Bridgestone Bulldog balancing demand for hot and cold retreads

Five years after Tyres & Accessories last toured Bridgestone’s retread manufacturing facility in Bourne, Lincolnshire, the development plans the firm envisioned then can now clearly be seen in action. Equipment upgrades, process enhancements and the evolution of the company’s corporate philosophy mean the company has been further [re]moulded – if you will – into the broader Bridgestone/Bandag pattern, while at the same time offering the production flexibility the local market requires.

During that last visit in 2007 retread production was running at something like 75,000 truck tyres a year. Now the company has the capacity to make almost this number of hot cure retreads alone (production capacity for this kind of product is now said to be around 70,000 retreads annually). At the same time, on the day of our recent visit pre-cure production was said to have been averaging in excess of 40,000 annually. According to Bridgestone, this makes the Bourne facility the largest cold-cure retreading facility of its kind in the UK, with maximum total capacity (across both methods) now said to be around 125,000 retreads a year. Around 6500 tyres are stored on site, with the option of more storage at the company’s Coventry central distribution hub.

Bridgestone’s continued integration of Bandag and Bulldog in its British retreading business

Together with the production capacity offered by the Bandag franchise that Bridgestone purchased in 2005 (and the British franchisees that now work with them because of it), the company has an increasingly significant presence in the UK retreading market. While detailed figures are not available, this is because the UK Bandag franchisees’ collective output is said to be comparable with what the former Bulldog operation now manufacturers. As a result Bridgestone/Bandag’s position could equate to as much as a 25 per cent market share depending on how optimistic you are about the size of the retread manufacturing market in the UK. Historically the market has always been described as around 1 million retreads a year, but manufacturing feel considerably during the downturn to around 75 per cent of this. Now it is widely accepted that things have picked up, but the exact figure for the market is more difficult to come by.

Two similar sized lines offer greater flexibility

Bridgestone, which was known as Bulldog Remoulds until the company was sold to Bridgestone in 2005, operates two fully computerised buffers – one is focused on the preparation of the mould cure line of products and the other the pre-cure range. According to company representatives, the factory’s output is roughly 50:50 mould cure to pre-cure, a fact that makes this operation stand out in comparison with the historically mould cure dominated UK retreading market. It is even more remarkable when you consider that the retreading business is owned by a large manufacturer, as the other examples of such ownership in the UK tends to lean heavily towards the mould cure approach.

To put this in context, according to the latest data published by the Tyre Industry Federation (TIF) at the start of February, 79 per cent of retreads made in the UK in 2010 were mould cure compared to 18 per cent that were pre-cured (the remaining 3 per cent were imports of both kinds). 44 per cent of production was mould cure and was produced by new tyre manufacturers themselves.

Tyres & Accessories’ 2007 visited came at a time that was relatively soon after the initial Bulldog purchase had been made. And as such, as with any company that has been bought by a large operation, it was still in a period of transition. On this prior occasion the production goal was to bring the hot:cold cure ratio to something like 60:40, meaning the broadly 50:50 results now experienced represent something like mission accomplished for those involved in this project.

Because of its stringent quality control requirements, Bridgestone Bulldog collects 130,000 casings each year. These are gathered through the company’s dealer network and via specialist casing collection agents. In order to make up the numbers of casings required to meet demand for the company’s retreaded products, Bulldog also sources some base products from casing dealers. Altogether company representatives describe this process as the “most efficient collection service in the UK.”

All collected casings destined for retreading are stored under cover following a decision made some time ago. This move was both a way of pre-empting subsequent EU regulations mandating this and protecting the company’s (and the wider environment’s) interests. In this way Bridgestone hopes that it has not only kept ahead of the game as far as the legislative requirements are concerned, but also ahead of the vandals, accidents and arsonists that have all too frequently been known to set fire to tyre stockpiles at recycling and retreading facilities.

Monorail system now well-established

Something else that was more of an ambition than a reality in 2007 was the monorail that has now been in use at Bulldog for sometime. Back then the idea was to keep casings off the ground for as much as possible of the retreading process. Now, the monorail concept has been fully implemented across the entire production line after the initial inspections have been completed. As a result retreading engineers are better able to produce higher quality retreads without fear of contamination.

Another symbol of the Bourne facility’s further integration into the wider Bridgestone operation can be seen in the fact that Bridgestone’s various bespoke mould cure compounds arrive in Bourne on rolling delivery from the company’s tyre and tread rubber compound production facility in Spain. This coupled with the selection of only the best Bridgestone first life casings for use in the production of Bridgestone branded retreads (which were formerly marketed under the Qualitread moniker). The durability of the Bandag system allows the company to throw out a wider net when it comes to selecting casings for use in this product. And with the Bulldog range providing the opportunity to offer an economy alternative, Bridgestone is aiming to meet the demands of the widest cross section of the market.

The ability to filter out the best casings while also utilising as many as possible of the good ones has been particularly important to retreaders since the depths of the recession. Now the commercial vehicle OEMs are returning to more pre-recession like production figures, OE tyre demand is once again on the up and finding good quality casings has been challenging at times.

In the ensuing years since our last visit T&A has reported on the hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of investment in high-tech machinery such as Marangoni builders and automated cushion gum application machines that have been acquired over the last couple years. Now five years later there is a feeling of completion about the overall manufacturing process. That is of course not to say that the company is resting on its laurels or plans to stay where it is, but rather the vision described back in 2005 can clearly be seen on the production line.

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