The tire business is something that goes heavily overlooked by the average consumer, despite it being a key part to the world’s largest commercial industry. Usually when you’re in the market for some new shoes for the whip, people would often resort to big brand names such as Michelin, Goodyear, Pirelli, Bridgestone—you name it. But Hankook?
Truth be told though, Hankook is not at all new to the tire scene. Hankook Tire was founded in 1941 in Seoul, South Korea as the Chosun Tire Company. It wasn’t until 1968 did they adopt the name Hankook Tire Manufacturing. Since then, Hankook has grown to be known as one of the many replacement tire brands, with applications ranging from passenger cars, to medium and heavy duty applications like airplane tires, trucks and busses.
In fact, you may have seen the Hankook name pop up through various mediums; whether it was recently seeing the brand name appear as a sponsorship for 22 major league baseball teams, or spotting the company’s 31-by-98-foot replication of their Ventus V12 tire in New York City’s Times Square, or through various racing videogames. Hankook has definitely been around for quite some time. Though it wasn’t until 2006 that Hankook began to truly skyrocket and increase brand awareness. And that growth prominence mainly came from their participation in the motorsports industry.
In 2006, the Hankook name saw a spike in brand awareness after participating in Formula Drift. Usually, benchmarks in the automobile industry are often set by motorsports because if the brands’ parts are adequate enough to meet the toughest demands of motorsports and make a statement, then that statement could transcend into the consumer level. In the case of tires, this holds to be very true, especially if motorsports teams have resorted to the Hankook brand for tires consecutively.
Accounting for their growth since their increased prominence in all sorts of automotive tire applications, Hankook Tire has received the title as being the seventh largest tire company in the world. And to maintain their upward trend, Hankook has been hard at work to make sure that the consumer knows that they’re becoming more of a major player in the tire industry. That said, they invited your humble senior editor out to their primary research, technical and development center for North America in Akron, Ohio for a comprehensive tour to show us what they’re all about.
Hankook Tire’s R&D Technical Center was established in 1992, marking the first overseas facility for the manufacturer. From then on, Hankook slowly raised their brand’s awareness by becoming the first Asian tire manufacturer supplier on an original-equipment manufacturer, or OEM basis, with Ford. Over the years, Hankook’s prominence in the OEM market has grown over the past decade, recently signing similar contracts with Volkswagen, Kia, Hyundai, General Motors and Chrysler.
So for even someone who is as knowledgeable about the automobile industry as I am, I was curious as to what I would see over the duration of Hankook’s tour of their R&D Technical center. And needless to say, any assumptions I had that the tire business was a very tedious job were proven to be true. Because let’s face it. Tires are one of the most vital parts for your automobile and due to their importance, a lot of engineering is needed to develop these pieces of equipment that are supposed to withstand nearly every law of physics and thermodynamics known to man.
At Hankook’s R&D Technical center, it’s all about that engineering. There, tires specifically designed for the North American market are researched, engineered, developed and tested for their use and application here. They even have a cooperative program in partnership with the University of Akron in Ohio, where students can work with Hankook directly with many being hired upon graduation.
As part of the tour, Hankook showed us the processes involved with designing, engineering, researching and developing a new tire. When approaching Hankook’s R&D Technical Center, simply by observing the outside, you’d think that it’s just a normal office building where a bunch of engineers sit in their cubicles and conduct their work on a nine-to-five schedule. But that’s only part of the story. In Akron, Hankook also has their own laboratories to cover nearly every angle of development and research with many pieces of bespoke machinery that were designed specifically for Hankook.
The process begins with the engineers at their computers. By using the data collected over time from the use of their previous tires in the framework of the real world, the engineers set out to design a new tire. Once a design is agreed upon, the templates are then sent to what can literally be equated to as a “tire artist.” This one and only man uses a custom made device that utilizes an electrical current and the artist carves the design by hand into a basic tire template. Yes, by hand. Afterwards, depending on the sort of tire being made—be it an all-season, performance, or winter tire, you name it—a group of chemists then work out a formula for the materials of the tire.
And if you think that tires are primarily made of natural rubber, you’d be a little bit wrong. Natural rubber is certainly an ingredient, but it isn’t the one and only. Synthetic rubbers, SBR, bromobutyl, polybutylene, and EPDM (don’t ask) can also be worked into the formulas, which determine how well the tires fare against the elements.
The tire’s design and compound is then sent to South Korea, where it gets corporate approval for testing. Upon approval, Hankook’s facility will then produce several sets of these tires, which are shipped back to the R&D Technical Center in Akron where they conduct a series of tests. The tests vary from measuring noise, vibration and harshness, or NVH, to measuring a tire’s ability to withstand temperatures from as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit to as high as 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Altogether, these thorough tests evaluate the tire’s performance in nearly every aspect to make sure that the end result is a quality product.
In addition to the tour of the facilities, the representatives at Hankook provided us with their piece of mind by stressing the importance of proper tire safety and vehicle control. Their latest slogan speaks for itself, as Hankook wants consumers to “Be safe, and air ‘em up.”
Conclusively, I walked away from the Hankook tour thoroughly impressed with their efforts. After meeting several corporate executives that manage the R&D Technical Center, I could tell that they were all individuals who were passionate about their industry, which is something that is getting harder to find by the minute. And because the staff at R&D Technical Center have clearly stated their message that they’re pushing to make sure that their tires meet and exceed the competition, basic federal regulations, industry guidelines and manufacturer demands on top of tire safety, I have confidence in the Hankook brand.
Though, it also must be emphasized that tires are one of the most important parts for your automobile because they are the pieces of equipment that keep you planted on the road and prevent you and your occupants from plummeting into a ditch. So tires are very much a worthy investment, despite their commanding prices. Additionally, not all tires are made equal. Synonymously speaking, you wouldn’t tread the deepest of snowfalls in a pair of running shoes now would you? They are nearly the same principles.
And before you can choose what type of tire fits your climate best—be it all-seasons, snows, performance—you would need to know what brands to consider. And there is a modicum of manufacturers to buy from. But because the brands that were aforementioned in the introduction have been well established in the industry for almost as long as the automobile industry has been in existence, to hear of a new brand would often cause consumers to question whether their money should go towards the new kid on the block. Because, well, let’s face it: tires are by no means cheap and when things don’t come cheap, decision-making can be a bit challenging and overwhelming. But to make things easier, if you’re looking for a quality brand name tire manufacturer, be sure not to forget the Hankook name on your list of considerations.
Disclaimer: Hankook Tires provided for the entire trip and tour and nothing else was exchanged to affect this review.
– By: Chris Chin