Behind every new Continental commercial vehicle tyre that enters the market are talents like Andreia Bessa and José Esteves. Development engineers ensuring that good ideas lead to better tyres – generation after generation.
"Hi, I'm Andreia," says the young woman, her bright blue eyes gleaming. With elegantly varnished fingernails, straight shoulder-length hair, and pearl earrings, she doesn't exactly fit the image of a technology obsessed tyre developer. She swiftly goes up the stairs and through the open door into the office of her colleague, José Esteves. José is 27 and, like Andreia, is Portuguese. He has been working for four years at the Continental development center in Hanover. Cars have always interested him, he says, and this naturally brought him to Germany – the power house of the European motor industry – after studying mechanical engineering. José has recently completed development of 15 new commercial vehicle tyres for Continental – a whole product line due on the market this year. Now he's ensuring that everything runs smoothly with production because his job won't be finished until those tyres go on sale.
Andreia started in research and development at Continental a good 12 months ago, but her tyres appear only on paper – or rather on a computer screen. "We've done all the virtual tests and experiments, and have established how the tyres should look," explains the bubbly 31-year old, who even as a child preferred Lego bricks to Barbie dolls. The molds for the prototypes are ordered and tests will start next month to see whether the tyres live up to expectations. Every change from this point on costs time and money – so the pressure's on. Particularly since a new rubber compound, also developed for Andreia's project, is in the mix."You always need a plan B in case something goes wrong," she says and laughs. "Her" tyres are intended for construction vehicles in Europe and the Middle East, and so need to be particularly durable – as well as complying with EU regulations. "That's one of our big challenges," as Andreia knows only too well.
"We feel the heat and see the roads"
Since the end of 2012, tyres in the EU not only have to be labeled with respect to external rolling noise, but also fuel efficiency and wet grip. There are also quite different conditions that apply in Europe compared to countries like Turkey, whether in terms of climate or road conditions. José takes a piece of sharp-edged rock from his desk: a memento from Oman. "It reminds me of what trucks have to encounter over there," says José in his quiet voice. "Continental wants to grow – so it needs to capture new markets and understand its customers there." It's generally at the start of a development when engineers visit the countries where their tyres are destined. "We feel the heat and see the roads, we talk with our local customer service teams and with customers," explains José. How are the tyres used there? What do the customers miss? "Even a short trip often throws up new ideas." This might mean tyre models that are especially strong for Turkey, or particularly heat resistant for Middle Eastern countries.
Andreia and José mostly need their creative skills at the start of a development process when brand management tasks them to develop a tyre with specific characteristics. They then set up a feasibility study and often go to the limits of what can be implemented. Maybe because the various requirements cause conflicting aims or because things need to be better, without increasing the costs. "In order to keep one step ahead of the competition, we have to ensure that we are technologically in front, and can also think several generations ahead," says Andreia. Instead of endless tests, a good concept with accurate calculations is what's required, as well as visualization on a computer. Andreia and José get support from plenty of colleagues: there are experts for every part of the tyre, from inbuilt steel through rubber compound to shape, structure, and performance. Marketing checks the added value of the tyre for the customer. Customer service and the field testing people give tips and advice about local conditions. Six to seven departments are involved in developing a tyre – and each department must give the green light before the development can proceed to the next phase. "After we've successfully reached a milestone, there are plenty of signatures on our work slip," grins José.
Keeping the whole wheel turning
Nobody at Continental invents a tyre by working quietly on their own. "Above all, we're project managers and have to be able to organize everything well in order to wrap up our projects on time and on budget," says Andreia, her eyes lighting up. Safe processes and feedback from both the team and management make sure that nothing goes awry. After all, those who start out in research and development at Continental turn the big wheel. "Straight out of university and I was immediately given lots of responsibility – great for motivation," explains José. Andreia quickly interjects: "You feel that it comes down to you. You'd never learn as much without this responsibility." Andreia studied chemistry and had already worked for other automotive suppliers before she joined Continental in 2010, initially at the tyre plant in Portugal. "Conti is genuinely different," she says enthusiastically.
The fact that she spoke not a single word of German when she arrived was of little importance to her new employer: "Luckily, our efficiency in the job doesn't depend on language," explains Andreia. "The environment here in Hanover is thoroughly multicultural. It makes for a great working atmosphere where the best is taken from every culture." But you quickly pick up the bug here: "We automatically look at truck tyres when we're out – even when we're on holiday," says José with a smile. What is the condition of the tyres? And, of course: Who's the manufacturer? "I'm very proud when I see a tyre I've developed," says José.
Andreia and José aren't worried about running out of ideas either: "You can always do something better." Above all, the future is one of "cleaner" tyres: fewer emissions, less fuel consumption from reduced rolling resistance. The tyre developers have already got some ideas in mind. Because after every launch comes the next launch: The next generation of tyres is definitely on the way.