(Editor's Note: This is the first in a "How They Build It" series of stories that will examine the manufacturing process of the products you use on your 4x4. Down the road, we'll delve into items such as driveline and engine components, body accessories, and specialty items.)
To get a handle on the tire-making process, we visited Cooper Tires' headquarters in Findlay, Ohio. Cooper is a name that is very familiar to 'wheelers, as the company makes a slew of light-truck tires, including a variety of designs under the popular Discoverer name. Cooper also manufactures tires under its proprietary brands, Mastercraft, Starfire, Dean, and Avon. Little known fact: Cooper is one of only two American-owned tire companies.
Under the guidance of Michelle Zeisloft and Jenny Fuerst, we toured the fascinating Technical Center and then the mind-blowing Tall Timbers Mold Operations. Due to the highly competitive nature of the tire business, we didn't get to tour the we'd-show-you-but-then-we'd-have-to-kill-you assembly facility, but Cooper provided photos and an overview of the processes that happen there.
What we learned at Cooper is that there's a lot of tech and quality control integrated into a modern tire, and there's an army of dedicated professionals behind the scenes from start to finish. It's also extremely complicated. The following is a condensed version of the tire manufacturing process, which will show you the highlights of some of the steps that go into a tire. The end result is a safe, effective, and durable set of tires under your rig.
1. Our first stop was Cooper's $9.9-million Technical Center, where we met Research and Technology Manager Dave Dryden and Product Development Manager Marcus Hancock. This 49,000-square-foot facility was built in 1998, and it is home to a variety of mechanical and chemical engineers, chemists, and physicists. These folks speak a language all their own, and they can regale you with complex verbiage that'll make your head spin. This division is a technical nirvana. One of their many tools is Virtual Tire Technology, which allows them to design, test, and evaluate tires on the desktop (though they do create and test rolling prototypes here too). Some of the benefits of Virtual Tire Technology-or Vt2ech-are that it allows them to get products to market faster with lower cost while constantly improving the product. Here, Principal SUV/Light Truck Tire Development Engineer Kenneth Reuille shows us how he can perform complex tire tests on his computer-virtually.
5. Cooper has its own highly advanced in-house mold division called Tall Timbers Mold Operations, and this stand-alone facility is where, as they put it, ideas are turned into metal. Yes, metal. Because in order to make a tire, one of things you need is a mold, and that mold needs to be cut. Here you can see the workstation responsible for creating the sidewall of a tire. As you know, there are gobs of information on the sidewall of a tire. It's these folks' job to make sure that everything that needs to be there, is there. This department, and others like it, take the proposal from the styling department and turn it into solid models so that they can supply the cam department with tool pathing to cut metal.
15. The first step to building a tire is to assemble the inner liner, bead assemblies, ply fabric, sidewalls, and anti-chafing strips. Precision laser measuring devices are used by the skilled tire assemblers to ensure that every tire meets stringent design specifications. The tire then goes to another tire builder, who applies the belt and tread assemblies. At this point, this uncured assembly is called a "green tire." After being inspected inside and out, it is lubricated and sent to the curing press. Here, it is automatically inserted into a mold where a rubber bladder inflates, forcing the green tire to conform to the mold's tread and sidewall pattern. The tire is then cured under controlled pressure and temperature conditions to bond all of the components together.
Building a tire is one thing, but making it work is a whole different story. Computer-aided designs and experience certainly go a long way towards creating a functional tread pattern, but there's only one way to find out if a tire actually performs well, and that is through real-life testing.
For testing to be meaningful, it must be repeatable, and Cooper's Tire & Vehicle Test Center was built in 1999 just for that purpose.
Situated on 1,000 acres in Pearsall, Texas, the facility is probably larger than the town itself-and certainly more interesting. Carson Miller is the Operations Manager, supervising four very busy coworkers in a seemingly endless ritual of mounting tires, driving, measuring, checking data, driving, changing tires, and so on.
Surrounding a 16,500-square-foot main building are three huge asphalt tracks where things like handling and longevity can be observed, both wet and dry. Perhaps more importantly, at least from a four-wheeler's point of view, there are also carefully built and maintained trail-type obstacles, as well as a relatively long trail, and a small fleet of purpose-built 4x4s to evaluate the tires on.
Not unlike the Top Truck Challenge's Mini Rubicon, Cooper has a 100x16-foot rock course-except all the rocks are immovable. There are also mud holes, silt, off-camber dirt, a hill climb, pea gravel, sand, and a concrete slope with varying degrees of surface roughness, wet or dry. In other words, if you can find it on a trail (except for snow and ice), Cooper has most of it available in a controlled and repeatable environment, allowing refinement of its tires. Plus, of course, direct comparisons to the competition. And you thought that building the tires was the hard part.
Making a tire is a complicated process, but the following chart breaks it down into 7 distinct steps.
1. Marketing concept development
2. Product development
3. Mold development and procurement
4. Prototype procurement
5. Prototype testing
6. Design certification