Continental "back in the game"
Following an absence of 13 years, the German group makes a come back in the farming business, and opened the curtain on the new high-tech Lousado production plant. The first two lines of product are already available: Tractor70 and Tractor85.
September 5, 2017 represents an important date for Continental, one that marks not only the opening of a new and futuristic production facility in Lousado, Portugal, but also the company’s return to farm tires, a segment that was abandoned back in 2004 following the sale of its Mitas brand. “Returning to the farm tires business was an important step for our growth ambitions in the tire sector”, said Nikolai Setzer, member of Continental AG's Executive Board and head of the Tire division at the inauguration ceremony. “In recent years we have successfully developed our specialized business launching new items for port vehicles and earth movers. Our new farming range will complete our Off-the Road offer”.
A record-breaking factory
The Lousado factory, located near another Continental facility used in the production of car tires (with a production capacity of 18 million tires, making it Continental's most productive site), fittingly symbolizes the company’s great come back in the production of new agricultural tires. The existing technological level is precisesely one of the reasons that prompted the company’s management to rely, once again, on the Portuguese site, chosen among the 20 production plants currently in the group’s portfolio. Other factors that led to this choice, according to Setzer, were proximity to the market (the production is destined for the European market as well as for the American market, for which the easy access to the ocean is a plus), the availability of skilled workers (probably cheaper somewhere else but without the same quality), the high level of infrastructural equipment of the site, and finally the strong support coming from local and national authorities. Considering that the decision to re-open the agricultural production line was formalized in 2015, the factory was completed in record-breaking time: construction began in February 2016, the foundations were laid in June, the machinery was installed in August and the first order of experimental tires (ETO) was produced in November of the same year. In March 2017, the building was completed, and in April the production of tires destined for testing began while the first production series was launched in August. The result of a total investment of 49.9 million Euro, the plant uses highly automated production processes, and will reach its maximum production capacity within a 3 to 5 year period. The planned production for the year 2017 is 5,000 tires, in 13 different sizes. The complex includes a testing centre that required a further 2.5 million tests in the making, in which tires are tested and analyzed, but which will soon host the company’s future design and development activities.
Tractor70 and Tractor85: back to the top
If you’re curious to know how will Continental tires be positioned, Nikolai Setzer answers without hesitation: "We are a premium company, and if we are going to come back in the agricultural sector we will do so with premium products". This is the philosophy behind the new Tractor70 and Tractor85, two standard yet innovative tractor tires designed to provide sturdiness and durability, without neglecting driving comfort and a "gentle" contact with the ground. "The development of new farming tires is based on years of experience in specialized tires and on a profound market analysis", says Ralf Krieger, Head of Farming tires Development and Industrialization in CST. "The first generation of our premium Tractor70 and Tractor85 radials provide a glimpse into the future range that will include 100 sizes and many different treads for different applications. At the same time, they meet all the needs for this particular line of business".
The radial casing and bead are key features in these new products. To create a flexible yet durable casing that allows tractors to work on roads, fields and stones, Continental patented its new N.Flex technology, which uses a specifically designed nylon, significantly more flexible than the polyester or rayon previously used on tires, with plies interwoven thousands of times. This solution makes the casing more resistant and elastic allowing the material to easily return to its original shape.
Another innovative idea is found in the bead: conventional tires use a bead with ten parallel wires, wrapped around the bead core ten times. However, this structure makes assembly difficult because the overlapping of the cables makes the bead very rigid and irregular with, at the end, a sort of "step". Continental, in this case, uses a single wire which wraps around the core many times similarly to what happens in a garden hose. The single wire makes the bead more compact, robust and durable, facilitating tire mounting operations ensuring the best possible grip at the same time.
The Tractor85 is designed to be both robust and comfortable in all conditions, on asphalt and tar, sand or clay. The nylon casing allows the tire to fit perfectly to uneven terrain, providing superior driving comfort, compensating for the often unsatisfactory performance of a tractor’s suspensions. Another advantage guaranteed by Continental’s N.flex technology is a reduction of the flat spot effect that farmers often experience in the morning: as a tire cools overnight the casing extends and the contact area adapts to the surface of the ground. This condition is known as flat-spotting and causes a vibration that disappears as the tire warms up again. With N.flex technology, Low-shrinkage nylon reduces flat spots for a more comfortable ride, keeping a perfectly circular shape already from the early morning.
Tractor70, instead, is a wide section tire, designed to provide maximum soil protection and traction. Thanks to its new bead technology it can adequately perform with heavy loads and significantly lower pressures, increasing the contact area with the ground. Furthermore, the rounded design of the Tractor 70, results in reduced soil compaction and crop damage. The smooth and round space between the lugs prevents accumulation of soil and mud in the tread. These self-cleaning properties together with the large footprint guarantee a high level of traction and productivity.
Greater efficiency, in fact, was a key element in the development of these tires, in line with the needs and requirements of farming machines, the clients and the different operating conditions: “All the tires in our new farm range have been designed with superior efficiency in mind. They are ‘Engineered for Efficiency’” explains Thorsten Bublitz, farm tires product line manager. “This quality mark was placed on the sidewalls of our farm tires as a sort of promise to all our clients”.
Seventy years and counting
We have to go back to 1928 to see Continental roll-out its first farming tire, a production that continued without letup until 2004 in the Czech town of Otrokovice, keeping up-to-date with the relentless technological evolution of the sector, widening its International presence and consolidating the brand’s reputation. In 2004, though, a complete turn-around took place: Continental decides to focus on car tires and sold its farming division to Mitas. In the following years, global demographic changes and a rise in the demands from the primary sector, pushed sales in the farming sector which, to date, make up 25% of the entire specialty tires sector. At the same time, Continental has consistently strengthened its presence in the agricultural sector as a supplier of components such as tracks, piping, instruments, electronic systems and gps. Given the above mentioned changes in the global market, a return to farming seemed quite natural, so that when the decision was taken in 2015, since Mitas has the rights to use the Continental brand in the Farming sector until 2019, the group decided to return with a second brand, General. Meanwhile, Trelleborg's acquisition of Mitas in 2015, brought the brand back home, allowing the producer to target the highest segment of the market, with the legitimate ambition of returning to where they were before leaving the industry: "We weren’t the largest tire manufacturers, but we are now among the most qualified - says Nikolai Setzer - and able to compete with the largest players on the market. In the near future, thanks to our position as leaders in component technology and new advanced automotive technologies, we’ll be able to integrate new intelligent technologies into our tires, and this will give us a strong competitive edge. In the automotive industry, one-stop-shop solutions are already highly appreciated, as they offer a wide range of products, solutions and services with a single interface, and will soon become very important also in the agricultural sector ". Great ambitions for the Hannover management, which after the launch of the standard Tractor70 and Tractor85 tires will expand the Continental product portfolio with up to a total of 100 different sizes by 2019.
“With Heart and Soil”
The new tires were launched with a strong emphasis on emotions and focuses on farmers: "Being a farmer is a lot more than just a job. It's a mission in which knowledge and hard work become passion", says Ivonne Bierwirth, CST Marketing and Communications (Commercial Specialty Tires). "Working the soil with care is the key to high yields and success for any farmer, reason why the communication campaign entitled "With Heart and Soil" combines both of these aspects. At the same time it reflects Continental’s strong focus on customers. Our business is to be a reliable partner for any farmer, knowing their needs and requirements and transferring these to our products", adds Thorsten Bublitz, Agricultural tires product line manager. "Mother Earth is the perfect symbol for our products, as they are not only durable and sturdy, but they treat the soil with respect". Continental’s focus on customers has been the guiding principle in preparing the company’s return to the farming business: development, production and launch of the new radials were preceded by intensive market research as well as extensive and accurate field tests in collaboration with farmers.