In today’s fast paced, Internet flooded world, two things dictate most of what we purchase:
- The quantum of adverts we see about a product and,
- Word of mouth reviews by friends and reputed advice platforms.
One such example is the current set of tyres I have on Chetak (My Mitsubishi Pajero Sport). In spite of Apollo being looked upon by most of us including me, as an average, budget, below par, Indian tyre brand, my 265/65R17 Apollo Hawkz have left me completely floored by their performance so far. 30,000 kms, two trips to Ladakh from Bangalore including Marisimik La (18953ft above MSL) and numerous no-road trips across M.P. & M.H with full load, they haven’t even lost a couple of pounds of pressure for the past 6 months, forget punctures. They have provided decent grip levels, are very silent on the highways, and look good enough for their price. In fact, in my opinion, the new Apterras look very nice on SUVs.
The stellar performance of the Hawkz on my vehicle led me to visit the Apollo Chennai factory where they are manufactured. I wanted to understand what goes into making a tyre and how well an Indian company such as Apollo manages to do it. The visit that lasted a full day, left me feeling proud about having a tyre brand such as Apollo on my vehicle.
For starters, the Chennai plant is Apollo’s most modern factory in the country and one of the most modern tyre manufacturing facilities in Asia, and it shows. The layout of central utilities such as chilling towers, air coolers, power controls, administrative offices and cafeterias is along a central spine, which is flanked by the TBR (Truck & Bus Radials) section on one side and the PCR (Passenger Car Radials) section on the other. Apart from this, the fact that the Chennai plant produces winter car tires for European markets proves that the technology and the quality standards are world class. As we go to press, the plant is undergoing a near 50% expansion and yet, we were hard pressed to see any of that typical construction riff raff around. Neat!
The visit started with a quick power point explanation of the plant by the Unit Head and a video conference with the Head of APAC for Apollo, Mr. Satish Sharma, who was proud to sum up his company’s achievements and awards so far.
A few of them are:
- Apollo Tires is amongst the top 3 tyre companies in India in terms of sales, and the firm manufactures between 2.5-2.7 lakh passenger car tyres a month, to make for a 17% market share.
- The Vredestein BV acquisition and its niche introduction to India.
- The Chennai plant is the most advanced tire plant in Asia and Apollo is completely self reliant in tire technology.
- The manufacturer sells 100% of its production and all OEMs except Toyota are their customers.
- The tyre maker is a Q-1 supplier for Ford worldwide and have bid for VW’s international business.
A minimal, 3 level hierarchy is maintained at the plant (worker, supervisor & leadership team) along with Behaviour Based Safety programs and their knowledge sharing activities with Toyota Kirloskar. The company’s cherished association with Toyota, will result in the 2015-16 Innova being shod with Apollo tires as the OE fitment.
Mr. Sharma was also very open in admitting that Apollo had been slow in branding activities and their sponsorship of Manchester United was a step in that direction. He also mentioned that the Chinese brand invasion in the budget tyre segment with low-quality, shady brands was a genuine threat to the industry. Apollo, for its part, is working with the Government of the day to curtail low quality tyre imports.
Post this session, we were taken around the plant, beginning from the Quality Section where we were shown the various raw materials such as synthetic butyl, natural rubber, rayon/polyester cords, steel cords, carbon black and a host of other chemicals that go into formulating each of the many layers of rubber that go into making a tyre. Each batch of raw material is inspected and certified before it goes into the first section called the Central Mixing section.
The Central Mixing section is responsible for the mixing of various compounds called recipes, with rubber and butyl, depending on the requirement. Rubber and butyl are added by conveyors and pallet trays along with other chemicals into heated, pressurized hoppers, which mix them and shell out rubber sheets of varying thicknesses and strengths.
These rubber sheets are then tagged, inspected and tested for quality before being transported by electric forklifts on pallets to the “Extrusion Section”. Unlike the Mixing Section, which is common for both the CV and the PV radials, the Extrusion Sections are separate and are on two opposite sides of the central spine of the plant. Here, two or more sheets are fed into an extruder, which is heated electrically, and the extruder combines them into one sheet depending on the requirement. It is this sheet which is used on the tread portion of the tire.
A section, almost parallel to the Extrusion Section is the “Calendaring Section”. While extrusion results in the combination of two or more sheets into one, the output of the Calendaring Section is a thinner sheet than the one fed into the calendaring machine. The machine has a lot of rollers of varying gaps and sizes, which enables it to churn out sheets of varying thicknesses and lengths. Also, it is here that plies (rayon or polyester cords for passenger car tires & steel cords for truck and bus tires) are added to rubber sheets and cut into sizes depending upon the tire sizes.
Machines which feed steel cords into the calendaring machine to impinge them on the rubber sheets look like huge looms managing and carrying hundreds of threads into another loom. The strength of a ply rating is decided on the basis of EPI (ends per inch). It simply means the number of cords per inch of the rubber sheet used to build the tire. Tire beads (that hard section of the tire which sits on the rim) and the bead apex are also manufactured here using a mix of extruded rubber and steel cords and are turned into shape and joined.
Now that all the components that required to “build” a tyre are ready, they are transported to the “Tyre Building” section. Here, there are two distinct machines in operation at each terminal. The first machine, with the help of an operator, combines the bead, the butyl lining (innermost, air tight lining of the tire), the chafer and the ply/cord & the beads and creates a “carcass”. The carcass is then shifted to the second machine on rollers. In the second machine, the tread, the sidewall, and a few stiffening layers of rubber are added to the bead. A press compresses them into proper shape while a diaphragm keeps the insides in shape. It takes approximately 90 seconds to build one passenger car radial tire.
This tire is now assigned a permanent barcode and is called a “Green Tyre”. The green tyres are then shifted using pallet trolleys to the “Curing” Section. The curing section is a long line of tyre moulds operated by electricity and the tires are cured by pressurized steam supplied by a central boiler unit that heats water with the help of a coal furnace. The green tyre is placed on the lower half of the mould while the upper half slides on top of it, much like a hydraulic press. There is a rubber diaphragm inside the tyre that inflates and retains the tyre’s shape while the mould impresses its design (the tread and sidewall patterns we see on tyres) on the tyre.
Steam is then supplied the cure the tyre. The pressure inside the mould is around 168kg/sq cm. The duration of curing depends on the size and the application of the tyre. While most passenger car radials cure within 10 minutes, commercial vehicles radials may need up to 40 minutes of curing time per tyre. Once the tyres are cured, they are transported automatically on conveyors to the final inspection where they are inspected visually and on machines for run out, tread depth and inflation before they are sent to the warehouse for shipment and transportation to OEMs and distributors. The Chennai plant has a very low ppm rate of around 0.5 and all faulty tyres are chopped into two and sold to scrap dealers.
Our visit, which lasted for around 6 hours left us thoroughly impressed with the kind of quality parameters followed by Apollo, be it in raw material, finished goods, or equipment inspection and audits. In fact, it is well known that Apollo Tires intends to be the Toyota of tyres in India, and after seeing their plant and work practices, I can confidently say that they are definitely in the right direction.