Tribologists Urged to Accelerate Innovation

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Technologies such as electric vehicles may pose potential threats to the lubricants industry, but they also present new tribological challenges that need to be solved for equipment to operate as intended.

At the worlds largest tribology conference here last week, an official from one equipment manufacturer urged attendees to pick up the pace of tackling those challenges.

The world is changing quickly, Jeff Hemphill, chief technical officer for Schaeffler Americas, said May 20 during his keynote address at the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers annual meeting. The opportunities for tribology are increasing. Industry needs innovation from you, but we need you to go faster.

Schaeffler Americas is part of Schaeffler Technologies AG & Co., a Herzogenaurach, Germany-based manufacturer of roller bearings that is expanding into other types of components such as transmissions.

Hemphill said technological developments such as electric vehicles are good for society, offering transportation that is more mechanically efficient than internal combustion engines. Electric vehicles will also become more economical if costs for their batteries continue falling at current rates.

At the same time, he empathized with the uneasiness with which lubricant marketers view electric vehicles. Cars powered only by battery do not use engine oil, which is by far the largest product category in the industry.

The tremendous pace of change thats happening in a variety of industries can be a little bit unsettling when you look at maybe some of your classic products going away, Hemphill said in an interview after his speech. But that pace of change is really resulting in a lot of new applications for tribology as well as other classical technologies – new demands, new applications and therefore lots of opportunities for innovations.

Electric vehicles present a number of new challenges, he said, from the high heats that need to be dissipated from electric motors and batteries – especially the larger batteries that automakers are trending toward – to the need for fluids and lubricant to withstand electric currents, a push for fluids to be fill-for-life and a desire to minimize component vibration and noise. He also noted that manufacturers are encountering a new type of bearing failure.

For example in an electric axel, we have speed times diameter – DN we say in the bearing industry – approaching a million, which is closing in on the range of a jet airplane engine. And the loading is also different – it can be lightly loaded, for example, but high speed.

Then that leads to things like the outer race actually being able to rotate in the housing even though there are rolling elements, of course, between the inner and outer race. But you get the right inputs and things like that can happen, so then you have to jump in and solve those problems.

Electric vehicles are far from the only area where new challenges are arising. All types of equipment are trending toward higher speeds and greater energy densities, while manufacturers and end users look for longer drain intervals and improved energy efficiency. Hemphill cited wind turbines, which continue to increase in size as manufacturers strive for the energy output that would make them cost-effective. The size of the newest turbines causes tremendous stresses on their components, including bearings and gears, he said.

So far the lubricants industry is not solving tribology challenges as fast as industry presents them, Hemphill said, so companies should look for ways to speed the pace of innovation.

I think the classical methods work, but the main issue right now is speed, because the world is changing faster than our classical research methods, he said. We have to turn to things like new partnerships, looking at startups, maybe engaging with people that are really fast and nimble.

We are seeing it starting to happen already, collaborations between universities and companies and governments, as well as working with startups, is really occurring all around us. It does lead to some challenges for the old classical industry if you will. Things like intellectual property, which were used to wrapping our arms around and keeping within our closed walls. If you want to really collaborate and go faster, you have to work out agreements that protect everyones IP, for example. But its starting to happen and I think we can manage it.

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