BASys control system, Bandag extruder installed at Bridgestone’s Bulldog plant

Manufacturer’s programme of continued investment in retreading anticipates stronger retread market with Lincolnshire facility upgrades

Bridgestone’s largest Bandag franchise, Bulldog in Bourne, Lincolnshire is a central pillar in Bridgestone’s UK Total Tyre Care truck and bus tyre strategy, and as such has been a target for ongoing investment. Most recently, Bridgestone has installed the BASys casing and production control system, digitally linking the tripartite facility and tracking the journey of retreads through the manufacturing process. This joins the latest piece of retread production equipment, the latest generation Bandag extruder builder the 9110ES, which was installed in 2016, and is now fully operational. Tyres & Accessories visited the Bulldog site to see the latest upgrades in action, and how Bulldog intends to capitalise on the current moment of what Bridgestone retread development manager for the North region (UK, Ireland, and the Nordic region) Terry Salter terms a “golden period” for retreading.

Contextualising this, Salter explains that the falling price of natural rubber between 2011 (when it was around $6/kg) and 2016 (when it reached $1.50/kg) as well as oil prices sinking in the same period, responsible for the lower turnovers of the largest tyre manufacturers as world tyre prices were reduced, has come to an end. In 2017, Salter states, “this is going to change significantly.” Indeed the industry has seen price increases from global players throughout the year so far on the back of raw materials price increases. With new tyres becoming more expensive, there is a clear opportunity for commercial retread tyres, requiring fewer raw materials, to increase their footprint. Exemplifying this, Salter explains that the Bulldog Lincolnshire plant initially plans to produce more than 60,000 units in 2017, but “could ramp up quicker” to take advantage of a “theoretical production capacity” of 80,000 retreads.

To achieve this, Salter adds, Bridgestone has “taken a long view” on retreading with its “continuous investment programme,” during a period of four straight years in which the European retread market contracted. Salter contrasts the company’s approach to that of Goodyear, which closed its UK retreading facility in Wolverhampton in the same period, shifting production of these retreads to Wittlich, Germany, and the resultant logistics commitment.

Bourne supremacy

Bulldog in Bourne, Lincolnshire is the largest Bandag franchise in Europe

Bulldog in Bourne, Lincolnshire is the largest Bandag franchise in Europe

Bridgestone states its aim to make its Lincolnshire retreading factory an industry leading operation, having made significant and sustained investments in new technologies designed to make it “one of the most efficient in the industry.”

Exemplifying this is the introduction in February 2017 of Bridgestone’s BASys casing and production control system, which will as 2017 progresses replace Bulldog’s existing paper-based system. The BASys system is the result of a global project carried out jointly by Bridgestone’s European, American and Japanese strategic business units, collaborating to upgrade a key aspect of Total Tyre Care. It provides the ability to track a tyre from the point it is removed from service at the fleet, through the return of the tyre to the production facility, and then through each stage of the production process and finally the return of the transformed product back to service. BASys works with cloud based technology and offers additional reporting benefits for commercial fleets. Internally, the system is also designed to unify Bridgestone’s global retreading operations, resulting in a uniform approach to reporting around the world. This, Bulldog adds, anticipates the increased globalisation of firms in the transportation industry, and follows ToolBox, Bridgestone’s tyre fleet management software, in creating standardised systems across its strategic business units.

Prior to the investment in BASys, Bulldog also made a significant improvement to its production equipment. In its “largest single investment”, Bulldog introduced the latest generation Bandag extruder-builder, the 9110ES, in 2016. This machine, which cost more than £250,000, is designed to increase efficiency at the plant, with the ability to produce more tyres with a greater level of accuracy than previously installed equipment. Bulldog describes the machine as a key strategic investment, timed to provide extra capacity for the Bandag range of pre-cure retreads used by the expanding portfolio of Bridgestone fleet customers across the UK.

Bulldog is described by Bulldog factory manager Dan Edwards as being “relatively unique” in that it operates as a hybrid plant of cold/pre-cure and hot/mould cure processes. While the UK “has been historically a predominantly hot market, but through the Bandag process, which is purely pre-cure, we feel we can add the most benefit to customers, so that is our main offering.” The pre-cure treads used in the production of the cold Bandag retreads are shipped from the manufacturer’s facility in Belgium, where they are cured under pressure around 10 times that of full tyres. In addition to this, Salter adds that the factory’s pre-cure retreads offer greater flexibility and the possibility for shorter production runs, with the new extruder-builder helping to achieve both of these production advantages in addition to greater precision in tread cutting. Pre-cure tyres are loaded via a cassette system into two autoclaves, which can each hold up to 22 tyres at once, and runs for four hours. On the hot cure side, Bulldog operates a Marangoni tyre builder with 95-degrees Celsius extrusion, and 16 tyre presses, running for one and a half hours. Continual investment means a new press can be installed “every one to two years.” Inspection is described as “one of the more manual parts of the plant’s operations, conducted visually and via electrical current tests before retreading, and via shearography as well as visually, post-production.

The plant is currently operational five days per week, with a total of 240 production days per annum. On each day the plant can currently produce between 250 and 300 tyres; 65 per cent of these are pre-cure, with the rest running through the hot cure process. Taking a tour of the full production line at Bulldog, T&A notes the fully automated buffing machines, designed so that two such machines are run by one operator. Rubber crumb from the buffing process is extracted into one tonne bays, which are filled around every 12 hours, and form part of Bulldog’s “zero to landfill” policy.

Importance of fleets

Bulldog’s latest generation Bandag extruder-builder, the 9110ES

Bulldog’s latest generation Bandag extruder-builder, the 9110ES

Bridgestone’s long association with large UK fleets – it was “the first country in Europe to deal directly with Bridgestone” – puts it in a strong position to make retreads an attractive part of its Total Tyre Care proposition. Indeed, it is the core component of the Total Tyre Life part of the trio of concepts under Total Tyre Care, the others being Systems and Services. Its first such fleet deal was with leading provider of commercial vehicle rental, contract hire and maintenance solutions, Ryder, signed 20 years ago, and with the latest contract extension taking the association up to 2019. In 2016 Bridgestone dealt directly with 90,000 vehicles across 65 fleets, Salter adds, since which it has become “the major supplier of retreads into the Royal Mail”; “started production of tyres going into Felixstowe docks, the largest in the UK”; and began dealing with London United’s 1,000-plus buses. In total, Bridgestone dealt directly with more than 100,000 vehicles in UK fleets by the end of April.

Bulldog traces its origins to the mid-1970s, growing out of the Sleaford Tyre Company, producing its first Bulldog remoulds in 1974. The company worked together with Bridgestone more recently, producing its first retreads in association with the manufacturer in 1992. With the arrival of the Ryder fleet contract among others in 1995-96, Bridgestone “understood the critical nature of having retreads to offer alongside new tyres,” explains Edwards, adding that the growing relationship culminated in Bridgestone acquiring the plant in 2005. “In the 10 years since then, we’ve become more integrated within Bridgestone’s overall organisation,” Edwards says. With the 2009 acquisition of US franchise network and materials supplier Bandag for a little over a billion dollars, Bridgestone “demonstrated a very strong commitment to retreading.” There are currently around 120 Bandag franchise depots across Europe, six of which are fully owned by Bridgestone; Bulldog is the largest of all of these depots. While Bulldog remains a separate entity, fully owned by Bridgestone, all of its products are sold by Bridgestone.

Bulldog’s casing collection is outsourced to partners across the UK, who collect to the retreader’s specifications, Edwards continues. “On average it takes three and a half days from when casings are notified as being available to being actually collected back. They are audited and inspected by these casing collection partners, controlled by Bridgestone.” The retread tyres produced at Bulldog are distributed by DHL within the same network as Bridgestone’s new tyres from the company’s central warehouse in Coventry. The integration also extends to staff and systems – “Bulldog operates as an integral part of Bridgestone,” Edwards concludes.

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