by Mike McNulty
UNIONTOWN, Ohio—Hankook Tire Co. Ltd. was a relatively small tire manufacturer in 1992 when it decided to open its first overseas research and development center in Akron.
That proved to be an important step for the ambitious tire maker. Even back then, it had its sights set on climbing the tire rankings globally. Though it had a long way to go, it figured that a research center located in a key area of America eventually would help it gain ground on U.S. soil. It was right.
The Akron R&D center, now located in Uniontown and the only one the firm operates in North America, has proven to be a key driving force in helping to expand Wayne, N.J.-based Hankook Tire America Inc. and its South Korean parent over the last 21 years.
It also plays a pivotal role within the company’s R&D global network.
Hankook was much, much smaller in 1992, but was growing, said Thomas Kenny, the company’s new vice president of technology and head of the Hankook Akron Technical Center. The company had one factory when he joined the firm in 1994. It has added six since then.
Long-time industry veteran Ray Labutta was in charge of the center when it opened. He spearheaded the move from small quarters to a much larger facility that Hankook built in 1996 in Uniontown, located on the outskirts of Akron. Labutta recently retired after serving for 20 years in the post Kenny now holds.
Before taking over his present position, Kenny spent 14 years in the center’s tire development sector and four years as manager of tire development and engineering.
He said Hankook showed great foresight in 1992 when it added the center. He pointed out that the firm needed a presence in North America to build its business outward.
It is one of several major moves the company made in the last 20 years that has vaulted it from the back to the front of the pack.
“We’re a critical part of Hankook,” Kenny said. “The company has been growing by about 15-20 percent a year and wants to be in the top five by 2020.” Hankook had global sales in 1992 of $759 million and posted 2012 sales of $6.26 billion, with an estimated $1.4 billion of that coming from North America.
He came on board two years before the center was moved to the sprawling 48,000-sq.-ft. Uniontown facility. “We had 15 people working for us then. Today we have 40.”
The center primarily handles tire development for the North American market. The majority of that work focuses on original equipment fitments in the U.S., Kenny said. “We also have research and test departments and a fully functioning lab that develops compounds for use in this market as well.”
Hankook earmarks about 5 percent of its annual sales toward R&D, “so there is a large commitment,” he said. “Our center in Akron plays a key role in several areas for the company and is vital for the support of our OE customers and the development of new technologies for the future.”
Byeong Jin Lee, who in January was named president of Hankook Tire America Corp., agreed, calling the Akron Technical Center “one of our company’s most valuable resources.”
Kenny, who has more than 30 years experience in the tire industry, is responsible for overseeing the general operation of the facility. His primary responsibility is to facilitate effective communications between the center and the other Hankook technical centers in other parts of the world.
Because many programs are not global, he said, it is critical that all branches of the company operate effectively between the various centers, including headquarters, R&D and manufacturing.
At the Akron technical facility, “it’s important to have the right people doing the right jobs with the right tools,” Kenny said. “It’s the difference between sitting on the couch and yelling at the coach … and being the coach.”
Hankook operates three other R&D centers: a primary operation in Daejon, South Korea, and regional sites in Germany and China.
The company is building another R&D center in South Korea that is twice the size of the present operation in the country.
It plans to maintain some research operations at the current center.
Because the new R&D site “is still many months away from completion, it is not possible to say exactly what will stay at the current facility and what will be relocated,” according to Kenny.
Hankook built the Uniontown building with growth in mind, he said.
It uses advanced engineering concepts and new compounding technologies to develop products aimed at U.S. driving conditions and plays a key role in accumulating new technologies that meet international standards for Hankook’s R&D network, he said.
It also does some research on OE products for overseas markets, Kenny said.
The center handles a good deal of testing and research on a variety of projects and products. “Though we test vehicles and tires, our only focus is tires,” he said.
An auto maker works closely with the facility’s staff to come up with the proper tire for a vehicle, Kenny said.
In-house software is used to design the tire, and engineers at the center come up with a prototype that is built at one of Hankook’s production factories or—much less often—at its pilot manufacturing plant at the main R&D center in South Korea, he said.
The information is sent to the firm’s South Korean technical center, and tires are manufactured and shipped back to the Akron site for inspection and testing. It can take a few development cycles to come up with the right tire.