Hydroforming: Next Metalworking Lube Niche?


The metalworking fluids sector, which already caters to a wide variety of manufacturing applications, is adding another to its list, thanks to the auto industry.

Industry insiders and observers say that a growing number of European and U.S. automakers and their suppliers are replacing stamping and drawing operations with a process called hydroforming. Sources also agree that hydroforming requires different fluids and lubricants.

This is an entirely different process from anything the lubricants industry has had to deal with before, said Brent Morgan, metalforming product manager for D.A. Stuart Co., of Warrenville, Ill. Fluid producers are going to have to come up with new products for hydroforming. But its also probably the biggest growth area that our sector has seen in a number of years.

Hydroforming differs from die-stamping processes in that it uses pressurized fluid to change the shape and texture of metal pieces. The auto industry has traditionally stamped shapes from sheet steel, then welded them into components such as cradles and frames. Tubular hydroforming, the particular process used by automakers, begins with steel tubes bent to approximate the final part and applies high fluid pressure inside the tube to blow it up until it conforms to the shape of the die.

The final product requires surface treatments but no welding, meaning that parts can be lighter and stronger than stamped pieces. According to Kline and Co., a Little Falls, N.J., consulting firm that analyzes the implications of hydroforming in a study titled Global Business Opportunities in Metalworking Fluids, 2001-2003, American and European automakers have begun using hydroforming to produce engine cradles, radiator and instrument panel supports, suspension parts and rear-axle support frames.

Kline and metalworking fluid producers say they expect to see increased use of hydroforming in the auto industry. Some predicted the practice will also spread to the aerospace industry.

Metalworking fluid producers say these operations will require different products than the metalworking fluids used for stamping operations, although opinions differ about the degree of difference. The fluids used inside the tube are exposed to very high pressures, Morgan said, explaining that the auto industry uses both low-pressure hydroforming with pressures of up to 800 bars, and high-pressure hydroforming, which applies up to 2,400 bars.

So basically you need a hydraulic fluid but there are also special requirements for corrosion protection and lubricity, Morgan said. The additive packages that they need are pretty unconventional. Weve had to develop some on our own.

George Morvey, senior consultant in Klines Petroleum & Energy Practice, said, The lubricants used in hydroforming differ from conventional drawing and stamping fluids and look more like coolants. He also noted that high-pressure hydroforming creates additional requirements for external lubricants, applied to the outside of the steel tube to protect the die surface. These lubricants are typically dry films or solid barriers such as graphite or molybdenum or calcium carbonate dispersions.

Specialty chemicals maker Quaker Chemical Corp., of Conshohocken, Pa., recently completed its own study of hydroforming and does not expect drastic impacts on its business.

Our understanding is that the lubrication requirements arent that severe and that the formulations arent that complicated, said Rob Campbell, head of global marketing for metalworking. This will require modifications to existing products, rather than new products.

Officials at Cortec Corp., a St. Paul, Minn., lube and additive producer, have a similar view.

The biggest requirement is to have fluids that prevent corrosion, said Cliff Cracauer, technical sales manager of integrated solutions. Most of our metalworking fluids are already water-based or water soluble so we dont expect much of a change in what were doing.

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