Germanys Grease Sales Rebound


Todays economic forecast may be cloudy, but the past two years were good for Germany’s grease industry, with sales reaching pre-recession levels.

Germany represents the largest economy in the European Union and is a manufacturing dynamo, with exports of hard goods – chiefly industrial machinery, passenger cars, automotive components and chemicals – generating 46 percent of its GDP. One in five German workers is employed in the manufacturing sector, in its auto plants and mines, steel mills and railroads, power plants, cement mills, food, paper and other factories.

All this creates a thirst for advanced industrial lubricants, observed Karl-Josef Minis of Fuchs Europe Schmierstoffe GmbH in Mannheim, Germany, a leading independent lubricant manufacturer. Speaking before the European Lubricating Grease Institute, he said the countrys total consumption of lubricants surpassed 1 million metric tons in 2011, 1.8 percent higher than in 2010.

Lubricating greases made up 3 percent of this volume, Minis said in his April 30 presentation, and have bounced back remarkably from the economic downturn of 2009. That year saw Germany’s grease demand bottom out at just 17,800 metric tons, but it came roaring back the next year to 35,700 metric tons, above pre-recession levels.

Minis, who is head of product management for lubricating greases at Fuchs, attributed the 2010 spike in sales to refilling of inventories and backlogged orders, and believes that 2011s sales (33,800 tons) were more consistent with current market conditions.

Germany’s Lubricating
Grease Demand

Year Metric Tons
2005 34,211
2006 28,954
2007 27,498
2008 28,294
2009 17,835
2010 35,653
2011 33,816

Source: Fuchs Europe Schmierstoffe

Fifty-nine percent of lubricating greases are used in general industry, 36 percent in automotive applications, and 5 percent in food processing and packaging, he told the ELGI meeting, which was held in Munich. The food industry, in fact, has been an especially bright spot, and is growing rapidly as government and people look at this application, and industry is under more pressure to use approved products.

Today, Germany ranks seventh in the world in terms of overall grease demand, behind China, the United States, India, Japan, Russia and Brazil, he added. The country has 14 active grease plants – a drop of 60 percent over the past 25 years. There were 34 plants operating here in the 1980s. Most of the remaining plants are located in the south of Germany, while the ones previously located in the north and the Hamburg area have mostly closed down.

Minis also highlighted a number of trends that grease manufacturers worldwide, not just those in Germany, are dealing with. Foremost of these is the need for CO2 reduction, which affects cars, machines and grease manufacturing itself. Reducing CO2 goes hand-in-hand with longer-life components, he said. As users try to reduce their carbon footprint, theyll rethink their lubrication and maintenance practices, and more will adopt pregreased and sealed bearings – all of which cuts into demand volume, he added.

Minis said OEM technical requirements also are becoming more complex and fast-paced, with equipment manufacturers now expecting lube suppliers to bring products to market in less time.
Security of supply is another concern. Customers now require us to have a second source of supply for all materials – which is not easy, I can tell you, interjected Minis. And even if they have multiple plants around the world that must be supplied, they expect local production of the same products, with approvals from the same OEMs. They want documentation of all this as well.

Some specific raw materials could create headaches for the world’s grease manufacturers as well, Minis said, including base oils, organics and inorganic chemicals.

By 2015, the production of API Group I base oil will be only half of what it is today, so the grease industrys strong dependency on Group I will have to change, Minis flatly stated. Grease companies will have to learn to adopt Group II and III, and perhaps mixtures of these with naphthenics and synthetics, to achieve the same performance.

Another ingredient that merits careful thought is lithium, Minis went on. Lithium is overwhelmingly the world’s favorite grease type, but only 13 percent of lithium production goes into the grease market. Other applications are competing for the same material, especially lithium batteries, resulting in short supplies and high prices.

In the last 10 years, global lithium demand has doubled to 100,000 tons, but greases consumption of lithium has declined by 5 percent as worldwide grease markets have stagnated or declined, Minis said. That makes it even more challenging for grease manufacturers to negotiate for lithium volumes.

Grease manufacturers also face volatility in sources of 12-hydroxy stearic acid, an important thickening agent which is mostly derived from castor oil, he went on. India grows 80 percent of the world’s castor beans, so availability really depends on the castor bean harvest in India. Just one or two years of bad harvests can hurt availability and increase costs. Long-term, he suggested that the grease industry may need to seek independence from castor derivatives, perhaps by finding local vegetable and animal fats that can do the job.

Ironically, one enormous opportunity for lubricating greases could come from a technology that most lubricant manufacturers dread: electric cars. Greases for electric motor bearings will just be the start. With electric cars, the noise-reduction properties offered by grease will become more important, because in the absence of normal engine noises, all the other sounds in the vehicle will come into focus for the driver. So the comfort properties of the vehicles will be more important. This is where improved dampening greases and antifriction pastes will be needed.

Despite the challenges, grease is a high-tech product that delivers a lot of performance. While sales volumes will never approach those of liquid lubricants like motor oil, they do have a solid future, Minis said. As evidence, he pointed to all the places in a vehicle where grease is applied: in CV joints, steering columns, wheel bearings, pulleys, switches and electric motors, sunroofs, hydraulic dampers, brake calipers and more.

These applications wont disappear, even if conventional drivetrains do. Even after the last passenger car with engine oil and an internal combustion engine has left the roads, he concluded, grease will still be inside our vehicles.

Related Topics

Business    Europe    Finished Lubricants    Region