The Bridgestone Corporation is considered the number one tire manufacturer in the world, so it’s not hard to believe why I chuckled when I was told the company started out producing rubber socks and produced its earliest tire in 1931.
When one delves into the rich history behind the company, it’s impressive to see how it the founder, Shojiro Ishibashi, evolved Bridgestone to eventually go into mass-producing rubber tires to become Japan’s largest tire manufacturer.
And as the demand for rubber tires grew around the world, so too did Bridgestone’s footprint, actively expanding overseas with the acquisition of The Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in the United States in 1988. This transformed Bridgestone into one of the world’s largest tire and rubber companies and created a global team dedicated to serving customers worldwide with the highest level of quality, service and technology.
Although Firestone had been established in South Africa since 1936, it joined the Bridgestone family in 1998 as Bridgestone South Africa (SA) and has been working hard to continue to produce quality tires and other rubber-based products for its clients.
Jordan San, Bridgestone SA’s national operations manager for the OTR tire division says tires represent 80 per cent of the business’ output. The company produces tires for bicycles, motorcycles, buses, transport trucks and earth moving machines, like construction and large mining vehicles. San is proud to share that Bridgestone is also the sole supplier for the new Airbus 380 jet airliner as well.
The other 20 per cent of the business revolves around other products like conveyer belting, hoses, seat pads for cars, sports equipment and seismic isolation rubber, which is used in buildings in areas where earthquakes are common.
“In the old days, tires were made of cotton and if they said a tire was a 10-ply tire, they would put in 10 sheets of cotton, which made your tire really thick and heavy,” explains San. “Then they looked at materials that would be stronger, like rayon and nylon, which made a lighter and less bulky tire. Then they started producing steel casing that enables you to use one ply only. For example if the tire was an inch thick, now it is reduced to only three to four millimetres thick, including the rubber. Through innovations in tires, we’ve been able to improve the safety and tire performance life.”
Bridgestone’s tires have gone through quite the evolution over the years and San says the company always keeps in close touch with its clients during its research and development process to not only remain competitive, but to produce strong and effective tires based on industry demands.
“We have interaction with the mining companies at all times, as well as with the truck manufacturers like Caterpillar, Komatsu and Hitachi; producers of giant earthmoving machines,” he says.
Trucks have grown in size tremendously over the years, from 50 tonne trucks all the way to 380 tonne payload trucks. To keep up with the size and weight of these trucks, Bridgestone is constantly innovating the best ways to produce bigger and better tires. The largest tire to date stands over 2 metres high and weighs approximately 5.5 thousand kilograms, says San. However, due to the rugged landscape around most mines, Bridgestone’s large and ultra large Off-the-Road-Radial (ORR) tires are “a big item for the mines.”
Bridgestone’s large and ultralarge ORRs, which utilise the company’s advanced technical capabilities, are highly regarded in the marketplace, and demand is expected to be strong over the medium to long term due to increased mining production worldwide.
To meet this growing demand, Bridgestone implemented phase three of the expansion of its Kitakyushu Plant in Japan. It also announced plans to build a new plant in Aiken County, South Carolina, United States to produce large and ultralarge ORRs, with tire production scheduled to begin in the first half of 2014.
San says the company will also be opening up a factory in Thailand, which will focus on the production of small and medium sized tires.
“We’re already looking at the fourth phase of growth on expansion. That how much it’s grown in demand,” says San.
However, San is quick to balance the optimism with a healthy dose of reality saying that although the demand is high now, Bridgestone SA, is waiting to see how the growth in the mining industry will continue.
“We’re all expecting that we have to hit our peak sometime. What is happening at the moment and why we’re having so much demand is the mines are buying new equipment and they’re not getting rid of the old equipment,” explains San. “Normally when the mine purchases new equipment it is generally to replace existing equipment. This is not being followed, which extends a lot of demand on the tire companies. By increasing the amount of equipment, the mine has to pay much more attention to safety and also change mine haul roads to accommodate the increase of machinery, especially since the equipment being sourced is larger than existing equipment.”
Despite how things will play out over the next few years, San says Bridgestone will be ready to handle whatever comes their way.
“We keep ahead and make sure at all times that we’re improving our tires and giving the mines the best performance.”