Inside Kenda Tires' American Technical Center
Tire companies are up against it. Product modeling and development in this market isn't especially "sexy" compared to frame, component, and wheel design. It's arguably the most challenging engineering job in the cycling industry, due in no small part to the sheer number of materials and compounds involved. Nothing is more regularly abused on a mountain bike than the tires that connect the rider to the trail, and very few things are more personal to the rider than tire selection, as they are a very direct reflection of one's riding style. Making a reliable, durable, and consistent product in this market can be a tortuous business. Bikes and riders have become more capable, surfaces more varied, and the demand for options greater now than ever before. Kenda has been torturing themselves for 55 years, and is now one of the five largest bicycle tire manufacturers on the planet, with offices and factories in Europe, North America, and Asia, employing more than 10,000 people and cranking out over 800,000 tires and tubes per day globally.Known primarily as an O.E. brand, Kenda has been working to re-establish themselves as an aftermarket presence and in 2015 took a big step in that direction when they opened up their American Technical Center in Akron, Ohio. They moved into their new digs in November of that year, and have since grown their facilities and staff there, with 32 employees and counting, and 50,000 square feet of office and warehouse space complete with a fleet of test bikes, a compound lab, endurance machine lab, tire-carving lab and tire air loss testing lab. The primary functions for this facility includes heading up engineering activities of new tire products for the North American market while working closely with the research and development center in Taiwan developing new engineering tools and product materials.Perhaps the most important addition to date for these facilities is the bike test track adjacent to the main building. It features five mountain bike trails, a paved road test track that circumnavigates the facility, a pavilion, and a handful of berms, jumps, rocks and drops. Kenda actually hired a full-time trail boss to maintain the trails, and make any necessary changes per testing requirements. Kenda is decidedly serious about elevating their rank among the major players, and was even nominated last April at Sea Otter by the tire industry to represent all companies in ISO and ETRTO standardization discussions for mountain bike tires, a sign that shows an advancement in the mindset of manufacturers, as well as Kenda's willingness to help lead the charge.A few weeks ago Kenda invited us to take a tour of their new facilities, spend some time on their test track, and chat with them about their efforts and evolution.
Thomas Williams, VP of Engineering
Can you explain the genesis of this facility and the "why" behind it?I was hired by Kenda to come in and help them take a look at their global engineering process and help revitalize what they're working on in all product categories, as well to run the American R&D center and get it up in place so that we can design tires for the North American market. We also help out with the European side of things when we can.
What are some of the benefits to having a center like this for you guys as an international company?For an international company, it's always good to have a center in each major market location. That provides us with experienced personnel who understand the local marketplace. Beyond that, having a full engineering center working on products allows us to bring better products to the marketplace faster.
You seem to have a mix of experienced industry folks along with some fresh blood at this facility.Well, we started out with the experienced core that were hired, that have worked at many different tire companies designing automotive products over the years. We have over 250 years of combined experience in the tire engineering marketplace, and I've also been hiring college classes every year since I've been here to bring in the young talent, use our experience to train and lead them, and then they can take over and I'll have this structure of various experience levels throughout to help make a better organization over time.
How has the development and growth of the facilities here in Akron impacted the brand as a whole?First of all, from the most simplistic sense, we've probably globally doubled our engineering staff on mountain bike, so by doing that we have more people available to work, more resources, more capability. We bring in technology and experience from other markets that we can then apply and expand upon for the mountain bike, so that's also a benefit to the company. When we start talking about tool development and new technologies, it also speeds up the process.
You don't necessarily need to speak about the company before you were hired, but where did you see, coming in and transitioning into your role at Kenda, the greatest room for you guys to grow as a manufacturer?Kenda has always been a very good company. They're strong financially, they're strong in their planning and their focuses of how they do things, and they had a very good engineering team. Quite frankly, they probably needed to grow their manpower as much as they needed anything else. I'm very sympathetic to my other staff that I work with over in Taiwan, because they were by themselves working on a global marketplace for many, many years, and they had huge responsibilities and huge workloads and burdens they were trying to satisfy. They're doing that from a location in Taiwan where they may or may not know all of the details of the local market, so it was very challenging for them. Overall, they did a good job, but when we start looking at growing our facilities internationally and putting in local research centers, we bring in specific talent that's familiar with those areas, and we help increase the overall talent in the company, which again improves capability of getting products out sooner. In general, it provides opportunities for the company to expand and grow and be more productive.
Can you talk about standards in the industry, and can you expand on the role that Kenda has taken with increased standardizations?Many of our people coming from a PCR-LTR background, and I'm saying passenger car-light truck, that as an entity is very standardized. Automotive companies historically have driven very hard for standards that are usable across the board for them. Because of that, we come in with that background, that knowledge. When you look at the bicycle (industry), there's much less of that in place. There's much less standardization in rims, in sizing, in measuring, and even the documentation. The ETRTOs of the world and the Tire and Rim Associations of the world are not as up-to-date with everything that's going with the dynamics of the bicycle industry.There have been so many things changing in such a fast time to satisfy what everybody wants for bicycle, the standards haven't kept up. Given that, I felt it was very important that we have our people focus on working actively in the standards bodies, and make sure that we get the standards in bicycle tires, bicycle wheels, all those components to be up to the same caliber as what it is in automotive industry, because that really helps everybody, whether it's wheel manufacturers, bicycle manufacturers, or tire manufacturers to come up with products that work well together. If you don't have standards and you don't have good tolerance structures and you don't have everything defined well, then you run into problems where things don't fit right or you have to design a special tire for a special wheel that goes on a special bike, and that always runs into problems. So the more as an industry we can standardize, the better off it's going to be for the end consumer.
What are some engineering and development challenges, as it pertains to tires, compared to other industry manufacturers?Anybody in tires understands that they (tires) are a non-linear entity. That basically means they stretch, they change, and it's not a linear approach to how they stretch and change when you're utilizing them. If you're designing in steel or aluminum or those types of materials, it's linear in nature. Standardized CAD packages have abilities to model, so you can buy something off the shelf, put in the geometries, and it will immediately spit out all the information you need. That's not the case in tires. Tire companies, in general, have for years had very specialized groups that work on providing accurate modeling, and every time we get new materials, we get new constructions, new changes in how we do things from an engineering perspective, we have to research and understand how to model those things properly. So it's a bit more challenging when it comes to those kinds of things in the tire industry.
Ben Anderson, Director of Sales and Marketing for the bicycle division in North America
What does your job entail?My primary oversight is on the marketing side, working to help set marketing budget. I help determine what to spend with athletes, media, events, and branding for Kenda. I oversee the global brand position for bicycle and the representation of it, and I do that in conjunction with a marketing team in Taiwan and in Europe. I'll coordinate with them for catalog creation, or newsletters. I also oversee the sales department for the aftermarket and OEM sales team here in the United States as well as our kind of, growing B to C division, which is an online sales component.
How does the relationship between sales, marketing, and engineering work for you guys?None of us can truly be successful without the other components. The marketing team includes a Global Product manager and he's the one who sort of sets the direction for the engineers. He helps us determine whether we need a new tire that's going to be gravity oriented, or cross-country and so forth. His feedback is all generated from the on-the-ground marketing squad, that would include Roger who's our west coast marketing and mountain bike manager. The sales guys tell us what the customer is asking for; both in terms of OEM and aftermarket.They have all of us working very closely. Short of the engineering and Roger, everybody else fits in the office in Reynoldsberg, Ohio. It's nice to have a smooth and clean flow of communication back and forth with the others. And now that we have an engineering team in Akron, and the resources like Jay, Joe, Matt, Tom and Caitlyn and everybody up there, our communication has gotten much better.When I first started at Kenda, prior to the Tech Center opening, any engineering questions would have to be relayed over Skype or email, and with Taiwan being a full 12-hour flip from our time zone, it added extra time into the development process, and that obviously slowed things down. It opened up opportunities for things to get lost in translation. It's nice to be able to go to Jay and use just the general speak that I use on a daily basis and he'll understand any colloquialism that I use or slang that may get lost on my Taiwanese counterparts.
What are the biggest challenges you face when it comes to presenting your product to the consumer?I think one of the biggest challenges is the shrinking shelf space with brick and mortar stores. We have brands moving to their own concept store with Trek and Specialized, and there's also shrinking shelf space among the actual distributors. For the Kenda brand, we see it in two halves. We're focused on building that brand reputation and letting people know that Kenda is an established tire manufacture. We've been around for 55 years. Whether they realize it or not, most of these consumers have used Kenda-made product in some shape or form. It just may be under someone else's name.The other side is that we still have to promote the fact that we are an OEM manufacturer. We build for other brands, both tires and tubes. A lot of our technology and research and development resources go into other people's tires as well. It's a juggling act to keep both sides of that equation balanced.
Ultimately, I would love it if everybody just said, You know what, I don't need to worry about a house brand. Kenda's got this and I wanna have Kenda stocked on my shelves. But realistically, I know that the market has moved in a direction away from that. It just means that we push hard on both sides of that and occasionally, we have to push a little bit harder on the Kenda-branded side because not only are we competing against other tire manufacturers, but we're also competing against ourselves in some cases.
How much do you guys lean on the input from your riders when it comes to tire design and the decisions that you're making?Oh, it's certainly a critical element in the process. We can do all of the quantitative testing that we need to do in a laboratory. But, that's just laboratory numbers, and for certain things, the tests don't exist yet that really can give you the right answers or give us the direction that we need to move with the tire. The feedback that we're getting from these athletes - at every level - from a World Cup athlete to just recreational riders; their feedback gives us an end-users real world experience and real world perception of the tire.Rolling resistance is a great example. You can test that in a laboratory and spit out numbers, and get the hard numbers. But if a tire feels slow to an athlete, or looks slow just by virtue of a tread pattern, that's going to diminish the chances of a consumer wanting to get on that tire, so their feedback and experience helps craft part of the marketing story. It also helps dictate the direction we move with a lot of the product.
Has there ever been a time when you guys crunched some numbers in a lab and thought, "Okay, we're really excited about this product," and then put it in the hands of somebody and gone back to the drawing board because of the feedback? Is there an example that stands out to you of that ever happening?Yeah. The Hellcat is the perfect example of that. We started the design work on that product well in advance of our partnerships with UR Polygon. We had multiple tread patterns, designs. The engineering team was working on mold profiles and getting everything set up to go through their testing. We then partnered with UR Polygon. We incorporated them into the development process and their feedback dramatically changed the direction of that tire.From what the original designs looked like, to what we ended up with in the market is a very, very different looking product.
Is there a cultural and product shift occuring at Kenda right now? You guys have been working towards a rebranding of Kenda, with new packaging, a new facility in North America, and a heavy presence among some well known athletes. How would you describe the direction you guys are headed?I think the biggest thing that we want to make clear to the consumer is that we are continually evolving. We aren't stuck in a stale or stagnant position, resting on the laurels of an existing tire. I think, that the criticism some consumers and even bike brands had of us in the past were, in some respects, correct. The Nevegal was a great tire but it probably hung around for a little too long, whereas the market moved far past it.We are shifting the Kenda brand in the bicycle division, and in all of our other divisions. We're taking those next steps technologically. We're using more resources that weren't previously available in all of our divisions, and we're trying to get to market with product that is really worthy of all of these resources that we have.A lot of consumers still see Kenda as an OEM brand. It's a great back-of-house brand for a bike shop. But, when I go to put tires on the floor, I want to put these other brands on there. We don't want that. We didn't split our brand into two different names. We wanted to keep it as Kenda. This is a brand with a legacy and history that we're very proud of. We want people to know that we can provide an inexpensive replacement tire for $20, and also that we have the technology, the skill, the manufacturing capabilities to produce an eighty dollar tire that is suitable for World Cup athletes racing at the most elite level. That is the message that we are trying to get to consumers now, is that the technology may vary from that low level price point to the highest level, but the quality and the personal pride is in every tire we make.