DAYTON, Tenn. — Nokian Tyres employee Bonnie Houle says that a six-week trip to the company's Russian tire production plant earlier this year "changed everything" for her.
"The trainer had a saying: 'Catch the moment,'" she said. "Little did I know that would embody everything about the training and training process."
After nearly two years of construction, the Finland-based tire maker building a $360 million manufacturing plant in Dayton is nearing the start of commercial production.
In the first quarter of next year, the 830,00-square-foot plant off U.S. Highway 27 will start churning out car and pickup truck tires to the tune of 4 million a year when it reaches full production.
Houle and about 50 others of the Dayton plant's launch team went to Russia and Finland for about a month and a half to learn how to run what Nokian says will be one of the most advanced tire factories in the world.
› May 2017: Nokian announces Dayton plant
› September: Company breaks ground
› July 2018: First wall goes up
› First quarter 2019: Production building air tight
› July: Company produces first test tire
› Late 2019: Tires sent to Finland for quality testing
› 2020: Full commercial production to start
Source: Nokian Tyres
Tony Williams, a mixing operator in Dayton who traveled to the European plants, said Nokian stresses quality, not just as it pertains to the tires its customers buy but toward fellow employees inside the factory.
"I send my components to the next person down the line," he said. "I need to make sure I've done my job the best I can do so when they get the rubber , we're getting the best quality product all the way to a finished tire."
Peter Chia, the Dayton plant's operations director, said construction has been "quite a journey" since ground was broken in September 2017.
Work on the plant is nearing completion, and employees already have produced its first test tire, he said. In fact, Chia said earlier this month they've made a couple hundred so far.
"The machines are running well," he said. "We're still tweaking and commissioning the equipment. We're fine-tuning the process."
Nokian spokesman Wes Boling said the factory is calibrating the equipment and cementing the training employees received in the Finland and Russia plants.
In the last quarter this year, tires made in Dayton will go to the company's Finland headquarters for testing to ensure they meet company requirements, he said.
"We have a test track, including a winter track. Also, there are quality test labs there," Boling said, adding that plans are to eventually put such labs in Dayton.
By the end of the year, the Dayton facility will have about 150 employees and eventually 400 within two years.
Boling said that Nokian's Russia plant about 45 minutes outside of St. Petersburg is the company's most advanced presently within the company.
"Our machines are very customized," he said. "It will enable the workers to get onto the machines, see how they work, how the overall manufacturing process works. We've built a strong culture in Russia."
In Finland, where Nokian started in 1932, those facilities have a stronger focus on research and development and frontline testing, Boling said.
Williams, 29, said he had a little experience in manufacturing before joining Nokian. He left the U.S. Air Force in 2015 after six years as an aircraft mechanic, the Soddy-Daisy man said.
Williams said he plans to let employees who come on board later know about the opportunity they have working for the company.
"If you can follow the process, work hard, there's great things to come — take pride in the product," he said.
Houle, 45, who lives in Dayton and is a machine operator at the plant, said Nokian is a place where employees can grow.
"It's a place to change," she said. "It's a place to improve."
The company, known for its winter tires, wants to expand its all-season products to the Southeast U.S. and the rest of America with its Dayton factory.
The factory will fuel the company's quest to double North American sales by 2023, specializing in car and light truck all-season tires. In addition to making tires, an on-site distribution facility at the Dayton plant will store as many as 600,000 units, officials said.
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.