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Written by KOREN WETMORE Photography by ANDY BOONE

When John Dunlop introduced the first pneumatic tire in 1888, it was made of sustainable, natural rubber. As the auto industry grew, the demand for better performance and lower price moved tire de- sign toward synthetic materials made from crude oil. Then the loss of access to natural rubber sources during World War II cinched it: synthetic was the only source for American tires. It would take more than 100 years and researchers such as Aki

Nakamura ’66 to return the tire to its sustainable beginnings with- out losing desired performance. Yet tire technology was the last thing on Nakamura’s mind

when he received a scholarship to attend Harvey Mudd College. Although a mechanical engineering major, his computer science courses at HMC sparked a fascination with the role computers play in daily life. He later merged his passions by pursuing a mas- ter’s degree in software engineering from the University of Tokyo. This contributed to his success, as computers played a key role in his career. “Our generation lived through the computer age,” says former

classmate Craig Van Degrift ’66. “And Aki was intelligent and seri- ous about learning.” Following graduate school, Nakamura began working for Sum-

itomo Electric where he designed electronic controllers and later developed software for the auto industry. In 1994, he transferred to Sumitomo Rubber Industries to lead the company’s research and development department. It was an exciting time as Sumi- tomo had just purchased the Dunlop tire brand and Nakamura’s team was poised to pioneer a new tire design method. While other industry engineers relied on physical tests, Nakamura and his team used computer simulations to estimate a tire’s performance before it was manufactured. The method proved useful for analyz- ing potential defects and their causes, but many engineers were so resistant to the new technology that it took a natural disaster to convince them of its value. “The main reason that forced them to accept the computer model

instead of the real tire model was that the 1995 Kobe earthquake damaged many of the test machines they relied on,” Nakamura says. “They had to use any substitute for the designing of tires.”

His dream was to create a tire made entirely of non-petroleum material to remove reliance on fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

F A L L /WI N T E R 2 0 1 0 H a r v e y Mu d d C o l l e g e

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