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Steeled for Change


STOCKPORT, England – In the 1930s, steel industry engineer George Bell realized that his countrys steel industry needed some specialized lubricants. He sourced the products from the United States, from The Ironsides Lubricants Co. of Columbus, Ohio, and then sold them on to the steel industry here.

The advent of the Second World War effectively cut off this supply, however, so in 1940 Bell formed The

Ironsides Lubricants Ltd. in Liverpool. The Ironsides brand name of course derives from the Old Ironsides nickname given to the 200-year-old warship USS Constitution, preserved today in Boston Harbor. And George Bells descendants still own the company to this day.

Initially the Liverpool firm purchased its products from local manufacturers, but in 1954 Ironsides acquired the assets of the JS Oil Co. Ltd. of Stockport, near Manchester, and was able to start manufacturing in its own right. JS Oil had many years of experience making products using animal fats and waxes, and these products complemented the existing Ironsides range. These new product types were the forerunners of modern greases and so provoked the companys move into greasemaking.

Today, Ironsides remains the largest grease supplier to the U.K. steel industry. Apart from its Corus Steel business, however, the companys products are most familiar to end-users under the guise of other well-known oil company brand names, because Ironsides is also the major U.K. grease manufacturer supplying own label products to a large number of lubricant marketers.

More than 50 people are employed within the company, which is projected to produce in excess of 7,000 metric tons of grease this year. This volume includes over 4 million grease cartridges, which is a significantly increasing part of the business.

Although the traditional European lubricant market is shrinking, Ironsides believes that opportunities are being created in the specialty lubricant market. Of course grease is itself a specialty product, but Ironsides has launched a Performance Plus range of lubricants to complement its grease offerings.

The companys research shows that about 20 percent of industrial lubricants work under conditions where the standard products simply cannot provide the protection or performance needed, Technical Manager Ranjit Panesar told LubesnGreases. Standard products also tend to be treated as commodities – cheap and easily interchangeable – by both the end customer and unfortunately some sellers alike.

Adding Value

The specialized area of the industrial market is where Ironsides can use their technical knowledge to the full, remarked Panesar. He says the Performance Plus range aims to cater for very difficult applications. Products include assembly compounds, wire rope lubricants, dirt- and dust-resistant greases, and lubricants that may accidentally come into contact with food. These specialty products also provide Ironsides private-label customers with the opportunity to move into the higher added value sector of the market, says David Ferris, sales manager. This sector is highly profitable to skillful marketers, especially those who can teach their own customers how to apply the greases most cost-effectively.

The philosophy behind the specialty range, Ferris said, is ensuring that the end user saves on overall maintenance costs. Use of the technically advanced products in a difficult lubrication environment will significantly prolong the working life of the machines moving parts.

One of the major challenges facing grease manufacturers and suppliers, he added, is the historic general lack of knowledge surrounding the product out in the field, which often leads to application inefficiencies.

Whilst it is certainly true that companies such as Ironsides continue to spend considerable time and money in developing new greases, the question is so often, Does the end user really understand the product he is using? Ferris mused.

It is often considered that, providing the equipment runs without squeaking, then the lubricant must be doing its job. Many users often believe, for example, that all black greases are the same, or that multipurpose greases will do all jobs … and of course the more lubricant used the better.

Consider realistically how much time the maintenance engineer spends selecting the correct lubricant for the job or thinks about what is happening to the condition of the grease in use? Overlubrication of components so often causes unwanted problems.

The user needs to be made aware of the total cost of lubrication in terms of replacement parts, downtime and lost production, not just the price of the grease.

Selection of the correct lubricant is the key, Ferris emphasized. Almost 70 percent of bearings fail prematurely, and half of these failures can be attributed to lubrication. Common faults include initial overlubrication, overlubrication at too-frequent service intervals, or indeed simply the use of the wrong lubricant.

In those arduous operating conditions where a specialized lubricant is really needed, it seems that only in about half the cases is a suitable grade being used.

It is obviously important to Ironsides, Ferris added, that their customers are successful. Ironsides firmly believe that this can only happen if the end user fully understands the value of the type of lubricant being supplied to him.

Environmental Tides

Ironsides plant in Stockport is situated in an urban environment, leading the company recently to become accredited against the ISO 14001 standard, covering its Environmental Management System. It also invested in a cooling system which uses recycled water, to emphasize its commitment to an environmentally aware management strategy.

We all know that we have a social responsibility to assess and regulate the impact we have on the environment in the delivery of our products to our clients, Managing Director Mike Hynes said. We can demonstrate to clients, suppliers, government bodies and the general public that we are serious about improving environmental performance.

The benefits of gaining this coveted standard are immense as the business world becomes more environmentally aware. Certification is a positive step for our business and tremendous rewards for all the efforts employees have put in to ensuring that the environment is a key consideration.

Eye on Supply

Most producers in the lubricants industry today are seeing some problems with their raw material supplies. Tight supply and rising costs are seen in base oils and bright stock, important additive components such as antioxidants and dispersants, even packaging materials.

As a specialty lubricant manufacturer, Ironsides can add another to the list of concerns – the availability and sudden cost escalation of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2 ), an important extreme-pressure component used in some greases to prevent grease wipe-off and fretting corrosion and to provide other valuable properties under high-load conditions.

Many major equipment manufacturers, including Caterpillar and JCB, specify that moly-containing greases are mandatory for use in servicing their equipment, and some users specify a minimum amount the grease or lubricant must contain. Molybdenum is mainly mined in Chile and China, and while lubricants consume significant amounts, most moly goes to steel manufacturing. The dramatic explosion in size of the Chinese industry has meant that far more of this crucial material is used locally and a real shortage now exists.

This has forced up the price of moly to a level about four times higher than a year ago, commented Panesar. The increased cost of this already high-cost raw material must be passed on to the customer, he said, along with other raw material price increases, forcing up the buying price. The good news is that Ironsides is not seeing other shortages. This, says company Chairman David Bell, is due to our policy of ensuring we are dealing with high-quality long-term suppliers rather than a short term approach of playing the spot market.

Specialties, service and a long-term view. With seven decades in business, it seems Ironsides knows an ironclad recipe for success.

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