By Sharad Matade:
Bridgestone Asia Pacific Technical Centre Co. Ltd. (APTC), Bridgestone’s first technical centre for the Asia Pacific region, intends to play a bigger and more independent role in the company’s technical and development works. In 2013, Bridgestone established APTC in Thailand to strengthen its framework for research and development in the region. In 2015 the centre was moved to a more sophisticated and well-equipped new laboratory building in PathumThani Province, to strengthen its functions and develop products to meet the needs of its customers, based on the information obtained from markets in the region. Bridgestone APTC is wholly-owned by Bridgestone Asia Pacific Pte. Ltd, which caters to ASEAN, India, Australia and New Zealand markets.
Even now Bridgestone APTC is receiving support from Bridgestone Japan Technical Centre. According to Tai Kawasaki, Managing Director of Bridgestone APTC, “We have a goal to conduct more functions on our own and to become self-sufficient in our capability to support the Asia Pacific Operations. We want to be a self-sustained technical centre.”
Bridgestone has technical centres in Tokyo and Yokohama in Japan, Akron in USA, in Rome and in China’s Wuxi province. APTC caters to both original equipment (OE) and replacement markets in the APAC region, which excludes China and Japan. The company has strategically divided its technical development work to two segments: Tier-1market, and economic or value-conscious market. Right now, the technical centre in Thailand is developing tyres for value conscious customers. “We will develop cutting-edge tyres for Tier-1 customers in future,” Kawasaki said.
The Bridgestone APTC, built up with an investment of around $30 million, operates in four areas: Tyre development, material development and procurement, production technology, and quality management. The centreis divided into three parts: Administrative office, material laboratory and physical testing. “It has also space for further expansion in future” he said.
Though Bridgestone’s operations in Thailand include production of tyres for passenger vehicles, retreading tyres, raw materials, carbon black, carbon steel and tyremoulds, currently the technical centre does technical development only for radial passenger car tyres, and truck and bus tyres.
The Thai technical centre is equipped with machines to do fundamental tests for covering most rubber properties including visco-elasticity, abrasion, and heat generation. It can also conduct tests for raw materials used in tyres. The centre does in-house testing such as rolling resistance and handling at its physical testing building. Standard weight, pressure and speed, specified by the particular market, are applied in the rolling resistance test. The force and momentum test is done for tyre handling. A tyreis run on an average for 30 minutes on a moving belt. The test is done in such a way that weight, speed and movement of the surface of the track can be changed in running test to determine the handling. The proving ground, opened in 2009 and spread over 526,194 m2, hosts test drives of tyres developed by the APTC.
There were many countries that were in the race to get the company’s first APAC technical centre, but Thailand clinched the opportunity to host the centre due to various reasons. “Many locations such as Singapore were considered to build this centre. Thailand was chosen because of the availability of talent as there are many technical universities in the country. This centre also has better proximity to two manufacturing plants, Rangsit plant and NongKhae plant, and also to the proving ground, located near the NongKhae plant. Apart from these, Thailand is considered as the centre of the ASEAN region geographically, which is also one of the main markets for Bridgestone Asia Pacific operations,” Kawasaki said.
Serving the APAC region, APTC is probably working in the most diverse market, where road conditions differ every few miles, economy is growing fast, and tight but unspecified regulations are likely to be introduced. Yet the price conscious consumers dominate the market. “Right now, we are in a kind of cluster. Within the region, every market has different demands. Though we are at the learning stage, we are chasing all the markets, keeping the customers as the top-most priority. We cannot make millions of stocks of each region, but try to keep a good balance between our product portfolio. For instance, in India, durability, heat resistance and costs are the top demand of the customers. The Indian customers are becoming more demanding and at the same time the government regulations are likely to be introduced in the country. Considering these factors, last year we launched fuel-efficient Ecopia EP150 and Ecopia EP850 tyres in India, which has been well received in the market,” he said.
In the region mainly economy vehicle makers are becoming more demanding. “OEs are getting very demanding and expect good balance between rolling resistance, performance and costs. The difference in requirements between OE tyres for higher-end vehicles and economy cars are closing. But price expectations are still different,” Kawasaki said.
Product development at Bridgestone is taking place after evaluating the requirements of the particular market. Before launching the product, the Japanese tyre company conducts intensive surveys of the market to gain information about the consumers’ expectations. “Our product planning defines customers’ need and specification and then our job is to bring the requirement into reality,” he said. However, all parameters such as rolling resistance, weight grip, fuel efficiency, durability and costs cannot be achieved due to characteristics of main ingredients that go into tyres.
For instance, if in a particular market, damage to the tyres is caused due to bad road conditions, stronger rubber and more reinforced materials are used to make the tyres stronger and that increases the weight of the tyres and ultimately impacts fuel efficiency. “All parameters are decided based on the need of the market. Then we explore various materials and technology to maintain the balance among the various parameters,” Kawasaki said.