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Friday, January 18, 2008

High-flying radials

With Saraburi being home to one of only three Michelin aircraft-tyre plants in the world, we decided to ask a senior executive about the Kingdom's place in the firm's global sales strategy and learn some facts about an SUV radial looking like a children's toy

Welcome to the world of the aircraft tyre.

If it's the in-trend Airbus A380, which clipped a wing tip at Suvarnabhumi last September, then we're talking some staggering specs. The tyres for this massive airliner have a diameter of 54 inches; the largest ones we in Motoring have ever encountered are the 32- to 35-inchers used on 4x4, off-road vehicles.

The radials for the A380 suck in 220 pounds per square inch (psi) of pure nitrogen so that moisture doesn't cling to the 850,000-baht rims when the plane's flying at 35,000 feet. (As well as inhibiting corrosion, nitrogen won't support combustion should an explosion occur in mid-air.). Compare that to a puny psi of 30 for your average land vehicle.

The A380 has 10 pairs of tyres. At an estimated price tag per radial of 204,000 baht, that brings the bill for tyres alone to a cool 4.08 million baht. Each tyre is normally expected to carry a load of up to 34,000kg, but should its partner fail it can bear double that weight. The load capacity of a car tyre ranges from 500 to 1,300kg and it can cost anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 baht for a set of four.

"The nomenclature is totally different for aircraft and automobile tyres. I have no idea what 205/60 R15 means because I've never sold a car tyre in my life," said Gabe Gajdatsy, sales and marketing director (Asia-Pacific) for Michelin Aircraft Tire Asia Ltd.

"The three basic ways of identifying an aircraft tyre are by diameter, width and rim size."

While car and aircraft tyres have "the same basic structure and methodology, such as nylon components and plys", Gajdatsy memorably compared the latter to "an earthmover tyre travelling at F1 [Formula 1] speed".

Michelin, the first firm to introduce aircraft radials back in 1981, leads the four key market segments of the aviation industry: commercial airplanes on international routes; on regional routes; general aviation (private/corporate planes); and military aircraft. The lion's share of the market for the last two categories comes from North America.

"Michelin is in on every new aircraft programme in the market. We're either the market leader or sole supplier. But Thailand isn't a big market."

But the fact that Gajdatsy, a German-born American, has been posted here for the past seven years overseeing markets from Japan to New Zealand, India and China, speaks volumes about the Thailand's significance.

Michelin has designated the Kingdom as the manufacturing centre for its Asia-Pacific operations, which means that its plant in Nong Khae, Saraburi supplies the needs of the entire region with the exception of tyres for military aircraft, which have to be imported.

Unlike the auto industry, which is close to saturation in most parts of Europe and North America (although there is still untapped potential in the Asia-Pacific), the aviation sector is experiencing unprecedented growth worldwide. For each of the past three years, both Boeing and Airbus have received orders for in excess of 1,000 new planes.

"The backlog in airplane manufacturing has been pushed out until 2016 or 2017," Gajdatsy revealed.

Geo-political events such as 9/11 didn't have a long-term effect on orders for new airplanes; the health scares caused by Sars and avian flu apparently did a lot more damage to the travel market.

Shifting gears back to Thailand, the Nong Khae plant is one of only three Michelin aircraft-tyre plants in the world, the others being located in the US and Europe.

"Thailand provides customer support, logistics and accounting divisions for the Asia-Pacific, with only Japan and Australia being autonomous, but all logistic supply, marketing and long-term vision planning comes from Thailand," Gajdatsy explained.

Given the high cost, most commercial airliners don't buy radials outright. Instead, they opt for various leasing programmes - one of which is called "lease tread", whereby the carrier is charged on the basis of how many landings a tyre has been used for - while Michelin retains ownership of the product.

Aircraft tyres are built specifically for durability but their high natural-rubber content - roughly 30 to 35% - means that they adhere well to surfaces. By contrast, features in automobile radials like the side walls, tread grooves, ribs and shoulder are designed for maximum grip and surface contact in a variety of conditions.

"Airplane-tyre development costs millions. And for it to do what it does day in and day out for 300 landings, an airplane tyre has to have as much technology as any component [in its ground-based counterpart]," said Gajdatsy.

Since the certification process for a particular model of airplane covers all its parts, there is little need for tyre product launches, marketing campaigns or test runs by the media.

"The emphasis is on ground-water dissipation for airports like Suvarnabhumi and Hong Kong but the challenge is to disperse [evenly distribute] wear [across the whole tyre]. It's not made for grip but for durability and [coping with] sudden bursts of energy."

On the subject of maintenance, Gajdatsy had this to say: "We recommend tyre-pressure checks every morning. Anywhere between one and two per cent above or below affects the life of a tyre and will accelerate wear on its shoulders or centre."

In cars, rolling resistance - the energy consumed by a tyre per unit of distance travelled, which is expressed in kilogrammes per tonne - is a factor determining savings in fuel. But the focus is different with airplanes since they require so much more energy to brake.

On a concluding note we asked Gajdatsy what challenges he foresaw Michelin having to face in the immediate future. Juggling mitigation of the firm's environmental and social responsibilities with increased demand for its radials was the gist of his answer:

"We develop technology for longer-lasting tyres, to keep our product on the airplane longer and, by lessening demand on the manufacturing side, to reduce consumption. Yet we also have to build more capacity as the market grows. It's a double-edged sword."


10 questions for Gajdatsy

- What is your favourite car?

I have a fondness for the Mercedes-Benz 450 SL (W107) from the '70s. It has an engine which you can look at and understand. It's small but has a big-car feel to it.

- Favourite airplane?

The Boeing 314 Yankee Clipper float plane [seaplane] which Pan America used to open up the South Pacific aviation market. It introduced air travel to the masses although it carried only 30 people.

- Favourite politician?

Abraham Lincoln [1809-65; 16th president of the US]. As I grow older I'm trying to better understand the dynamics of the United States; what makes it work; why it didn't fall apart - as it could have done - as it was creating itself.

President Lincoln never made things complicated. He came from a simple background. He never aspired to the high office, where he finally ended up, but when he was given the responsibility he never shirked it - and ultimately he paid the price.

- Favourite pastime?

Anything that's outside ... hiking, skiing, sailing, etc.

- Favourite author?

Isaac Asimov [Russian-born, US science-fiction author; 1920-92].

- Favourite restaurant in Thailand?

The Dome [63rd floor of the State Tower, off Silom Road].

- Favourite athlete?

James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens [1913-80; African-American track and field athlete who won four gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin].

- Favourite movie ?

A Midsummer Night's Dream [released in 1999; based on the Shakespeare play, it starred Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer and Stanley Tucci].

- Greatest achievement?

My kids.

- If you were in charge of automotive policy in Thailand for a day, what would you do?

I'd give incentives to all carmakers and motorists to make and buy eco-friendly cars to reduce dependency on crude oil. (You should have heard what he had in mind for aviation policy!)

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