Sumitomo Rubber USA’s parent company will invest $122 million in its Town of Tonawanda manufacturing plant, signaling confidence in the facility’s tiremaking abilities.
The production technology upgrades will increase the Sheridan Drive plant’s production capacity while shoring up one of the region’s largest manufacturers, with 1,340 employees. About 1,000 of them are represented by the United Steelworkers union.
“As long as we stay the hardworking workforce we are, it will give us the opportunity for the people that are just starting here to go ahead, live a good life, make a good living and retire,” said Thomas O’Shei, president of Steelworkers Local 135L. “It’s pretty big news."
The Tonawanda plant makes Falken-branded passenger vehicle and truck tires and Dunlop motorcycle tires at a sprawling complex along the I-190. The new investment will take the form of automatic tire building machines, curing presses, and equipment to increase the plant's mixing and compounding capabilities.
“They’re putting in equipment a lot of tire manufacturers would love to have but they don’t have, and they’re putting here in the greater Buffalo area,” said Timothy Sprunger, vice president of operations. “It is a vote of confidence. It is based on our performance."
Sprunger said Sumitomo will start ordering the new equipment over the next few months, and he expects the machines will start arriving starting in early 2022, through 2023. While the plant expects to add perhaps 30 to 60 jobs with the new investment over the next few years, the investment will mainly to protect the jobs the plant already has.
“Without this investment, we would have a tough time going forward," Sprunger said.
The new investment comes almost five years after Sumitomo announced an $87 million investment in the Tonawanda site, a decision driven by demand for more SUV tires. The $122 million investment announced Tuesday further cements the renewed relationship between Japan-based Sumitomo and the longtime Tonawanda production facility.
The Tonawanda site had been known as Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America. But a joint venture between Goodyear and Sumitomo Rubber Industries ended in 2015, and Sumitomo took full ownership of Goodyear Dunlop Tires North America. The Tonawanda plant changed its name to Sumitomo Rubber USA the following year.
“Our customers demand exceptional tires, and this investment improves our tire building capabilities, doubles our output, increases our speed to market and enhances the high-quality tires made in this facility," said Yasutaka Ii, president and CEO of Sumitomo Rubber USA. "It also reinforces our commitment to our strong team members and our community here in Tonawanda and Western New York.”
Sprunger said the Tonawanda plant last year improved its productivity by 30%, paving the way for the new investment. “Basically it’s the road forward here for the next generation," he said.
With the new equipment, the Tonawanda plant will be able to almost double it production capacity, from about 9,000 tires per day currently to nearly 18,000 tires per day. Sprunger said the new investment will focus on stepping up production of Falken-brand passenger and truck tires.
O'Shei said the new investments are essential to keeping the plant viable. “The big thing is the technology we need to compete in the global market," he said. "The rubber industry requires a lot of investment to stay relevant."
O'Shei recalled employees' uncertainty about the plant's future when the 16-year alliance between Goodyear Sumitomo dissolved in 2015. "Through their hard work, we were able to stay open, being a low-cost producer especially of truck and bus tires. We were too valuable to close at the time."
The new investments, he said, put the plant on more solid ground within its industry. O'Shei said tire production has held strong during the pandemic, and that the plant's wage and benefits structure means workers can earn a good living.
"A lot of people that work here have also brought their family members in, so it tells you a lot about the type of job it is," he said.