The art of making rubber: Inside Vittoria’s manufacturing facilities

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

During the recent launch of Vittoria’s next-generation graphene, attendees were given a tour of some of the company’s factories to see how rubber is made. Matt Wikstrom was at the event and he brought back these photos and a stack of insight on the process.

Vittoria Tyres was originally founded in Italy in 1953, and for almost 40 years, the company manufactured all of its tyres there. By 1990, though, the company was in deep financial trouble, and that’s when the current owners took over the brand and moved production to Thailand.

In the time since then, the brand has thrived, arguably eclipsing its former glory with annual tyre production now counted in the millions. That includes 900,000 cotton tyres and racing tubulars that have essentially defined the brand since its inception.

In what appears to be something of a corporate convolution, the entity that is responsible for all production of Vittoria tyres is Lion Tyres. Originally based in Singapore, Lion Tyres was acquired in 1988 by the same group of investors that would come to own Vittoria, spearheaded by Rudie Campagne, a Dutch industrialist with a background in electronics.

As successful as Vittoria has become, Lion Tyres is the bigger achievement for Campagne and his co-investors. That’s because the company has been able to capitalise on its rather exclusive manufacturing capabilities (i.e. bicycle tyres) to serve a variety of other brands, some of which could be considered Vittoria’s direct competitors.

This is not something that is unusual for the bicycle industry, especially when it comes to mass production of specialised products (like tyres or carbon fibre frames). And while the potential for a conflict of interest may seem immense, Lion Tyres does not simply re-badge Vittoria tyres for its other clients. Rather, each tyre is often a unique creation manufactured according to each brand’s specifications, including the choice of distinct casing materials and rubber compounds.

Lion Tyres has several factories located in and around Bangkok that are devoted to each stage of tyre production. In simple terms, this process starts with the creation of the rubber compound(s) that will serve the tread of the tyre. Rubber is also used to reinforce the nylon or cotton casing of the tyre, too, and once it is mated with the tread, construction of the tyre is essentially complete.

Given how crucial rubber is to the construction of any tyre, it’s not surprising that Lion Tyres and Vittoria devotes a large portion of its resources to researching, developing, and manufacturing its rubber compounds. There’s an art to rubber-making, to be sure, but there’s also a fair bit of science involved, too.

Mass production of tyre rubber

Every rubber compound comprises the same set of basic ingredients — natural and/or synthetic rubber, oil, and various activating, cross-linking, and filling agents — but there is enormous scope for varying the final recipe. The ingredients are mixed and kneaded like dough to create the final product, however conditions must be carefully controlled to ensure a consistent product.

The bulk of Lion Tyres’ rubber compounds are manufactured in its newest facility located in Rayong, approximately two hours south-east of Bangkok. Opened in 2017, the spacious (and ultra-clean) factory houses several large-scale production lines that operate around the clock six days/week to create tonnes of rubber every week.

Quality control is a full-time effort

Much of the manufacturing process is automated in the Rayong factory, which helps ensure a consistent product, however Lion Tyres also operates a rigorous quality control lab on-site. Samples from every batch of rubber are subjected to a series of tests before it is approved for tyre production in the company’s other facilities.

Rubber extrusion

Once a rubber compound has been made for the tread of a tyre, long ribbons of the material are fed into an extruder that squeezes it into the shape of the belt that will be fixed to the casing. A single compound has traditionally served the tread of most bike tyres, but that number has been increasing in recent years.

In 2015, Lion Tyres commissioned an impressive piece of equipment capable of combining four distinct rubber compounds during the extrusion process, the only one of its kind in the world at the moment. An entire factory in Bangpoo was given over to the new extruder with a small quality control lab on-site for monitoring each extrusion.

Vittoria’s first 4C (four compound) treads were designed for off-road use, but now the company is making 4C treads for its road tyres as well.

Research and development

The Rayong facility also houses a few labs that are devoted to research and development. They include a small-scale production facility for creating new or customised rubber compounds along with an array of equipment for characterising each new compound.

Large-scale equipment is on hand for assessing the performance of finished tyres, both before and after they are inflated on a rim. Rolling resistance, durability, puncture-resistance, air leakage, and resistance to UV and ozone (which causes rubber to perish) are all routinely measured, with some equipment left running for days at a time to gather long-term data for Vittoria’s tyres (as well as those from its competitors).

While it is not possible to measure every aspect of real-word use in these labs, Lion Tyres has made some pretty heroic efforts to get closer to this ideal. For example, the company has equipment for testing the grip of tyres when braking in wet and icy conditions to specifically identify new compounds that might be better suited to these conditions.

While Vittoria places a lot of emphasis on the importance of lab tests, the company also values feedback from riders in the real world. Some of this testing is carried out by professional riders, of course, but the company also has a cohort of hundreds of riders around the world to help with this effort.

Disclosure statement: Vittoria provided airfare, accommodation, and meals for the author.

Editors' Picks