Changing Traditional Views on Lubrication, One Step at a Time

By Staff
8 Min Read

HANNOVER, Germany – Plastic is not one of the most popular materials in the world right now, being branded “unsustainable.” Domestically, members of the U.S. Congress have introduced legislation to crack down on plastic production, and, globally, nations are negotiating a treaty to end plastic pollution.

Despite the potential adverse effects of plastic, igus, a German motion plastics manufacturer, sees an opportunity to leverage this “unsustainable” product to promote sustainability, achieve cost and time savings and usher in a new workforce.

igus highlighted this possibility at Hannover Messe 2024 through its lubrication-free polymer bearings and its “Go Zero Lubrication” campaign. 

Nolan Beilstein

Felix Brockmeyer, the CEO of igus’ North American subsidiary, igus, Inc., clarified that the company’s “zero lubrication” bearings are actually self-lubricating. The distinction arises from the presence of solid lubricants housed within tiny chambers in the fiber-reinforced material, which releases extremely small amounts of lubricant during movement.

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“Our products actually have sustainability factored in,” Brockmeyer said. “You can use our products without external lubrication. 

“What you learned in the past was you cannot go wrong with lubrication. Now it’s the one liter of oil going into the groundwater [that] contaminates a million liters of water. That awareness in general, and the carbon footprint that is related to fossil fuels being extracted and then turned into lubricants, I think that awareness is much bigger.”

igus' 'Go Zero Lubrication' products on display at Hannover Messe 2024.igus’ “Go Zero Lubrication” products on display at Hannover Messe 2024.Nolan Beilstein

To support its push for change, igus shared statistics that global lubricant expenses amount to $240 billion annually, while 50% of machine failures are attributed to improper bearing lubrication. 

While many customers will be attracted to the time and money saved by not having to grease bearings, the environmental benefits will likely be of lesser concern. 

Take, for instance, the deployment of plastic bearings on a 60-foot cultivator that formerly relied on 120 metal bushings that required regular greasing. The application will be spared the time-consuming labor and reduce oil runoff. 

However, Brockmeyer explained that the sustainability gain is not enough for some consumers. 

“The mindset of protecting the environment and keeping oil out of the ground has to come through the next generation,” Brockmeyer said. “It’s going to take a while until a farmer in Iowa will necessarily be concerned about grease [from] his bearing dripping into the ground. You cannot win yet with the sustainability factor there. You can win with the time saving that he has, not having to lubricate his equipment in the morning.”

The company set out to prove its bearings’ value in a joint study with RWTH Aachen University. The study analyzed the economic and ecological effects of using plastic plain bearings for nine companies in the automation, construction, packaging, food and bottling industries. 

The study concluded that, depending on the application, lubrication-free polymer bearings could help save up to $15 million on lubricant purchasing costs and up to 2 million working hours annually. 

Additionally, the study highlighted specific benefits of one participant, Heineken Brasil, which saved approximately $3,000 in lubrication costs per unit and 1.5 hours in maintenance per unit annually by using plastic plain bearings. 

Furthermore, the study estimated that Heineken could save approximately 22 tons of lubricant and achieve an annual reduction of 28,814 kilograms in carbon dioxide equivalents if they used lubrication-free polymer bearings in all of its conveyor belts across 160 global locations. 

“We are really surprised about the super high numbers of money the companies could save,” igus CEO of bearings and linear technology Tobias Vogel said. “Heineken in Brazil, they save millions of [dollars] because they don’t have to spend every day greasing and maintaining their machines.”

igus showcases its igusGO app at Hannover Messe 2024.igus showcases its igusGO app at Hannover Messe 2024.Nolan Beilstein

Despite igus’ history of making bearings for nearly 60 years, Vogel believes that the best chance to be successful with “Go Zero Lubrication” is right now because of a perfect storm of regulations, labor challenges and economic considerations. 

Vogel explained how German regulations are driving industries toward more sustainable practices, such as the ability for states and cities to ban vehicles with diesel engines and the phase-out of oil and gas heating systems.

Secondly, there is a looming labor shortage to consider. A new study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute projects that U.S. manufacturing could see a net need for as many as 3.8 million jobs between 2024 and 2033, with 1.9 million of those jobs going unfilled. 

Among those millions of unfilled jobs are maintenance workers tasked with preventative lubrication, which Brockmeyer described as “not very value-added.” 

“Often it is [customers] want to have a cheaper bushing,” Vogel said. “After they are using our bushing, they see that they don’t have to maintain it. That was the main reason why we made the study. To make it more clear, to make it more transparent that there is a second advantage.

“The companies have problems [finding] good technical people to do the maintenance. You don’t find the people that want to do that work. It’s a stupid job to grease, every week, 20 bearings. You save money, time and can use the people for other jobs, or more intelligent jobs.”

Still, for most industrial customers, the sustainability aspect of igus’ lubricant-free polymer bearings may not be the primary draw. 

However, as igus continues to promote the product and implement technology that appeals to younger generations, such as the AI-powered igusGO App, there is potential to attract the younger workforce that, as Brockmeyer put it, can push the mindset of protecting the environment. 

“It’s a mindset that you care because the generation after you will be impacted by it,” Brockmeyer said. “If I deploy lubrication-free bearings, it doesn’t help me. I’ll be gone before the impacts. It takes a very specific thought process of [realizing] the negative impact on the environment can impact the person.”

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