Keeping the Wheels of Progress Turning Smoothly
One of the world’s leading manufacturers of metalworking fluids and special lubricants, Bechem Lubrication Technology, LLC manufactures products that extend clients’ tool, component and machine lifespans. Among many uses, Bechem’s high-quality lubricant solutions add reliability and efficiency to the pharmaceutical and food processing industries, to light and heavy industrial machinery, to hydraulic applications and for a plethora of automotive purposes.
Bechem has been a family-owned company for six generations, working with industries to develop customized solutions that optimize machinery function. This is far more than simple grease.
“There are a lot of places you can buy basic hydraulic oils. That is not the focus of our business. We focus on specialty coating and grease areas such as lifetime lubrication materials,” says John Steigerwald, the CEO of Bechem’s American subsidiary based in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Lifetime lubricants are those that are applied once, during the manufacture of a product, and never need to be reapplied. Often, these are in sealed or inaccessible areas of machinery.
“To start the car, you will put in a key or press a button. It has a contact on it. Everything in your steering column has contacts and switches. These are all lifetime applications. This is one arena of all of the specialty type lubrication materials. We have others like plastic and plastic leather.”
Despite the highly specialized nature of the lubricants, you might be surprised at just how often Bechem’s lubricants appear in your everyday life. These lubricants are inside car door locking mechanisms and ignitions, as well as in the seat adjustment mechanisms. They are found in kitchen taps, small appliance motors and even inside electrical toothbrushes. From first thing in the morning to the last waking hour, lives run more smoothly on Bechem.
From its headquarters in Hagen, Germany, Bechem’s distribution network supplies products and technical support to clients around the world. It has a further two production facilities in Germany and ones in India, China and the one that Steigerwald oversees in the US.
The origins of Bechem lie in the industrial revolution. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, mills, factories and mines were established along the Ruhr Valley, taking advantage of easy access to water and transportation routes including the new railways. All of this machinery needed to run smoothly, and so Carl Bechem created his lubricant plant in the transportation hub of Hagen.
Bechem products are still used in industry today, but the company’s scope has expanded dramatically. The company supplies roughly eight hundred high-performance products from lubricating oils, pastes and greases to anti-friction coatings, cleaners and corrosion protectants for electrical contacts. Its products are employed in machining and molding/forming operations as well as inside finished goods.
Some are standard products for conventional uses, and others are exclusively formulated and blended for individual customers. All of these reduce the life-of-ownership costs of machinery as the products increase reliability and lower the frequency of maintenance since parts wear longer, decreasing downtime.
One area of specialization is in the creation of lubricants for the machinery of the pharmaceutical and food processing industries. These sites present particular challenges that other manufacturing facilities do not face. Lubricants must not contaminate the raw materials, the process or the finished product. Recalls may be few, but they can be costly.
Lubricant products used in this field are subject to performance demands that fall outside those of average industrial lubricants. The specialty greases must work under operating conditions affected by massive temperature swings or food acids and have to be able to withstand the high-pressure cleaning blasts and sterilizing chemicals used to ensure safe processing conditions. The durability of Bechem’s products in this regard means extended machine life and less plant downtime for machinery re-greasing and maintenance.
Food grade greases also appear in the home, as Bechem supplies manufacturers of kitchen and bathroom fixtures.
The lubricants used in this industry have strict requirements and protocols that are governed by several regulatory agencies. To stay at the forefront of developments in the regulatory environment, Bechem works in close collaboration with product users, its industry partners, research institutes, trade groups and professional societies.
John himself is the chairperson of an ethics committee that deals with issues surrounding the industry. According to him, six former presidents of the company remain active both in the ethics committee and with the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers (STLE). This international technical society shares information related to the field of tribology which is a branch of materials science and mechanical engineering that studies the science of friction, wear and lubrication.
John says the benefits of STLE membership extend beyond the science of lubrication as the society also deals with best practices in the workplace and employee training.
Moreover, the technical nature of this industry requires a particular type of sales force. John refers to them as ‘technical lubrication consultants and diagnostics’. The job of the sales employee is to see what the customer is trying to achieve so that Bechem can design the appropriate material for the job. The salespeople must understand complex machinery and the forces under which it operates. As a result, engineering backgrounds are often crucial.
“In essence, there are representatives in the field who go visit our customer’s engineering centers, which allows us to be able to speak in the language of our customers. We have two different sales forces: one of them follows that path and the other does nothing but process lubrication materials.”
Bechem Lubricants recently won the Brose Innovation Award. Brose is the world’s fifth-largest privately owned supplier of mechanical/electronic automotive systems and gives this annual award in recognition of the supplier that drives the product development and innovation of its line of door and window mechanisms, seat adjustment systems, actuators, power systems and other mechatronic systems. This is the second consecutive year that Bechem has been chosen.
The company’s innovation has also reached into the development – after a great deal of research – into biodegradable, environmentally friendly additives and lubricants. Bechem’s bio-lubricants have the same high-performance capabilities as its regular lubricants and are designed for a range of applications.
Despite quality and innovation, Bechem is facing its share of challenges. The North American market has less stringent regulations than many other places, and it is the largest consumer of industrial lubricants. As a result, competition is fierce. Over the past six to seven years, many of its suppliers have been consolidating, thus making it more difficult for the company to obtain raw materials.
“Also, some of our suppliers have decided to become our competitors. They used to be traditional pure raw materials suppliers, but have now chosen to become vertically integrated and are making finished product.”
The current economic crisis affecting countries like China, Italy and Greece can ripple through the rest of the global marketplace. Manufacturing in the US accounts for about twelve percent of the Gross Domestic Product and large equipment manufacturers like Caterpillar are feeling the effects of slowing demand. Caterpillar recently announced plans to cut as many as 10,000 workers. Bechem’s two primary sectors, however, are automotive and aircraft/aerospace which remain healthy.
The key to growth, says John, is to seek out untapped technical areas in which the company can add value and be continually assessing its plan to see what needs to change. He believes that the perception of value by the customer has to be greater than the expectations, and Bechem prides itself on being part of the success of its customers.
“Our growth, right now, is at a very good pace, and our challenge is to make sure that we maintain that pace independent of the economic world factors.”