site when the press arrived the day before.
Lined up outside the screens, reporters were asked to choose one of four shades of rubber. Within 15 minutes, tires in the color they chose emerged from the box.
Michelin calls the tire-making process C3M.
“The facility is very mobile and very versatile — it’s very easy to carry around,” said Olivier Desgranges, spokesman for the French tire maker. “That way, we can easily follow our customers in areas where there is no tire manufacturing capability.”
A prime example is Brazil. In 1999 Michelin installed a C3M facility there to supply a local Renault assembly plant.
Gaining customersBut Michelin, the world’s No. 3 tire maker, quickly extended its customer base. It says it commands a 10 percent market share in Latin America, compared with 1 percent before C3M started operating.
Michelin has four other C3M sites, split between France and the United States. Including Brazil, the five sites produced 20 million tires in the last two years, using 220 machines.
One C3M unit in Sweden dedicated to winter tires has been closed for commercial reasons.
So what is Michelin’s secret? A tire goes through seven manufacturing stages, Desgranges said. But the C3M process is a single stage.
“We pile up all the different ingredients together and cook them,” he said.
The process is environmentally friendly and does not need a large work force, Michelin claims. C3M only consumes one-quarter of the energy required by standard tire manufacturing methods. It needs two-thirds of the manpower.
Does a C3M tire look different from a standard tire?
“The inside is perfectly smooth, reflecting the shape of the core on which it is molded,” Desgranges said.
Renowned for its secrecy, Michelin claims that in the 16 years since it launched the project, no outsider has been inside a C3M module. Michelin says the secret is safe, even though the five sites employ several hundred people.
Michelin started working on the project in 1985 at its headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand in central France.
“Our technology is several years ahead of the competition,” said Desgranges. “We don't want to lose this advantage.”
Rivals look for edgeAmong Michelin’s rivals, Italy’s Pirelli S.p.A. is working on a manufacturing method it calls the Modularized Integrated Robotized System.
Pirelli developed a prototype tire using the system in July 2000 and hopes to get certification by year end so it can start sales. Besides Italy, Pirelli will have sites in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. also is trying out new manufacturing methods, but “they are a refining of existing techniques,” one tire expert said.
Michelin insists traditional radial-ply tire making, now a half-century old, will keep going. Trade unions have been worried about job losses if C3M becomes widespread.