At STLE, Tribologists Hear Calling


Nashville, TENNESSEE – Lubricant formulators, marketers and researchers gathered here this week for the annual meeting and exhibition of the Society of Tribologists and Engineers. The event offered a snapshot of an industry hearing calls to help society address important challenges.

STLE’s new president, Mike Duncan, talked during an interview about the roles of the industry and the association. Organizers said that more than 1,600 people attended this year’s meeting.

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Demand volumes in the global lubricants industry grow modestly if at all, but this five-day meeting, the hemisphere’s largest conference and trade show for lubes, featured much discussion about big tasks placed before tribology. Duncan, who began a one-year term on Tuesday, cited a few of the topics addressed by approximately 300 technical papers.

Electric vehicle manufacturers are looking for coolants to handle the high heat loads expected to be generated by tomorrow’s models, as well as lubricants that can withstand their electric currents. Automakers continue pushing for lower-viscosity engine oils to help improve fuel economy in vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. The power generation industry is still searching for lubricants that can adequately protect wind turbines, which are growing in size and number.

The size of those turbines is going to continue to increase, and that means the stresses on their components, which is already enormous, will continue to grow, Duncan said. But beyond those hot-button issues, there is still a lot of work to be done on all kinds of lubricants – for all kinds of applications: extending drain intervals, dealing with increasing temperatures, accommodating health and safety standards. There’s no shortage of challenges to tackle.

With so much need for innovation, education and training are high priorities. STLE has long offered courses on the basics of tribology – the study of friction and lubrication – but is working now to upgrade them.

“We have about 350 people taking courses here this week,” Duncan said. “Until now, those courses have all been put together by volunteers on a volunteer basis. Some of the material was reviewed, and all of the information is likely pretty good, but its not polished.”

During the past year the organization contracted experts to redevelop the content. It now has a one-day course on the basics of lubrication, plans to extend it to three days this year and intends eventually increase it to five.

“We want more standardized control over what’s covered in those courses,” said Duncan, who is executive vice president of technology for Daubert Chemical Co. “If were going to teach people, we want to make sure the material is good and consistent. Because the expectations of the students are that the quality be very high.”

Lubricant companies have worried in recent years that the industry relies on the expertise of a personnel bubble that is approaching retirement age and is not sufficiently being replaced – partly because of difficulty attracting new workers. In an effort to help address that, Duncan said STLE has undertaken this year to establish a program that will connect university students with potential employers. The organization has extensive ties with academics as well as business.

“We still need to work out the details, but the idea is to provide internships so that students who might consider a career in this industry can get work in the summer, get some real meaningful experience and by the time they graduate have a sense of whether this is a field they would like to get into,” he said. “And if it is, then the company already has a connection with them.”

The association is also working to increase participation in its local chapters. Its membership turnover averages around 10 percent annually, with most of the departures being young members. This year STLE handed added new awards at Tuesday’s banquet to recognize innovative chapters. One was awarded for publishing a handbook on how to attract members, others for jointly organizing education events.

“To thrive as an organization we need to continue to attract young people and to keep them,” Duncan said.

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