Make, made, manufactured: How and where your tires are created

Tires-Easy Tire Technology

According to Consumer Reports, nearly 8 out of 10 Americans prefer to buy American-made products. What’s more, 60 percent say they’re willing to pay 10 percent more for domestically-manufactured goods. Yet, according to an Associated Press poll, in practice it’s the other way around. That study found 3 out of 4 would prefer American-made, but they actually end up going for the less expensive, foreign-made item. What explains these contradictory reports?

There’s a push and pull when it comes to American-made versus foreign-made products. People may like the idea of buying a domestically manufactured product, but in the end, their pocketbooks say otherwise. Plenty of American-made goods simply cost more. Is the higher price worth it? At the heart of this debate is the idea of value.

Merriam Webster defines value as, “A fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged.” You want a fair return for what you spend. This is particularly true for the tires you count on for everyday mobility. American-made or not, if a tire breaks down fast, you’re not going anywhere. This hurts your cash flow and your livelihood.

There are so many options, and “which tire should I buy” can be a daunting question. Should you buy foreign or domestic, all-season or specialized? To help simplify your decision, let’s start with the basics.

The birth of the tire

In 1888, Benz invented the first gasoline car, which included pneumatic tires on its wheels. Robert Thomson, a Scotsman, invented the pneumatic tire in 1845, but it didn’t attract much attention until another Scotsman, John Boyd Dunlop, made one for his son’s tricycle in 1888. This was a revolutionary concept that replaced metal wheels with an air-filled rubber tire mounted on a metal wheel. 1905 saw the first pneumatic tire equipped with treads, which helped increase traction. Henry Ford invented the assembly line in 1913, and when the American company Du Pont industrialized synthetic rubber in 1931, mass production became possible and the age of the modern tire began.

Other advancements in tire tech followed, including the radial tire (1949), which vertically arranged the cords in the tire to increase fuel efficiency through uniform contact of the tread with the road. The RunFlat tire (1980) keeps going despite scratches or holes, and 2000 saw increased concentration on environmentally-friendly Eco Tuning tires to go along with eco-friendly cars.

All these advancements mean you have a ton of choices in design, but in terms of materials, all tires are made from a combination of natural and synthetic rubber, as well as carbon black. Natural rubber comes from the rubber tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, which is native to South America and cultivated on tropical plantations, especially in Southeast Asia and Western Africa. Made in America or made elsewhere, any tire containing natural rubber will rely on trees from tropical plantations outside of America. Synthetic rubber comes from crude oil polymers; carbon black also consists of crude oil (or natural gas) combined with oxygen in a combustion process.

Tire manufacturing consumes 70 percent of the world’s rubber, and scientists are now looking into an alternative to the rubber tree. Around 93 percent of these trees come from Asia, where they’re wanting to preserve rainforests. To that end, the guayule shrub may be the answer. A desert plant, it can grow in the US, requires relatively little water, and is resistant to disease. Efforts into producing enough rubber from guayule are still underway.

Where tires are made

In terms of the tire itself, all manufacturers are on common ground. They rely on rubber from tropical rubber trees, as well as crude oil. They also manufacture their tires in multiple countries, although the US does produce the most tires overall. Of the 72 types of tires tested by Consumer Reports in 2016, none of the manufacturers made their tires exclusively in the US.

This graph shows the production spread:

Over the last decade, there’s been a push to increase American manufacturing. Part of this comes from an increase in cheap energy, the other part from a decrease in labor costs. The Department of Commerce reports a 45 percent increase in US manufacturing jobs between 2009 and 2014.

Consumer Reports says, “It is possible the production balance could shift stateside in the future, as several new tire plants are slated for construction in the US in the next couple of years.” One example of this is the new Hankook plant in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Made in the USA

A South Korean company and the seventh largest tire manufacturer in the world, Hankook is bringing thousands of jobs to Tennessee with its new plant. The $800 million facility is 1.5 million square feet, and will add about 1,600 jobs to the local economy. “We will be able to provide our customers, consumers and car makers with high quality tires and industry leading service to meet the demands of the American market,” says Hankook CEO Mr. Seung Hwa Suh. The new plant shows that Hankook is prepared to meet the quality standards that accompany American manufacturing.

According to The Balance, “The United States has higher manufacturing and labor standards, ensuring a quality work environment, safe employees and a better product.” Manufacturing in the US also means Americans can consult personally with the manufacturer if there’s ever a problem, and it cuts down on shipping times. It also cuts down on shipping costs, which higher quality tires a cheaper option for consumers.

In the American market (and worldwide), Hankook competes with the likes of Michelin, Continental, and Pirelli to create the best tires on the road. The Hankook Dynapro ATM is rated as the best All-Terrain truck tire, meaning it can perform great both on and off-road while maintaining tread life.

With the new Tennessee plant, Hankook is competing with other manufacturers who make their tires in America and all over the world. Since that’s the case, the informed consumer may change their line of questioning from, “Where are my tires manufactured” to “What are the highest quality tires I can buy to get the best value for my dollar?”

The value of a good tire

The more poorly-made a tire is, the sooner it will wear out. Buy a poorly-made, inexpensive or used tire, and you could find yourself back in the shop searching for a new one far too soon. Buy a poorly-made, expensive tire, and you’ll achieve the same result. Buy a quality tire, and expect to see long life combined with peak performance.

The key is to look for the tire that will last the longest, because longevity will lower your spend over time. In addition, a well-built tire can improve fuel efficiency, which saves you money at the pump. The size of tires, and the design, can save you 4 to 7 percent when it comes to gas. If you need to buy a larger tire, buy one that’s well-designed. A tire with a quality design that provides the exact right amount of road resistance, no more than is needed, will serve you to the utmost in the long-term.

You only have so much money to spend on tires. But don’t sacrifice value. You may have to spend a bit more for American-made, but domestic manufacturers are working hard to bring you affordable tires that deliver maximum value for your dollar.

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