How are tires made? (Hint: It's a lot more complicated than you think)

Complex chemical formulas, decades of dedicated research, and an army of super-smart robots. Are we planning a mission to Mars? Nope -- actually, this is how a tire's life begins.

The science behind making a tire

Here at TireBuyer, we take tires seriously. And why not? Your tires are one of the most important components of your vehicle. In fact, massive amounts of technology are involved in making tires. Knowing the ins and outs of tires will make it that much easier when the time comes to purchase those underappreciated life preservers attached to your wheels. So read on, and learn a thing or ten.

Tire science

Before a tire is conceived, a massive amount of research is conducted and a lot of money is spent. Michelin puts over $700 million into research and development each year, and patents 240 various designs and technologies. But before you go thinking that's excessive, they also pulled in a net income of $22 billion in 20101.

Tire types

Different tires are engineered to excel in different ways, depending on how they're produced. Ideally, manufacturers want to maximize performance, comfort, and fuel efficiency every time. However, a tire that's perfect for your fuel-efficient family sedan probably won't be well-suited to the performance-driven sports car that just zoomed past you in the left lane.

The way a tire is made dictates how it will excel, and what will be compromised, if only slightly. Tire manufacturers use a spider diagram to diagnose areas of importance when constructing a new tire, like the one below.

As you can see, you can't have it all -- though tire companies are proving more and more that you can get pretty close.

What lies beneath: Materials

Ever wondered what's on the inside of your tires? It's a lot more complicated than just air. Great relationships are much more than tread deep, and the inner components of your tires are where it all begins. Today's tires are made of many different materials, including space-age fabrics, natural and synthetic rubbers, and steel. Each component has its own unique and important function.

For a more indepth look at what's inside, check out this article on tire anatomy and construction.

Compounding the situation

Before a tire can take shape, its ingredients are blended to form a rubber compound, the makeup of which varies depending on the characteristics being highlighted for that particular tire. While rubber remains an important component, the compound also contains filler (typically carbon black and silica), as well as various chemicals that promote elasticity, eco-friendliness, durability, and so on. These components are then mixed together in a very specific order and temperature as to not damage the compound. Once mixed, the tire batch is flattened out and plies, belts, cap plies (if necessary), beads, tread, and sidewall enter the mix.

When all the components are ready, a tire is finally ready to take shape, sort of.

Going green and getting cooked

After a tire's components are spliced together on a tire building drum, it is inflated and shaped -- though it's far from ready for the road at this point. Referred to as a 'green' tire, the product must be cured, or cooked, in a mold at high temperatures, giving the rubber compound a chance to react chemically and form the tread and sidewalls you see on your vehicle.

Rise of the Robots

Tire manufacturing plants employ everyone from machinists to chemists. And then there are the robots. Pirelli's MIRS (Modulated Integrated Robotized System) is probably the most famous robotic army of tire makers -- working without pay since 20002 -- but most tire manufacturers today use super-smart machines to minimize mistakes and drive toward tire perfection. Of course, nothing beats the human element, so there are always real people making sure everything goes according to plan - but the human-robot tandem is paramount to a tire's success.

Let's roll!

Finally, the tire is ready for action, right? Wrong. Rigorous inspection and final trimmings are done to make sure the tire is ready for the massive amounts of stress it will endure for thousands of miles. Often, testing on a super-secret track is involved. Then, and only then, is a brand-new baby tire born into this world, ready to be shipped out for your vehicular enjoyment.

Now you know how tires are conceived, perfected, and readied for the market. So the next time you think about doing a burnout, take a moment to think about all the time and dedication it took to perfect that sweet rubber.

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1. "Megafactories - Michelin | Zinatnieks Science TV," accessed August 16, 2013.

2. "Pirelli Launches The New Mirs Process," accessed August 16, 2013.

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