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Bridgestone opens first radial OTR tire plant outside Japan

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Bridgestone opens first radial OTR tire plant outside Japan

Building Bridgestone’s biggest tires requires 40 tons of rubber a day, equipment that stands three stories tall and a plant that spans 1.5 million square feet. And that’s just the beginning.

The Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations Aiken County Off Road Radial Tire Plant is producing 49-inch tires that are eight feet tall and weigh 2,800 pounds. By 2019, when the plant reaches its full capacity, it will produce 130 raw rubber tons per day and manufacture four sizes of tires, the largest weighing 13,000 pounds and measuring 63 inches. That’s just 2,000 pounds shy of the heft of an average African elephant.

Bridgestone spent $970 million constructing and outfitting its first OTR plant outside of Japan. Built on 550 acres in Aiken County, S.C., the plant is more than a third-of-a-mile long.

And as big as it is, there’s room to grow.

When executives gathered in November for the plant’s grand opening and ribbon cutting, there were multiple mentions of the space available to expand even more. Aiken County governmental and economic development leaders noted in their congratulatory remarks they were available to stay late if the Japanese leaders wanted to talk before they left for the airport.

In 1997 the company announced it would build a $435 million radial passenger and light truck tire plant on 585 acres in Aiken County. It was the largest investment any company had ever made in South Carolina.

That record has since been broken — but only by Bridgestone’s OTR investment.

Tomohiro Fukuda, vice president, officer and chief quality officer of specialty tire business for Bridgestone Corp., called the Aiken County plant “a golden opportunity to produce superior giant tires for our customers in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.”

“This is the biggest single investment Bridgestone has ever made in manufacturing in the United States,” said Gary Garfield, CEO and president of Bridgestone Americas Inc. “Within the walls of the 1.5 million-square-foot facility, we will produce many of the world’s largest massive off-road radial tires to keep industries such as mining and construction on the move.”

The OTR plant produced its first tires in the spring of this year. By late August the tires met Bridgestone’s quality controls and passed the inspection process so regular production could begin. The plant is running seven days a week, though not yet at a full 24-hour pace.

Additional equipment will be installed. The current mixer, which combines 1,000-pound batches of rubber compounds, will be augmented by two more, said Adam Barfoot, operations manager. The plant is expected to operate at full capacity with 550 employees by 2019.

Bridgestone already has expanded production at its now-five-year-old OTR tire facility in Kitakyushu, Japan, by about 20 tons a day, to approximately 165 tons a day. Still, that ramp-up didn’t eliminate the inevitable 30 days OTR tires spent on a ship traveling to the western hemisphere. Aiken County takes the water, and variables like ongoing labor disputes at America’s West Coast ports, out of the equation.

“We don’t have to suffer through a glitch of the seas or the ports,” said Kurt Danielson, president of the U.S. and Canada Commercial Group, a division of Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations LLC.

A U.S. plant also provides the company with a production backup plan for the future. When an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, Bridgestone said none of its plants sustained major damage. Still, it exposed a risk to the company’s OTR business. Production was contained inside a single country, while customers across the globe needed tires.

“Through Japan we’ve been increasing our capacity in a lot of our facilities so it’s just inevitable that we needed a plant outside of Japan,” said Danielson.   ■

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