SPARTANBURG, S.C. — It didn’t take long for Paolo Pompei to make it clear what he thinks about tires.
“Agricultural tires are a lot more than black and round,” he said.
“They make farming more efficient, food production more productive.”
With that, Pompei focused a crowd of farm equipment manufacturers, company officials, distributors and local government representatives on his firm’s strategies for growth in North America and the opening of the company’s first plant on the continent.
Pompei is the agricultural tire division president at Trelleborg, a global top 20 tire maker as well as a rubber and poly company.
If European regulators approve a planned acquisition of Czech tire company CGS, which owns the Mitas tire brand, the Swedish company may become the largest farm equipment tire builder in the world later this year.
A couple of tough seasons in the farm equipment market have translated into challenging years for agricultural tire businesses.
Trelleborg knew that farm ma-chinery sales were starting to falter when it began building its new North American manufacturing plant in South Carolina a little more than a year ago.
Maurizio Vischi, who heads the company’s wheel systems division, which includes tires, said Trelleborg is confident in the overall strength of the farming industry, which is why it invested US$51 million in the new production facility.
“We know the sector has suffered, but all the fundamentals (of the food and agriculture) market are there,” he said.
Farm equipment tire sales were driven up from 2009-14, largely by commodity price gains and the resulting increase in farm income.
In the United States, farm ma-chinery depreciation schemes also contributed to rapid turnover of machinery on farms.
The tires, mostly radials, came attached to new tractors, combines and sprayers, while the replacement business, which is typically the stronger segment, has been down over the past two years.
However, the demand for re-placement tires should increase with new machine sales slowing.
Pompei said the large tire segment faces several challenges, and opening a North American plant is critical to controlling some of those associated costs.
“North America is the largest market (for large farm machinery tires) in the world,” he said.
“We need to be here, to do re-search into what its farmers need … and understand the market.”
Trelleborg has 300 dealers and 1,000 other points of purchase in the region.
Fifty percent of the company’s sales come from North America. It has five other plants, including a new one in China, but shipping large tires overseas is expensive and costs the company 15 percent of a tire’s wholesale price.
Import duties of five to 100 percent, depending on the country, mean the company has to compete with domestic manufacturers in countries where free trade agreements don’t reach and it doesn’t have factories.
“We don’t believe it is sustainable to make tires in one place and ship all over,” he said.
The company has also bought Brazilian industrial tire maker Standard Tyre, furthering its goal to own manufacturing in most agricultural regions of the world.
South Carolina governor Kikki Haley said at the plant opening that Trelleborg has located to what has become “America’s tire capital.”
Tires were once a business of the northern United States, centred on places like Akron, Ohio. However, South Carolina is now the largest player.
Michelin has been there since the 1970s, but Bridgestone, Continental and Giti recently set up shop as well, citing state incentives and ease of plant construction as factors.
The factory is the most highly automated in the industry, according to company officials. Its entire agricultural tire facility in Spartanburg will employ only 150 people when it is complete two years from now. The robotics and automation that are used at every production phase was noticeable during the plant’s commissioning day at the end of January.
Rubber sheets of various chemical designs are fed quietly and steadily into extruders and converted into the compounds needed to create treads, plies and sidewall components.
“Unlike some tire (plants), this is a very quiet place: lots of machines and a few people,” said Marco D’Angelo, industrial director for ag and forestry.
Hand-made is not what farmers want when it comes to tires, he added.
“Making components can be done better and more consistently by equipment. And tires, tires require consistent processes for reliability and quality.”
The 60 metre, robot-run extrusion line produces up to four compounds for various parts of Trelleborg’s farm tires, which the company said makes the tires more effective.
“We have identified which compounds are needed for various roles and we form the tires with the right (rubber) for each part,” D’Angelo said.
Trelleborg’s new plant also has the industry’s widest capacity tire calendering equipment, which makes the inner liner that is re-sponsible for holding in the air.
D’Angelo said this means the company doesn’t have to seam those parts, which makes the tires more reliable.
Calendaring brings together rubber with metal or fabric webbing and cords that form the carcass of the tire.
These are placed around a form, and tread rubber is then wound onto the carcass until a large rubber doughnut is formed with all of the components.
The tires are sprayed with a form release compound, and a robotic warehouse stacks up to 150 tires, which is one full day of production at this plant, to dry for a minimum of one hour.
They are then placed into moulds that use pressurized, super-heated, water-based curing liquid, which is where the giant rubber doughnuts become 300 to 500 kilogram farm equipment tires.
Once released from the casting and curing line, the tires are cooled lying down to avoid distortion or flat spotting.
Tires are hung for inspection and casting mark trimming and then sent to the warehouse for shipping.
“One of the only things where people still do all of the work is visual inspection,” he said. “We have tried to automate this, but so far there is no substitute for humans in that quality control role.”