When we think about lubricants, we generally think first of big-volume uses: engine and transmission oils, gear oils and general industrial lubes, metalworking fluids, wheel-bearing greases. Who among us thinks about the tiny amounts that go into less-visible applications, such as door locks and power window switches, video games and dental tools, actuators used to control humidity and moisture, or the electrical contacts that turn on your coffee maker in the morning? Many lubricants are vital to the safety and creature comforts of our automobiles, homes, offices and factories, yet go unnoticed.
Given the number of switches, gears, hinges and moving parts in the modern world, it is amazing that we are not more conscious of these lubricants. But while these low-volume needs may fly under the radar of most lube suppliers, they dont escape the notice of Syn-Tech Ltd. Located near Chicago in Addison, Illinois, it has been producing specialized lubricants for automotive, industrial, medical, appliance, power tool and aerospace applications for almost 50 years.
This month, the privately held company is one of a select few chosen for the Innovators Exhibition at SAE Internationals 2016 Congress in Detroit. This prestigious showcase – juried by a panel of automotive technology experts – highlights unique and creative solutions for the auto industry. Syn-Techs winning proposal described how it developed a high-temperature grease that exhibits little to no oil separation, thereby reducing contamination and grease hardening that can lead to premature failure.
Founded in 1968 by Reginald S. Reggie Shearer, Syn-Tech formulates and manufactures highly specialized lubricants, including greases, oils and pastes. Shearer pushed lubricants design to extremes, developing aircraft lubricants for helicopter gears and drive shafts which are still in production today. His background in synthetic lubricants for extreme environments gave him insight into often overlooked applications. Since his death in 2008, his idea of providing the best possible lubricant for each application has been carried on by second and third generation Shearers.
Syn-Techs customer base is about 50 percent automotive industry, 25 percent aerospace including military, and 25 percent other niche industries such as food processing. A primary focus is first, second and third tier automotive component suppliers – original equipment manufacturers who produce vehicle sub-assemblies such as steering wheels, constant velocity joints, on-board computers and door lock mechanisms. Being intensely specialized, the company takes a pinpoint approach to markets; rather than sell from a catalog, its business model is to work hand-in-hand with component designers and engineers to formulate and develop lubricants for their specific needs.
In Addison, its facilities include administrative offices, manufacturing, packaging and shipping areas, plus a newly built R&D and quality control laboratory, which was inaugurated at the end of 2015. Syn-Tech makes about a half-million pounds of lubricants a year, and packages it all on-site into a wide variety of containers, including pillow packs, syringes, jars, cartridges, pails, drums and totes. It also does private label work, tailoring the products to each customers specific requirements.
Reggies son Reginald Skip Shearer Jr., president and research and development manager, is the the formulating and creative leader behind Syn-Techs nearly 3,000 products. With a masters degree in mechanical engineering, he can see the application from the engineers point of view and then use his formulating expertise to develop solutions. During a recent visit from LubesnGreases, he explained that his tools include a full range of chemistries, including PAO, ester, glycol, silicone and PFPE, but hes constantly looking for new and unusual components to expand their range.
Greases are about 75 percent of the Syn-Tech product line, the rest being oils, pastes and dry coatings. A majority are synthetic based, he confirms, but adds, There are many applications where a mineral or vegetable oil based product will work just fine. We supply whatever is needed to address the application.
Shearer and his engineers work closely wit7h customers own mechanical and electrical engineers to ensure that performance targets are met. The first step is to evaluate the particular application, including problems that the customer may be experiencing. Next is to supply a prototype product for testing. In some cases, Syn-Techs engineers will design test stands in-house to run parallel testing with the customer.
Only when the product meets all of the customers design parameters and provides the proper performance are we satisfied, states Shearer. The result is we have a large family of lubricants to meet the needs of each customer, not a one product meets all approach.
Although Syn-Tech does not have a catalog, its list of technical sheets hints at the scope of its ambitions: aerospace, airbag rotary connectors, automotive electrical, automotive mechanical, general electrical contact, gears, pneumatic cylinders, food grade, roller bearing, silicone damping, smooth feel, synthetic hydrocarbon damping, slides and plain bearings.
Marketing Director Cindy Shearer Galloway, Skips sister, explained the vision for the company: For me, it isnt just a business for profit. I strive every day to make sure our customers know we are all about quality and ethical business practices. We want to be the company that people go to when they have problems that need solving. Hence we are innovators; innovation is at the heart of the company.
A case in point is the product now in the limelight at the SAE Congress. In 2001, Syn-Tech was asked to develop a grease for the mechanical section of a high-current, butt action window-lift switch. The OEM had tried many competitors lubricants, but each had allowed oil to separate and migrate onto the heat-generating switch contacts. Syn-Tech researchers created a proprietary technique that changed how oil migration from lubricating greases is controlled. No longer would migration at high temperature be an issue. In the ASTM D6184 Oil Separation Test, results were 0 percent bleed (with no loss in grease consistency) after 24 hours at 149 degrees C. High temperature migration tests affirmed that there was no oil migration. The proposed grease was sampled by the customer, accepted and is still being purchased for the same application today.
Since then, engineers everywhere have been pushing the limits of electrical switch assemblies, gearboxes, bearings, etc., by reducing material content to make them smaller and lighter while increasing power output. These tighter quarters pose a problem for many lubricants, because oil migration can contaminate electrical contacts, stain plastics and fabrics, and lead to premature grease failure (hardening) – all resulting in increased customer complaints, warranty work and the potential for recalls. So in the years since 2001, the Shearers have built a family of non-migrating greases, for use wherever dripping and staining can be a problem.
Another Syn-Tech specialty is motion damping. Damping is needed for motion control, noise reduction and smooth feel between moving parts. Have you ever used a camera with a manual zoom lens? That pleasurable gliding sensation, Shearer points out, is not precision gearing but rather a damping grease.
On the industrial side, Syn-Tech offers specialized gear, bearing and slide lubricants. Its gearbox lubricants are found in extreme applications such as wind turbine generators in Iceland, where maintenance can be difficult and long component life is a must. Other areas include H1 food-grade lubricants for use in all those machines which peel, slice, bake, chill, chop, spice and package edibles; environmentally acceptable green lubricants; and chemically inert PFPE lubricants.
From multi-million-dollar lubricant accounts for automotive seat tracks, gears and motors to the smallest of orders, quality is our commitment, stated Jackie Shearer Feeley, quality control manager (Skip and Cindys sister; a third sister, Pam Shearer, is CFO). We are serious about maintaining our ISO 9001-2008 certification so that we can meet and exceed our customers needs worldwide. We strive to reduce waste by keeping stock at just-in-time levels. We maintain retains [of each batch] for easy tracking of our raw materials and finished products – so if a customer has a product that is past its shelf life, or a general question about a product, we have the ability to examine, retest and recertify as needed.
We are extremely excited to work in our new 1,000-square-foot R&D and quality laboratory addition, Feeley continued, noting that the lab incorporated recycled materials and resource-efficient green features in its design, construction and operations. I think that my father Reggie would be extremely proud of what we have done with his dream! she declared.
Liz Considine, sales engineer, confided that many component OEMs specify Syn-Tech as their preferred lubricants supplier, especially once the companys R&D department custom-formulates a lubricant for each customers application. She stressed that what Syn-Tech is selling is highly technical, not generic.
I have seen a lot and experienced a lot, continued Considine, who has over 35 years experience in the oil and lubricants industries. I have to give kudos to Syn-Tech for their commitment to quality and formulating specific lubricants for their customers. Skip is an incredible formulator who is always willing to try something different or develop another specialized family of greases and oils. As a chemist, I really appreciate that because this helps solve a myriad of problems posed to me by customers.
While others get swept up in the craze to become bigger, she added, Syn-Tech Ltd. wants to be able to be more exclusive – the company that people come to when they have problems that need solving.
Thats because Syn-Techs is not a sales-and-marketing culture, Cindy Shearer Galloway added with emphasis, but a business of science.