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Design for tires

The challenges of design are not new to Michelin. We are probably one of the rare industrial companies founded by a former Fine Arts student (Edouard Michelin in 1889). It is difficult to express anything with a round, black object. That is what our industrial design teams endeavor to do. Their work has just been recognized in Japan by a Good Design Award for the MICHELIN Pilot Sport 4.

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3 questions to

Anne-Laure_Fraenkel

Anne-Laure Fraenkel

Industrial Design Team Manager

Why is design important for a tire?

Michelin creates premium, high performance, innovative tires designed for very different uses. Our work is to make that immediately visible and understandable for the customer, almost intuitively. To pass on these messages, we can play on the general shape of the tire, tread pattern, appearance of the rubber and the “expression zone” on the sides. For example, when we design a sports tire, we inscribe it in the formal competition language: dynamic and sportive tread shapes, checkered flag symbol on the side... On the other hand, a snow tire will offer directional tread with complex siping for snow traction and grip. And an all-terrain tire will have big blocks of rubber with sharp ridges similar to studs for off-road driving. To advertise technological innovations, we use either symbols on the sides if the innovations are inside the tire (like “Intel Inside”) or different shapes and textures to make the innovations tangible. Finally, the premium aspect involves the finish quality, for example making the regulatory technical markings on the tire’s sides more even.

What are the constraints when designing a tire?

The first is obvious: design must not affect performance! We can’t for example design a tread which will reduce the tire’s grip or wear. The hollow/solid ratio and overall tread arrangement are imposed by the developer. The second constraint is our customer expectations: it is up to us to reassure performance through expressive and high-quality design. We know for example that customers prefer a very black shade of rubber, so the tire looks "healthy”! We can toy with the appearance of the rubber and we also pay close attention to different cultural perceptions. In Europe for example, a quality tire is matte while in Asia or America it is shiny with a “plastic” look.

How does the design cope with these constraints?

A tire is collaboratively designed. The engineers have precise specifications and we challenge them on what it’s possible to achieve. Despite the constraints, we have a very broad creative field. Thanks to 3D metal printing, which we are using more and more to create our molds, we can push the limits of what is possible in terms of tread. We are also working in very original directions with the velvet effect for the sides. We’ve called it “Premium Touch Effect” and we have already filed 27 patents about it. Thanks to this technology, we have seen people spontaneously reach out and touch a tire for the first time. The idea behind the design is to impact the senses, and that’s a difficult task with a tire. Thanks to the velvet effect, we have managed to add the sense of touch to the list! This, among other things, is what the Good Design Awards recognized in our Pilot Sport 4: a sporty, premium tire (for the eyes), quiet as ST stands for Silent Tire (easy on the ears) that people want to touch.

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Solving the “psycho-grip” paradox

The design doesn’t merely make the tire more expressive. It can sometimes resolve contradictions between physical reality and customer perceptions. For example, for a truck tire, the priority is to have very powerful grip. For an engineer, the aim is to ensure the most rubber possible is in contact with the ground and therefore offer treads with more closed sipes and notches. But the drivers are more sensitive to traction, which in their minds is associated with tires that have wide transverse sipes and large blocks of rubber. Playing with the tread’s appearance, the design team fulfilled the engineering specifications and received user approval.