BRIDGESTONE, THE FUTURE IS IN ITALY
Tires and innovation
Bridgestone’s new tires, developed and tested at the gates of Rome, are destined for the European market (and beyond)
It is good to remember, from time to time, that there is a part of Italy that is appreciated around the world and not just for art, fashion, good food and so on, but also engineers, technicians and researchers. It would be difficult to explain otherwise the increasingly important commitment of Bridgestone in Italy, where "fertile ground" was found for developing its new tire and its future technologies. Not just pizza and mandolin, then! Yes, because that "round piece of black rubber " is the result of continuous research and constant technological development.
Two modern facilities just outside Rome
Bridgestone, the world's largest manufacturer in the tire industry, currently boasts two such facilities in Italy: the Technical Center Europe (TCE) in Castel Romano and the European Proving Ground (EUPG) in Aprilia, located about thirty kilometers apart on the Pontina, the road that from Rome's EUR district continues south towards Latina. The first - built in the 70s by Firestone (now part of the Japanese group) – produces goods destined not only to the European market, but also to Russia, Africa and the Middle East, covering the most diverse environmental conditions, while, since 2004, on the Aprilia test track, Bridgestone engineers have been analyzing and evaluating new technologies and solutions in real driving conditions.
A laboratory with adjoining test track
Having become an important research and development center over the years, Bridgestone’s Technical Center Europe – along with the ones found in Tokyo, Akron and Bangkok – plays an increasingly important role in developing new materials, tires, prototypes and performing the most disparate indoor tests. “It is the ideal place in which to work and develop a career right in the heart of Bridgestone’s innovative philosophy” says Koji Takagi, managing director of Bridgestone’s TCE. “ The TCE is the place where engineers and specialists work on key technologies for future use”.
The TCE stands on a total area of 32 hectares. Of these, around 17,000 square meters are covered and host self-sufficient design and development systems. In 2010, the facility was further expanded with new internal systems, physics and chemical laboratories equipped with the latest equipment. Testing capabilities were further expanded with the introduction of a 3 meter cylinder that allows to test indoors all the different tire sizes before track testing takes place.
Engineers, chemists, technicians and support staff are responsible for performing three main tasks: design and development of tires for cars, commercial vehicles, trucks, buses and agricultural machinery; design and development of equipment destined to 8 Bridgestone production plants in Europe; development of quality systems dedicated to meeting the ISO-9000, QS-9000 and ISO-14000 requirements.
Futuristic materials developed here
"By 2050 we will have totally eco-sustainable tires. Some prototypes already exist, "says Emilio Tiberio, Bridgestone Research and Development director. Alternatives to natural rubber, one of the tire’s basic elements, are currently being developed and researchers are also working to make the most of the potential of rubber extracted from guayule, a typical desert plant; this explains the creation at the Technical Center in Tokyo, of the first tires made exclusively with natural rubber extracted from guayule: this important achievement was made possible thanks to the prototypes developed in the early summer of 2015 at the TCE in Castel Romano.
These results have earned the Rome based Technical center a greater independence from Tokyo, going beyond the simple task of adapting to the European market what is being developed in Japan, becoming a R&D center in its own right. The goal remains the same, though: developing new technologies and patents every year.
Chemical and physical analysis on compound materials are performed in TCE’s laboratories, as well as tests on belts and cords for stronger casings. The prototypes are tested indoors for thousands of kilometers on rollers in test rooms with controlled temperatures and conditions. In one of these, even ozone enriched tires are tested to simulate aging: two weeks in this lab are equivalent to years of driving in normal conditions. At this point, after the OK of the technicians of Castel Romano, the prototypes have to pass yet another exam: outdoor track testing.
At 250 km/h on a test track!
Outdoor tests are performed in Aprilia, at the European Proving Ground (EUPG), a 40 million euro facility, where most of Bridgestone’s tests are being carried out, as the Castel Romano center is now becoming too “small” for all the needed tests. At a first glance, the new testing ground represents a great leap forward.
Modern equipment and the particular location of the facility, in a region which enjoys a particularly mild climate ("here winter lasts no more than two months," says one of the test drivers) enable the tires to be thoroughly tested throughout the whole year. New generation tires for passenger cars, commercial vehicles, trucks, buses, agricultural vehicles and motorcycles are tested in this center of excellence. Covering an area of 144 hectares (5 times the TCE in Castel Romano) with 17 different tracks for a total distance of over 8 kilometers, virtually all driving conditions on European roads can be reproduced.
Obviously the large 4 kilometers long oval circuit stands out, with two straights, the northern straight 15 meters wide with 4 lanes and the southern straight 35 meters wide with 9 lanes and 2 banked curves at 36-37 degree angles with a 250 km/h speed limit. When driving on it, albeit at a slow pace and with a normal production car, you cannot help thinking about the typical American oval tracks which traditionally host Formula Indy races. The feeling that a car could suddenly shoot past you is quite tangible! Instead, all that can be seen are test drivers who safely perform lane changes at high speed, stability tests on the straights, slaloms and gas pedal release.
Within the oval circuit we find the "black lake", a 9-hectare area used for dynamic tests of acceleration, braking and cornering on various types of vehicles. Purpose: to verify and confirm previously obtained data from the simulation systems at the Castel Romano technical center. Furthermore, a second 4-kilometer long, 8-meter wide dry track is also to be found within the Aprilia facility, which offers various possibilities to test tires at high, medium and low speeds as well as different types of corners, turning radiuses and downhill gradients. Here testers have the ability to virtually test all aspects of the behavior of the tires in dry conditions, lateral stability, steering precision, load transfer, grip and handling.
A special straight road, on the other hand, proves useful in testing the noise level of the tires, to make sure that EU regulations and ECE directives in terms of noise pollution are fully complied with. A further contribution in this respect is made by so called “NVH tracks” (Noise, Vibrations, Harshness), each being 400 meters long and 3,2 meters wide, featuring different surfaces, (from cobblestones to transversal grooves at regular intervals, without neglecting more or less aggressive tarred surfaces).
Wet road tests and more
A group of five surfaces within a skid-pad area is used for lateral grip in wet conditions on different friction coefficients (diameters 60-140 m.). A pool with an automatic water sprinkling and recuperation system is available to test bi-directional cornering hydroplaning (clockwise-counterclockwise) performances. On the other hand, longitudinal hydroplaning is evaluated on a straight lane (120 m x 5 m) with an advanced water sprinkler combination system that is able to fill up either the complete lane, or the right or left side separately, depending on the test requirement.
Dry and wet braking lanes (120 m x 3.5 to 7.5 m) with asphalt and concrete surfaces are also available on the site. The wet handling track (1.6 km x 8 m) tests standard and high-performance vehicles at different speeds. An advanced wetting system with water recuperation flooding from the ground allows drivers to test continuously on water without time-wasting delays fully respecting the environment.
A separate soft handling track (3.9 km) simulates a country road environment. Thanks to different asphalts, drivers are able to evaluate both comfort and handling performances in a “real life” scenario without having to exit the facility and facing the normal road traffic. A further area reserved to European labeling in also found in these premises.
If a flaw must be found, perhaps the only limit of the Aprilia proving ground is the difficulty in thoroughly testing tires in winter conditions. The weather around here if far too mild! For now all the test drivers can do is starting in the earliest hours of the morning to find temperatures cold enough to test winter tires. But sooner or later Bridgestone will find a solution to this problem. You can bet on it!
Bridgestone’s European Training Center
In May 2005, still within the Aprilia proving ground, the European Education Center (EUEC) was opened, a training center par excellence committed to transferring Bridgestone’s know-how and DNA to its regular and outside staff through dedicated technical and commercial training and events. The center provides a learning system both complete and efficient, with dedicated classes, hands-on workshops on tire assembly and disassembly as well as checking the status of the tire, all done in workshops equipped with the most advanced machines and in total safety.
Bridgestone Europe; engineers needed
Good news for young engineers. Bridgestone Europe has announced plans to take on in the coming months several engineers for its European Technical Centre located along the Pontina near the Castel Romano Outlet. For this purpose, the Japanese giant has organized three online chat-rooms to give aspiring candidates the opportunity to have more information about the company, what it represents and the opportunities offered by the European Technical Centre.