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3D printing poised to disrupt global lubricants industry

By Aaron Stone

Three-dimensional (3D) printing, or additive manufacturing, refers to the process of creating a physical object from a 3D digital model, typically by laying down thin layers of material in succession. For many, the concept of 3D printing is a phenomenon driven by contemporary innovators. The reality is that additive manufacturing has been around a lot longer than you would think, its origins now more than 30 years old. Christine Fuchs, head of Global Research & Development at Fuchs Petrolub SE, suggests 3D printing is poised to disrupt the global lubricants industry, and irreversibly impact lubricant volumes.

3D printing was one of four key industry movements outlined by Fuchs during a presentation at the UEIL Annual Meeting in Bologna, Italy, in October 2017. The three remaining trends cited as influential on the global lubricants market are perhaps more recognizable — digitization, sustainability and e-mobility. Lubricant companies are already feeling the pinch of these evolving technologies.

Fuchs Petrolub is the world’s largest independent manufacturer of lubricants and related specialty products with a turnover of EUR 2.3 billion (USD 2.71 billion) last year. The company’s headquarters are in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, Germany with 57 affiliate companies spread across every continent. Fuchs Petrolub is a technology-focused company that produces a complex, full range of lubricants including more than 10,000 active formulations. Thus, the organization is perfectly positioned to provide insight on future lubricant trends and the ramifications for affected business, says Christine Fuchs, who despite bearing an identical name to her third-generation family-owned employer, confirms this is merely coincidence.

Christine Fuchs

It may be easy to discount the role of 3D printing in the lubricant industry, particularly if you are unfamiliar with recent developments to this manufacturing method. However, Fuchs implores that cannibalization of the lubricants business will be significant. Comparisons between 3D printing and conventional manufacturing have estimated a 90% reduction in production time and 75% reduction in cost, she says. It’s hard to turn a blind eye to those sorts of figures. The harsh truth for lubricant manufacturers is that there is “no area where lubricants can be used for 3D printers,” confirms Fuchs.

The use of this technique is already widespread in medical engineering, such as in the supply of tailor-made implants or 3D assimilations of surgeries, and increasingly prevalent within the aerospace industry. Fuchs highlighted recent comments by business association BITCOM who claim 3D printing will become the primary manufacturing process in the aircraft industry by 2030.

Closer to home, Daimler, the world’s largest truck manufacturer, announced in July 2016 its intention to manufacture spare parts via three-dimensional printing. Rather than shipping vehicle parts across the globe, a digital blueprint can be used to create components, simplify logistics and reduce warehouse costs.

This modern manufacturing process will deliver a notable drop in demand for coolants and foaming lubricants, says Fuchs, while stressing the importance of unearthing new opportunities for applying lubricants.

The concept of digitization is not new, the process more of an evolution than an instant market disruptor. While many companies are still grappling with how to treat and handle the much discoursed ‘big data,’ there is no doubt with digitization comes a wealth of potential throughout the entire value chain, whether providing data about an application or insight into the performance of lubricants that will feed new requirements for lubricants into the development phase.

Fuchs believes “data collection will continue to be widened compared to today’s standards,” not only in the traditional research and development sense, but throughout production, manufacturing, sales, optimizing e-commerce, logistics application and service. More effective use of this information will allow for faster development times and a reduction in time to market, she says.

The stated aim of Fuchs Petrolub is to ‘make the lubricants talk’ by generating smart lubricants. Not only does this mean applying condition monitoring on the application side but also condition monitoring of production manufacturing and implementing sensor techniques in manufacturing facilities.

The third major trend is sustainability. Fuchs Petrolub has been recognized in Germany for its sustainability efforts, receiving the prestigious German Sustainability Award in 2016. Clearly, sustainability is a central pillar of the company’s future development, though Fuchs concedes sustainability poses a variety of challenges for global businesses. The legislature is very regionalized or localized, “we are not operating in a globalized and harmonized system,” she affirms.

A desire for more environmentally compatible lubricants has compelled Fuchs Petrolub to divert substantial resource into new pathways to generate highly sustainable raw materials, such as hydrocarbons from sustainable sources. To understand and develop new opportunities the company participates in several co-operations with industrial partners. One such example is the company’s ‘Zero Carbon Footprint’ partnership where biotechnology is applied to industrial waste to derive additional value.

The Paris Agreement was adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, on December 12, 2015. The agreement includes almost all countries, as the global community pulls together to mitigate the threat of climate change and limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius.

The automotive industry plays a central role in balancing carbon dioxide emissions and absorption. Alternative mobility concepts, fuel cells, compressed natural gas, and even optimising the existing internal combustion engine with more environmentally friendly fuels, are all viable approaches to achieving this audacious goal, says Fuchs. Though, e-mobility is clearly the preferred solution worldwide.

The Netherlands and Norway have committed that no further combustion cars will be approved on their roads starting in 2020. China has announced that by 2020, 12% of cars will be e-Cars. Many other countries have similar assertions. There is no doubt these commitments will have a dramatic impact on automotive lubricant volumes, such as a reduction in engine and gearbox oils. Fuchs Petrolub estimates a 20-30% decrease in lubricant volumes in the next 15-20 years.

3D printing poised to disrupt global lubricants industryHowever, this decrease in lubricants volumes is not limited to automotive lubricants. Electric vehicles have a far lower number of machinable parts than the conventional combustion engine version, approximately 200 parts compared to 1,400, meaning a significantly reduced lubricant requirement. A trend to weight reduction, using alternatives to steel such as aluminium, general or fibre-reinforced plastics, will also impact industrial lubricants.

Before you throw your hands up in total despair, it’s not all doom and gloom for lubricants. During her presentation, Fuchs outlined a range of new applications for lubricants and greases associated with alternative mobility concepts. Battery cooling and general cooling lubricants, alongside new specifications for lubricants that include behaviour fluid chemistry, influence on electric currents and influence on electromagnetic fields, will become prominent.

It seems Fuchs Petrolub is acutely aware of the challenges and threats associated with e-mobility. The company is approaching this industry shift with an open mind as it looks to “find a way to replace the things that are missing” and create new opportunities for lubricants, says Fuchs.

Similar to their sustainability efforts, the German company is participating in a range of e-mobility projects with industrial partners. One such example cited is the ‘Optimised Electric Drivetrain by Integration’ (ODIN) initiative. The project aims to create one single ‘E’ engine oil that both lubricates and cools all aggregates of the engine, something Fuchs believes will be extremely beneficial for the e-mobility application.