Reinventing The Tire


Tires are boring. Three years ago, even Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s advertising chief came back from a trade show convinced of that. He got top management to agree that something was needed to inject pizzazz into the product line. Officials even code-named the project "Newex," for "new and exciting."

The award-winning Aquatred is the snazzy result. A striking tire with a water channel down the center for better traction on rain-slick roads, Aquatred is an example of how a traditional product can be revitalized through industrial design. Although the tires cost $90 to $110 apiece, twice the price of the average tire, more than 400,000 have been sold since Goodyear started taking orders last November. Since most Aquatred buyers would have bought another brand instead of Goodyear, that could add half of a market-share point, or more than $50 million, almost enough to die for in this fiercely competitive business.

In-house designers and engineers at Goodyear knew that the tire would have to offer good wear and wet traction, the two things tire buyers want most. Consumer surveys also showed that a bold tread design was something tire buyers craved. Unfortunately, the team had to confront the great tire dilemma: Better traction from tires that stick to the road means poorer wear. As for an eye-catching look, how distinctive could a tire be?

Stunning. Aquatred's unconventional channel, together with lateral grooves running into it, evacuates water from the footprint of the tire that meets the road, helping prevent hydroplaning, or skating on water. Other features helped, too: The leading edge of each tread block is angled and rounded, while the trailing edge is sharp and vertical. Goodyear says this design provides a more comfortable ride and better wear. The visual impact of the design is powerful. "The look communicates the function and sells it," says Fritz Mayhew, chief designer for Ford Motor Co. and the IDEA juror in charge of transportation products.

`SECRET SAUCE.' The unusual tread design alone, however, could not improve wet-traction performance enough. Equally critical to the Aquatred design is a new material called SIBR (rhymes with fiber), for a particular mix of styrene, isoprene, and butadiene monomers. The special tread design combined with this "secret sauce," as engineer John Attinello jokingly calls it, allows Goodyear to give a 60,000-mile warranty on the tire. The company claims a 10% reduction in stopping distance on wet surfaces--and a 20% reduction for cars with antilock brakes.

Even with the special compound, though, Aquatred depended on another crucial technology: Mold manufacturing. Tires are surprisingly complex products. To make one, a tire builder has to take 16 or so separate rubber pieces and wrap them around a drum, creating what's known as a "green tire." That green tire is then placed in a mold and cured. Making these molds is a painstaking art. Some doubted that such an intricate tread, which also required a wider-than-usual mold, could be made. Only with new, computerized moldmaking machinery could this be accomplished, and engineer Sam Landers, father of the Aquatred, acknowledges that "it was a mad race to the finish."

The jurors on the IDEA committee that awarded Aquatred the gold said Goodyear successfully generated an "innovative solution to conflicting objectives, wet traction vs. tread wear," and at the same time came up with a "strikingly different look that communicates its functional attributes." Pretty good for a plain old tire.

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