The Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Camaro are two of the most coveted sports sedans in the world. With bold designs, powerful engines, high technology and various amenities on board, the two compete for a slice of the market consisting of demanding, affluent drivers. But the two competitors do have something in common: they are equipped with tires designed by Pirelli’s Center for Research and Development in Santo André, a city in the São Paulo Metropolitan Region. A 2008 survey of U.S. consumers rated the Four Seasons model P4 the best all-season tire and exactly the tire that is original equipment on Mustangs and Camaros. “Normally, we are the ones to develop the Four Seasons tires, which are used throughout the year, a characteristic of the U.S. market, since in Europe cars use different tires in summer than in winter. Our factory based in Feira de Santana, in the state of Bahia, specializes in producing the most up-to-date models for high performance vehicles,” says Roberto Falkenstein, director of R&D for Pirelli in Brazil. The challenges in developing new tires for the Mustang and Camaro were many, starting with making a compound able to withstand the temperature variations throughout the year in the United States—thermometers in winter can easily dip below zero, and in summer can exceed 30º Celsius. “We were chosen for our expertise in designing tires for high performance vehicles.”
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The R&D center in Santo André is Pirelli’s second largest in the world, after the one located at its headquarters in Milan, Italy. The Brazilian unit has 190 employees, most of whom have a background in engineering. They are responsible for developing new tires for all of Latin America and also for products exported to the United States, Europe and Japan. Every year more than 30,000 tires are tested at the unit, and about 50 models are approved by Brazilian automakers. The Santo André center specializes in all lines of tires (for cars, trucks, motorcycles, off-road and farm vehicles), and is the only one of the company’s eight research units worldwide that designs new models for tractors and agricultural implements. “This is an expertise that only we have,” says the 52-year-old Falkenstein. In addition to Italy and Brazil, the more-than-a-century-old tire manufacturer, founded in 1872 in Italy and since 2011 the exclusive tire supplier for Formula 1, also has laboratories in the United States, Russia, China, Germany, the United Kingdom and Mexico.
Pirelli came to Brazil 85 years ago, and it was then that the first factory was acquired, located in Santo André and centered on producing electrical conductors. Twelve years later, in 1941, the first domestic tire factory was opened in the same city. The company also became a pioneer in 1988 when it built a proving ground in Sumaré, São Paulo State. With an area of 200,000 square meters, the proving ground is a specialized outdoor laboratory for performing tests on tires for automobiles, vans, motorcycles, ATVs, buses, trucks, agricultural and industrial vehicles, bicycles and competitive racing models.
The site is also used by the Brazilian automobile industry in the new model approval process. An added advantage of the track, according to Pirelli, is its computerized irrigation system that lets them control the depth and amount of water all along the route, and thus measure vehicle performance under rainy conditions. For more precise analyses, the proving ground has an 800 mm by 600 mm “sheet of glass” on which the tires leave marks. A special high-speed camera, installed underground, captures all the points of contact of the tire with the glass, which facilitates the analysis of product performance. The proving ground has on- and off-road tracks made up of different types of road surface (asphalt, dirt, gravel and cobblestones), with gradients and curves.
Besides the proving ground, Pirelli’s R&D center has several laboratories: an indoor laboratory to evaluate and study finished products, and two more laboratories, one for chemistry and another for physics, devoted to new materials engineering, all located in Santo André. Another support area is the one for structural simulations and engineering analysis, which uses the computational finite element method to design and develop new tire models. “Our department does mathematical simulations of a virtual tire to analyze its structure and dynamic behavior,” says Erick Rodrigues, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer. “We perform all the interfaces between the computer simulations and the automobile manufacturers,” he says. He holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of São Paulo (USP) and has been with the company since 1999.
Renan Ozelo is a 29-year-old mechanical engineer and a colleague of Rodrigues at the laboratory. He graduated from the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in 2009, and is a doctoral candidate at the same institution. His research topic is a multi-scale analysis of damage and fracture in rubber compounds. The young researcher is the author of a system, dubbed SimCord that focuses on the research and development of tire reinforcement components. The tool is able to model many different constructions of the commercial metal cords that are important structural elements making up the tires. SimCord includes graphic interface software, for purposes of numerical modeling and post-processing of results, and a web server, which handles management and processing of the calculation.
“Because it is so efficient, SimCord has been adopted by all of Pirelli’s units outside Brazil,” says Falkenstein with a hint of pride. “In addition to new products and technologies, we also export talent. The current director of R&D in China is a Brazilian, Alexandre Bregantim, and manager of development at the Russian research center is our colleague Edson Marubayashi. We also have two former researchers from Santo André working in Milan, one on the Formula 1 team, Edson Gustavo Luzetti, and another on the cyber tire team, Daniel Pugliese.” This Pirelli world project results in a tire fitted with a microchip that transmits real-time information to the driver, such as pressure, temperature, conditions of use and any damage to the tire.
Investiment in the region
The Santo André R&D center and the five Brazilian plants in Santo André, Sumaré, Campinas, Feira de Santana (Bahia state) and Gravesend (Rio Grande do Sul State) play a major role in the organization, because the South American operation represents more than a third of Pirelli’s global sales; the company also has factories in Argentina and Venezuela. In order to expand its production capacity and maintain its leadership in the region, Pirelli plans to allocate approximately €400 million (about R$1.32 billion) to investment in the region between 2014 and 2017. The company does not specify how much will be spent on research and development, but says that, globally, it reserves 3.5% of its sales for that activity. All in all, €220 million (R$726 million) was allocated to the eight R&D centers in 2012; Pirelli’s global sales for that year were €6.3 billion (R$20.8 billion). The group has 38,000 employees spread across 22 plants in 13 countries, and according to Falkenstein, the Pirelli brand of tires ranks fifth in the world and is first in the premium segment, a line with high technological content.
One of the products most recently developed in Santo André was the 01 Series line of radial tires for trucks and buses. They were especially designed for the South American market and have as an added advantage an expanded useful life—whereas car tires are discarded at the end of their useful life, truck and bus tires are recapped more than once. “Our challenge is to create bus and truck tires that can be reused several times,” says Anderson Muniz Calhabeu, a 40-year-old mechanical engineer who coordinates the product development for truck and bus tires.
Pirelli also partners with universities and research centers. “We have partnerships with USP, Unicamp, the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and the Centro Universitário da FEI,” says Argemiro Costa, a 55-year-old engineer and manager of R&D at Pirelli. With a master’s degree and PhD in mechanical engineering from USP, he draws our attention to a recent project with Unicamp in the area of agricultural vehicle tires, where the challenge was to find a way to mitigate a problem caused by the mechanization of agriculture, i.e., soil compaction by the wheels of agricultural machinery (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 210). “Modeling soil is not part of Pirelli’s expertise. We took advantage of an agreement we have had with Unicamp for the past 15 years to obtain some knowledge of the subject,” says Costa. Together, the team of researchers from Pirelli and Unicamp conducted a series of studies, simulations and tests that helped the Italian manufacturer to create a new line of agricultural tires for transshipment vehicles—a kind of open wagon pulled by tractors that work alongside sugarcane harvesters to transport the collected material. “The partnership has brought benefits both to us and to Unicamp. It was a project in which everyone won,” says Costa.Republish