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According to an August 2018 article by Tire Business, the world’s leading tire manufacturers have invested more than $7.5 billion in the past year towards new greenfield plants and capacity expansions. These significant investments account for increases in demand and production capacity seen across the tire industry, including more than 82 million additional units of car tires and 7.5 million units of truck/bus tires.

At the same time that many companies are outfitting their new environments with the latest in process and intralogistics automation, they are also closing the doors on older brownfield plants thought to be ill-equipped to keep up with modern demands. The Tire Business article notes that, just this year, Michelin ceased production in a 49-year-old truck tire plant in Ballymena, located in Northern Ireland.

Rather than close down brownfield plants and opt for new construction, tire manufacturers can consider retrofitting their older sites with automation technologies. While typically associated with new projects, automation can help modernize brownfield plants, optimize their material flow and make sure they can keep running for years to come. Further, investing in automation can offset the expensive costs of building a whole new greenfield plant and help companies make the best use of their existing real estate in lieu of expansion.

Precise and rapid material flow

The biggest challenge with brownfields is that they were designed to criteria from a different era. Many brownfield factories were built decades ago when material handling requirements were planned around manual processes, requiring significant buffering areas for work in process (WIP) and raw materials handling. Companies did not design their layouts based on manufacturing process sequence nor integrated material flow, creating problems given modern production environments and operations.

Now, by incorporating automated technologies – such as automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), mobile robots, area and linear-type gantry robots, monorail transfers and conveyors – tire manufacturers can overcome the challenges presented by old plant layouts, and move and transfer assets from one process phase to another with precision and efficiency. They can attain total control over their raw materials, compounds, components, green tires and cured tires, with material flow managed by an advanced Warehouse Control System (WCS) that integrates the individual system components under a single solution.

Add in a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) that collects comprehensive production data, recipe management and reporting throughout the whole tire manufacturing and distribution process – and tire makers can have complete traceability from end to end.

Building blocks for the future

Automation via a modular design is an implementation process being used in greenfield plants. Rather than a full, one-time deployment, a plant may undergo a phased implementation. Automation is built up over time, resulting in a faster return on investment. Manufacturers can apply the same method in their existing brownfield factories by breaking down each part of the tire manufacturing and distribution process into modular components and automating specific, isolated areas – from raw material handling, component preparation, tire building and green tire storage and retrieval to green tire curing, final finish, warehousing and order fulfillment.

Similar to building blocks, tire producers can then connect the individual modules for a cohesive factory layout. Namely, they can use AGVs to link the modules together, autonomously transporting finished products and WIP between still-manual and automated processes. There are, of course, other means to connect the modules, but they quickly run into obstacles due to the constraints within brownfield sites, such as low ceiling heights, inconsistent equipment layouts, complicated production flow and numerous obstructions. Given their flexibility and adaptability, AGVs can easily navigate around these challenges and create the critical links necessary between modules.

Automation is a viable solution for not only new facilities, but also existing factories. Tire manufacturers that choose to automate rather than retire their brownfield sites can see a high return on investment by keeping overhead costs down and maximizing their current assets. Furthermore, automation allows companies to rethink their current layout design for additional space savings, as automated production environments require half the space of a conventional setup. This eliminates the need for costly building expansions and leaves room to accommodate for growth into the future.

Author Don Heelis

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