Pirelli’s Carlisle tyre plant is going 100% premium

Following the news that Pirelli is to receive funding from the UK government’s regional growth fund, Tyres & Accessories visited Pirelli’s Carlisle tyre manufacturing plant and met with industrial director, Paulo Batistini and engineering manager, Alan Wilson in order to find what this and other recent investments mean in practice.

While no official figures have been released, based on the fact that £950 million of government money is being supplied to 119 British business on the proviso that taxpayer funding is matched 5:1 with private investment it is a fair guess to assume that Pirelli is pushing millions towards the development of the latest generation of eco-tyres in Carlisle. And this fits with the company’s wider strategy. Pirelli’s latest industrial plan, published in November 2011, has the stated aim of leading what it defines as the premium market by 2015. With this in mind, the recent developments which centre on transitioning the plant towards to almost exclusively high performance output (and therefore high value products) are to be expected.

What might surprise some is just how quickly and how thoroughly Pirelli has made the transition. In the last two and a half years the company has rapidly phased out the production of what one might refer to as standard products and moved almost entirely to the production of the largest and most demanding passenger car tyre fitments on the market. To put this into perspective, basically all tyres produced in Carlisle are Pirelli-branded and an average of between 92 and 95 per cent of production is described as premium to medium output. 0.5 per cent is described as standard.

At this point it is worth defining Pirelli’s terms and putting all this into context. Of course the company treats all its Pirelli-branded tyres are premium products. However, owing to the company’s top-end high-performance strategy – recent years have brought with them a renewed focus on the top end of this premium market, something that is perhaps best described using tyre diameters. What Pirelli calls standard tyres are the 14 and 15 inch sizes where prices are low, volumes have to be high and where margins are the most difficult to defend. Indeed Pirelli even categorizes some 16-inch sizes as standard.

Eco-performance tyres

Pirelli’s latest SUV-orientated eco-performance range is being developed in conjunction with the manufacturer’s Carlisle-based 4×4 tyre development test centre. The management is realistic about the tyre industry’s ability to rapidly produce an AA-rated SUV tyre in the same way that the company has taken the lead by releasing the first double A passenger car tyre size in production, but the emphasis put on hitting these goals says much about the company’s ambitious goals. But it isn’t just the latest SUV eco tyres that herald from Carlisle. In fact the Scorpion Verde and its ATR and Winter cousins were all developed here.

OE connections are also of significant importance, with one of the success stories of the British car manufacturing industry – Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) – right at the centre of these. This year JLR saw profits soar by more than a third off the back of booming sales of its Evoque model. Not only does this policy bear out the wisdom behind Pirelli’s premium strategy, but almost co-incidentally JLR are amongst the factory’s largest customers – a list that includes some of the best known Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) in the industry including Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Volvo. 30 per cent of Carlisle’s output is destined for new car fitment at OEMs like these, meaning the facility produces 70 per cent for the replacement market. When you look at where these vehicle production sites are based and where in turn replacement sales will be generated, it is no surprise the Carlisle is bucking an otherwise generally negative UK manufacturing trend by exporting 80 per cent of the tyres produced here.

The illustrious customer list also communicates something about the factory’s ability to cope with complex product manufacturing. Porsche (see textbox for more on Pirelli’s relationship with Porsche) is said to be a good example of this. The high-profile German car marque is surrounded by other premium carmakers at home and competing premium tyremakers are not far away and yet Porsche sources many of its 4×4 tyres from Pirelli in general and the Carlisle factory in particular.

As you can imagine producing 4×4 tyres to this scale and physical size, presents challenges of its on. In 2006 the average tyre produced in Carlisle weighed some 12.5 kilos. While this illustrates that the factory was already well on its way to being a specialist SUV and high performance plant a few years ago, now the average tyre is on its way to 15 kilos per tyre, with the largest products knocking on 20 kilos each. This has required upgrades to the plant, machinery, processes and infrastructure and the factory now routinely produces 21-inch tyres, with 18-19 inch products the mainstay, something that was more of a dream 10 years ago.

Compounds used on the Carlisle manufacturing line are mainly mixed in Pirelli’s other UK manufacturing plant, Burton-on-Trent. Mixers for processes like this are mainly bought on the open market. The extruders layer up to 4 different compounds per tyre. Product specific processes like tyre building are done with bespoke Pirelli machinery developed and constructed by the company’s tyre machinery wing situated near Milan, Italy. Builders for SUV tyres are mainly semi-automatic, but there is high degree of automation on show here as the overhead conveyers shifts green tyres and newly moulded products alike to their respective destinations.

For green tyres this means over the internal road via a neat enclosed bridge to the curing presses. These 48 – 52-inch hydraulic two-cavity presses are said to be particularly adept at SUV tyre production, their installation having begun in 2002 with more each year replacing smaller alternatives. There are currently 112 presses in operation made by a range of well-known suppliers and customised by Pirelli.

Relatively small changes, big impact

Pirelli’s philosophy is to strive for perfection in performance, sustainability and even aesthetics in production. One example of how a series of relatively small changes approached with this mindset can have a big impact is Pirelli’s recent adoption of spring vent technology in its curing process. This clever approach allows tyres to be cured without the protruding rubber “hairs” that are familiar to anyone who has toured any tyre factories before. It might sound like a small change on first mention, but the more you think about it the more it makes sense.

First off, this saves rubber and curing time, which increases efficiency (more tyres can be made in the same time), is more ecologically friendly (less energy is expelled during the curing process and less virgin rubber is used), and saves money (through lower energy usage, lower rubber consumption and fewer man-hours required to trim the hairs). In addition spring vents are said to have excellent effects on mould life, significantly prolonging the longevity of this most expensive tyre manufacturing consumable. There is also the obvious aesthetic improvement too, which not only helps project the premium image that Pirelli has worked hard to build, but also provides a better surface to stick the new EU tyre labels to. Between 30 and 40 per cent of Carlisle’s production is now made using spring vent technology, but managers expect this figure to rise to 100 per cent over the next few years.

Currently factory output totals around 9000 units a day and unlike other manufacturing plants that have been forced to put production on hold while inventory overstocking is worked through, Pirelli Carlisle was running at 90 per cent capacity when T&A visited. Apparently this has been relatively stable despite the financial crisis as demand has remained virtually constant. Likewise the firm’s headcount and investment in machinery has remained constant – another example of how whatever’s happening in the manufacturing sector, Pirelli’s Carlisle plant is continuing to outpace UK manufacturing as it becomes a 100 per cent premium facility.


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