Bridgestone India’s Managing Director Parag Satpute speaks about the company’s new Sturdo range of tyres aimed at the mass-market segment of cars in India, and how tyre manufacturers are aggressively localising in India and working towards the changing needs of the market.
With the new Sturdo range, is it true that the focus this time is more on durability and low rolling-resistance coefficient (RRC)?
Indeed. This is one of our major product launches in recent years. We are really happy to present this tyre range to the Indian consumer. This tyre is designed especially for the Indian market and addresses the mass segment. As you know, in India, one of the major requirements of our consumers is to get more mileage and more kilometres out of their tyres. So that is what we have managed to achieve. The Sturdo range offers up to 29 percent more life and a low RRC, but most importantly, this is achieved without compromising the ride quality.
High durability, cushy ride and a low RRC are conflicting parameters. How do you achieve the right balance in terms of material mix and cost?
Yes, RRC and long life are counterintuitive, and they pull in different directions. But this is why we are so proud because we have been able to create a tread compound which allows us to achieve both — keep the RRC at the current levels, and at the same time, improve longevity of the tyres. Coming to the pricing, since we have used the latest technology, therefore, this product will be priced at a slight premium over our existing products. But it will not be significantly higher because we believe it is for the mass segment and we want to focus on the total cost of ownership of these tyres.
Considering India’s road conditions where chances of an impact damage to a tyre’s sidewall are pretty high. Have some innovations been done on that front?
Yes, it’s one of the most common complaints. There is a sidewall cut or a hole in the side wall and customers really struggle to understand how that happens. It happens because the tyre gets pinched on our potholes between the rim and the edge of the pothole. So, to improve the durability, we have beefed up the sidewalls in the Sturdo portfolio. We have made these tyres much more resistant to the kind of road conditions that we witness in India.
Is the demand for low RRC tyres being driven by EVs or from the fact that people are becoming more fuel-efficiency conscious?
To be honest, the push towards lower RRC primarily comes from the OEMs; it has little to do with the end customer. If one asks the Indian consumer, or even tyre consumers globally, people will say that they want their tyres to be durable and long lasting. The fact of the matter is that a very few are able to correlate RRC with the vehicle’s fuel efficiency. The drive towards lower RRC is coming through government regulations and the OEMs’ specifications, trying to get the fuel efficiency right up there. However, now with the advent of EVs, RRC does play a definitive role in enhancing the vehicle range.
Having said that, other parameters such as the need for better wear resistance due to instantaneous torque generation in EVs, as well as low rolling noise due to the elimination of the noise from the engine, also play an important role and demand new technologies. We are actively working on all of these fronts so that we can bring a tyre which is ideally suited for the EV market. We've already launched such EV-specific products in Europe, Japan and the US and we are well on our way to launch those in India as well.
Bridgestone has been able to create a tread compound which allows to achieve both parameters — keep the rolling resistance coefficient at the current levels, and at the same time, improve durability of the tyres.
What is the state of the Indian tyre industry in light of the government’s ban on tyre imports imposed in June 2020?
First of all, I think it was a very smart move to restrict the import of ‘cheap’ products because by their very nature, they had a tendency to compromise safety, which is the prime consideration for us at Bridgestone.
Having said that, while the ban initially put a lot of short-term pressure on tyre companies manufacturing locally in India, it accelerated our localisation efforts and today, we (Bridgestone) can manufacture anything up to 19-inch-diameter sizes with 20-inchers coming very soon as well. So, while we were already producing about 95 percent of our portfolio locally in India, since the ban, we have quickly localised some of the higher-inch diameters, and have done that in a record time.
However, with approvals in place, we do continue to import some high-end tyres like run flats from our manufacturing bases overseas, but we are localising as much as possible.
What kind of technological upgradation is required for the industrialisation of tyre manufacturing locally and what levels of volumes justify the investments needed?
It all depends upon the specific technology. If one is just talking about an inch size, then it's a different matter. There might be some modifications needed to the tyre-building machines; there might be some new kind of moulds, new kinds of curing processes required. But if one looks from the perspective of an altogether new technology like run-flat tyres (RFTs) or sponge technology for EV tyres, then it's slightly more complex and the lead times could be a bit longer.
Coming to the economics of manufacturing locally, that depends on how one sets up their manufacturing flows. In the last two years, we have worked very rigorously with lean manufacturing principles and we have really reduced the batch sizes to something which is completely manageable. And that's why we can localise even sizes which don't sell in big numbers in India. And on the demand side, I think it's heartening to see that higher inch sizes are getting fitted into more and more cars because it is the SUVs and MPVs that are seeing higher sales in India. We are also seeing more premium vehicles being sold in the country. So, both of these things are driving towards faster and more economical localisation.
What is your outlook for the tyre industry in India given the growing demand for passenger vehicles and how do you plan to strike a balance between the OEM and aftermarket businesses?
India has been a growth market for us and we envisage that it will remain so in the future. Going forward, we will continue our investments in capacity expansion. We have steadily increased our capacity and have invested more than Rs 2,000 crores in the last three to four years in both our plants – Pune and Indore – and the capex has not just been in capacity, but also in new technology. We expect to continue to bring newer technologies and augment capacity as the market develops further.
Currently, we have a balanced portfolio with a 50-50 split between our OEM and aftermarket business, which is a good, healthy situation to be. With the Indian market still being on a growth trajectory in terms of car penetration, I believe this balance can be maintained. In some of the developed markets, of course, the aftermarket becomes much bigger. But in growing markets, this balance is quite common and we have learned to operate with this in a good way.
What technological trends in the tyre segment can one expect in the future?
We already talked about EVs, and the impact that it will have on tyres. That clearly will be one of the most significant macro trends in terms of technology. At Bridgestone, we are working on what we call ‘Be Silent’, which is a silent tyre technology. Furthermore, with sensors increasingly becoming prevalent, it will be important to capture data from these sensors and turn it into intelligent algorithms. So, not just hardware, but software will also play a very important role in the coming future.
And this is an area where Bridgestone is very active. We have full-scale technical centres in Rome and the United States, to focus on these kinds of Artificial Intelligence algorithms. And we will be launching such technologies in Europe and in India as well. I think if you want to watch out for a big macro trend in this industry, that will be the space to look out for.
This interview first appeared in Autocar Professional's 1 October, 2022 issue.
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