A year and a half after breaking ground in a muddy field off U.S. 521, Sumter’s Continental Tire the Americas plant is now a fully fledged, 1-million-square-foot manufacturing facility with machinery in place and ready to be switched on by the beginning of next year.
Plant officials led media on a tour of the nearly completed facility Thursday, touting the Germany-based manufacturer’s ability to start turning out tires — and provide more than 300 jobs — by the time Continental hits its projected opening date in January.
Tom Tompkins, the plant engineering manager, thinks the plant could even begin production before the end of the year.
“We hope to begin in January 2014, but we’re striving to do better than that,” he said during the step-by-step tour of Continental’s manufacturing process. “Most of the machines are functional. They’re just in the testing phase. We’ve already produced test tires as a finished product.”
The tires already produced in Sumter have been shipped to Continental headquarters in Hanover, Germany, to be put through testing for quality control.
“Right now, they’ve all passed,” Tompkins said.
In just over a year, Continental has managed to construct a plant covering 23 acres, pressing some of the concrete columns upholding the roof in place using casts. At peak construction, 600 workers labored to bring the plant together, although today only about 150 are still working to put the finishing touches on the facility.
A crew is laying the foundation for a cafeteria and health clinic beside the main building, and the glass-walled lobby still looks like a construction site, but officials hope to get a “certificate of occupancy” this month that will allow them to move out of trailers and into their offices without putting on a hard hat.
Many of the initial 300 positions at the plant have already been filled, said human resources manager David Ray, and those workers have been shipped to other Continental plants as far away as Mexico and Europe for on-site training.
“Most of our people have come from the four surrounding counties,” Ray said. “The bulk of them are probably from Sumter and Clarendon, and a lot of the others come from Kershaw, Lee and some from Richland.”
Ray came to Sumter from a similar job with Boeing, where he worked with the aircraft manufacturer at the time it opened its North Charleston plant.
“They’re two different environments, but (Sumter) is a very clean, modern plant, very technology driven,” he said.
With one of the largest manufacturing campuses in Continental’s worldwide network, the Sumter plant will put together finished tires from scratch, with raw rubber shipped into one end and the tires coming down an elevated conveyor belt into a warehouse on the other end.
The plant takes in a mix of natural and synthetic rubber imported from Malaysia and mixes in a number of compound chemicals, “like baking a cake” in Tompkins’ words. The rubber then moves in a “slab” so workers can put in tread, coating and a wire metal rim, essentially every part of the tire-making process.
“It gives us more control over the process” as opposed to assembling pre-produced components, Tompkins said. “We get to set our own standards.”
When production begins, the plant will produce an estimated 4.5 million tires a year, with capacity expected to increase to 8 million by 2021.
Some of Continental’s employees were previously unemployed manufacturing workers (many of the positions require at least one year of manufacturing background), but Ray thinks many of them have been lured from other area manufacturers.
“We’re the new guys on the block,” he said. “This is a new and exciting thing, and we’ve got a lot to offer.”