Downturn in Grease Echoed Economy’s

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After shrinking almost 10 percent in 2009, how did global lubricating grease production fare in 2010? That’s what the National Lubricating Grease Institute aims to find out, as it prepares this week to send out its annual Production Survey to lubricating grease companies worldwide.

The confidential survey, conducted annually on behalf the Kansas City, Mo.-based trade and technical association, found that the global economic downturn has taken a heavy toll on the grease industry over the past few years. The world’s total reported production in 2009 dipped to about 2.0 billion pounds, versus 2.25 billion pounds in 2008 and 2.3 billion pounds in 2007.

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“There was a uniform reduction in production across all zones worldwide in 2009, except for the People’s Republic of China,” confirmed Paul Grives of ExxonMobil. Grives presented the 2009 results to the NLGI annual meeting in Florida last June.

The NLGI Grease Production Survey is the only one of its kind, and requests information from more than 150 grease manufacturing companies, as well as from official industry or government sources for some countries. In addition to looking at overall volumes of grease produced, it offers insight into ongoing trends such as grease production by type of thickener.

For example, the 2009 data showed lithium and lithium complex soaps continue to be the world’s favorite thickeners, at 75 percent of the total, followed by calcium based thickeners, at 10.4 percent. Polyureas and aluminum soap greases each were roughly 4 percent of the total production, while other types, including sodium and other metallic soaps, non-soap thickeners and organophillic clays, account for the rest.

The survey also showed how the global recession was felt by grease manufacturers in various geographic regions. China was the only region to show a gain, reporting 710 million pounds produced in 2009 versus 611 million pounds in 2008, a 16 percent gain. “It was the only shining star,” Grives commented.

Elsewhere, the landscape was littered with pain, the survey’s comparative data showed. The comparative data includes only production volumes from companies that have reported in each year, so year-to-year trends can be discerned. The comparative data for North America showed grease production in 2009 plunged to 368 million pounds, versus 452 million pounds in 2008 and 476 million pounds in 2007. Polyurea, aluminum complex and to a lesser degree lithium complex greases felt the downturn most severely.

Europe’s comparative data for 2009 shows 338 million pounds of production, versus 430 million pounds the year before. The continent’s decline had no clear leader by type of thickener; all types took a step backwards, as Grives noted in his presentation.

Total grease production in Japan was reported to be 129.5 million pounds. Particularly hard hit was that country’s output of polyurea greases, which declined more than 30 percent from the total reported in the prior year’s survey.

“Japan is a bastion of polyurea greases,” Grives observed, “but polyurea was the leading decliner, followed by lithium complex greases.” It has been suggested that both grease types may have suffered from a slowdown in Japanese auto manufacturing, he added. “We’ll see next year; if the trend reverses it will support that theory.”

For other regions, total reported 2009 grease production was 75 million pounds in the Caribbean, Central and South America; 63 million pounds in Africa and the Middle East; 205 million pounds in India; and 114 million pounds in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

To conduct the 2010 survey, NLGI has contracted with Grease Technology Solutions, which will gather the data from grease producers under a non-disclosure agreement. Only the aggregated data will be shown in the 2010 Survey Report, and all individual company is kept strictly confidential, emphasized Charles Coe of Grease Technology Solutions.

As a new feature, Coe told Lube Report, the 2010 survey will seek to establish what major types of base oils go into greases — mineral oil, synthetic or biobased — and the percentage of each. A number of survey participants have said they would find this information useful, as a bellwether of grease trends going forward.

The 2010 Grease Production Survey is expected to be ready for publication in June, he added. A report on the survey’s major findings will also be presented at NLGI’s annual meeting, June 11-14 in Palm Desert, Calif.

The 2010 data request will be e-mailed to prior participants this week, but all grease manufacturers are welcome to join the 2010 Grease Production Survey, Coe added. To receive a copy of the questionnaire, grease manufacturers may e-mail chuckcoe@grease-tech.com or NLGI headquarters at nlgi@nlgi.org. Deadline for return of the 2010 production data is March 15.