Michelin undertakes to clean up its act

The world purchased 2.321 billion tires in 2022 across all categories, a number that is expected to continue to rise. Also, in the passenger car segment, the general trend is towards larger cars and electrification, which add weight. So the tires also get bigger and heavier, and consume more materials and resources along the way.

Faced with these complicating factors, Michelin has promised to create only 100% sustainable tires by 2050, with a target of 40% renewable tires by 2030. This will require a great effort at the scale of operations. of Michelin, and the company flew me, along with dozens of other media from around the world, to Cuneo, Italy, to highlight the challenge, affirm its commitments and send a rocket in the backs of its competitors.

The Michelin factory in the picturesque town of Cuneo, Italy – a 925,000 square meter site producing some 40,000 tires a day


Michelin acts with surprisingly high leverage on environmental issues, given the number of hoops it sells around the world. For example, the company reduced rolling resistance by more than 50% between its first Energy tire in 1992 and the 2021 E.Primacy and Pilot Sport EV hoops, saving billions of gallons of fuel and associated emissions.

It now manufactures some of the most energy-efficient and long-lasting tires on the market. It is therefore a popular OEM brand for electric vehicles, adding bonus miles to the range calculations valued by automakers and drivers. “In fact,” says Bruno de Feraudy, vice president of automotive original equipment for the company, “today our market share for pure EV tires is three times the overall market share from Michelin for OEMs”.

But at the end of the day, it’s a massive manufacturing operation with huge environmental impact, producing consumables that degrade into particulate pollution the more they’re used – even though they tend to abrade at less than half the industry average rate (1.6 kg per 20,000 km vs 3.7 kg per 20,000 km according to Michelin). And the company seems willing to raise its hand and take responsibility.

“We really need to pull ourselves together now,” says Florent Menegaux, CEO of Michelin. “We’ve done a lot of work on this before, but now we have even more incentive to go much faster. We need to keep making products that have less impact the more you use them, but we have to produce them in a way that is also compatible with the environment. The minimum use of materials, but also the minimum use of energy in production. And it is very important that we do not compromise performance to reduce the impact on the environment.

Prototype car tires made from 45% sustainable materials – they will hit the mass market by 2025
Prototype car tires made from 45% sustainable materials – they will hit the mass market by 2025


Durable tires

Many raw materials that go into a tire are themselves problematic. Each tire is made from over 200 different ingredients, from natural rubber and synthetic rubber, to reinforcing fillers like carbon black and silica, textiles, additives and metals. “Today, 70% of materials come from oil,” says Cyrille Roget, director of scientific communication and innovation. Indeed, just a few years ago, the only sustainable material in the tire recipe was natural rubber itself – which is arguably not at all sustainable on the scale of the global tire market.

Others, like silica, have their own problems: “You could say, he continues, that we have plenty of sand on the planet, well no. If we start taking the amount of silica we need for tires, the beaches will be completely empty of sand, and it will take more than a human life to renew them. It is not renewable according to our definition.

Michelin has thus set its own definition of renewable: materials that are either recycled (around 90% of tires worldwide are now collected for recycling at the end of their life) – or materials that are renewable over the course of a human lifetime. typical.

Michelin's transition to sustainable materials will take a generation, but it starts with these prototypes, which will hit the mass market in 2025
Michelin’s transition to sustainable materials will take a generation, but it starts with these prototypes, which will hit the mass market in 2025


At Cuneo, the company presented two new tire prototypes that exceed its renewable targets for 2030: a car tire using 45% sustainable materials and a bus tire using 58% – both already approved for road and on-road use. the routes under test. These tires get their carbon black from end-of-life recycled tires. Recycled metal is part of the steel belts. There are oils, resins, and durable textile stiffeners in the mix, and the silica comes from rice husks.

The global group of automotive journalists had the chance to launch these tires on one of the most scenic go-kart tracks in the world, mounted on a big, heavy Hyundai Ioniq 5 more suited to family trips than hard cornering. There were no “less durable” tires to test, and no one was counting lap times, but by all accounts these greener hoops performed like standard street tires, gripped well and gave little of surprises.

They’ll be in mass production in a wide range of sizes by 2025. That might seem like a long time these days, but this is an 81,000-person company that runs 85 locations on four continents. As part of the sustainable development policy, Michelin tries to reduce transport on the supply side and on the sales side to a minimum. And that’s not to mention the huge volumes that this company handles – just under 200 million tires a year, in over 9,000 different varieties. There is some rejigging work involved.

“We’re not working on a single show tire here,” says executive vice president Scott Clark. “We are working on the integration of sustainable materials on a very large scale, while maintaining the exceptional performance of the products, unique to Michelin.”

Autonomous robots transport unfinished tires in Michelin's largely automated tire factory in Cuneo, Italy
Autonomous robots transport unfinished tires in Michelin’s largely automated tire factory in Cuneo, Italy


Contact the factories

The products are one side, the factories themselves are another. Michelin has set achievable targets here for 2030: 37% less energy consumption and 50% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 2010. One-third less water consumption, 50% organic solvents less and 25% less waste compared to 2019 – in all its factories.

Part of that involves a transition to clean energy and the deployment of solar panels at the company’s huge, suburban-sized factory sites, but leaps in technology also play a big role.

A perfect example is how Michelin is now starting to harden its tyres. This work previously used gas boilers and water to create high pressure steam, which is forced at high pressure into the tire carcass at the end of manufacture, to distribute heat around the tire compound, pressing the flexible outer layers into the molds that create the tread patterns and sidewall markings, and providing the temperatures needed to vulcanize the rubber. This process is typically responsible for around one-third of an individual tire’s energy consumption.

You can see the steaming process as part of the fascinating video below, which explains how a car tire is made, more or less from start to finish.

How Michelin makes car tires

Curing is now possible using a fully electric press. “When you cook your fish, you’re cooking with steam,” says Pierre Louis Dubourdeau, executive vice president of manufacturing. “The advantage is that the cooking is even, isn’t it? The heat diffuses very well. The cooking time is very critical for the performance of a tyre. So steam is very practical, but it’s very inefficient. So we switched to an electric press. It’s very, very difficult, imagine trying to cook your fish in a toaster. It might be grilled on the outside, but raw on the inside. “Inside, it’s not easy to make it seamless. It took us 10 years to design a process without compromising quality or performance.”

The new electric curing process uses six to eight times less energy than the previous process and also significantly reduces water consumption. This technology can be adapted to many of the company’s existing hardening platforms, and the company is beginning to roll it out globally. That’s still not possible on the company’s biggest tires, but Michelin expects more than 70 percent of its vulcanizing equipment to be fully electric by 2050.

On a walking tour of the company’s colossal Cuneo factory, it was striking to see the extent of automation involved, from the barrel packing line where the carcasses are created, to the Wonka-snakes. esque conveyor belts, to Dalek-style single-tire haul robots roaming floors, and robotic arms lifting raw tires into presses and removing baked ones. A new AI-enhanced quality inspection system now helps human tire evaluators find and classify faults, and self-driving electric tractor-trailers haul bulk loads of hoops around the premises.

New Iris machines visually scan every tire using AI to detect and classify defects - but final quality decisions are made by humans
New Iris machines visually scan every tire using AI to detect and classify defects – but final quality decisions are made by humans


Ultimately, it is giant multinationals like this that will have to do much of the heavy lifting as the world transitions to clean energy and a greener approach to the global economy. “Only NGOs will not achieve anything,” says CEO Florent Menegaux. “You need businesses. Businesses are ready to put together the means to produce something, be it a service or a good. I think that in order to solve the problems that the world has created, businesses are essential. They know how to put things together, produce innovation – and make a profit, so they can reinvest.”

Any sustainable transition in the tire industry will depend not only on technologies and company commitments, but also on regulations, incentives, standards and the decisions of individual tire buyers and at the OEM level. But it has certainly been fascinating to learn how a market leader approaches the challenge.

Michelin durable tires

Source: michelin

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