Oiling the wheels

Posted on 7 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

Fuchs Lubricants has invested heavily to ensure that customers have the advantage of locally based products and services. Robert Pols hears the story from MD Richard Halhead

It’s the company that puts the ‘can’ into ‘lubricant’: it can solve problems, it can respond quickly – and it does.

Stoke-on-Trent-based Fuchs Lubricants (UK) is a subsidiary of Fuchs Petrolub AG, the world’s largest independent lubricant manufacturer. It employs 320 people, has a turnover of £110 million, and exports 14 per cent of the products manufactured by its automotive and industrial divisions. The site has a 130-year history, but there’s nothing backward-looking about the plant, which produces over 100 million litres of lubricants annually.

“Unlike many competitors, we’ve invested heavily in our UK base and site,” observed MD Richard Halhead. “Many companies now ship in their products, but we’ve invested in upgrading the plant. For example, we’re currently installing a new Siemens PCS7 process control system – and we’re probably the first company of our kind in the UK to do so. We’ve also refurbished our labs, because we recognise that one of our great strengths is our technical expertise, which can provide support local to the UK and can respond within hours.

“We’ve also invested significantly in logistics process control. So now, though some key competitors often have a lead time of around three weeks and operate through distributors, our standard lead time is no more than five days. The speed with which we can deliver means customers don’t need to carry so much stock.”

Fuchs is committed to the Toyota Manufacturing System (TPM) and its focus offers prospects of greater efficiency for customers. In addition, it offers ‘minimum quantity lubrication’ products and a range of technical support services, placing employees at customer sites to oversee chemical process management (CPM) programmes.

This customer focus is at the heart of the company’s strong tradition of innovation. “We are essentially a service company,” Halhead explained, “since everything we produce is aimed at solving customers’ problems. That’s where we direct our effort in innovation, so there are certain applications and products that are exclusive to specific manufacturing customers.”

Other products, however, will meet the concerns of a wide spectrum of manufacturers, and ECOCOOL ULTRALIFE – the company’s latest development – is one of them. This range of water-soluble metalworking fluids (due to be showcased at the MACH 2008 exhibition) addresses the problem of bacterial contamination in used coolants. ULTRALIFE allows customers to comply with new HSE guidelines, while extending coolant life and reducing maintenance, fluid consumption, waste generation and disposal costs.

There are five variants within the product range, so a suitable fluid is available regardless of machining application, metal type or water quality.
Increasingly, customer concerns extend to environmental issues, and this is a dimension that Fuchs takes very seriously in relation both to its operations and to its products. The company adheres to all the normal regulations and environmental standards at its site, but this adherence goes beyond mere routine. “One of the key elements of our effort has been a huge reduction in the amount of waste created on the site,” said Halhead, “and that has helped us become finalists in a local awards scheme for environmental achievement. We’ve also made energy saving a major project this year. It may involve many small measures, but they can add up and make a big difference when you’re running a site 24/7. As for products, we make a range of oils and fluids that are vegetable- or ester-based, rather than derived from carbon-based materials. These are lubricants from renewable resources, marketed as the PLANTO range, and that’s the critical criterion.”

In a world that’s preoccupied with fuel, lubrication is often overlooked, and the irony of that is not lost on him. “Without lubrication, nothing moves: vehicles don’t go and machines don’t cut. It’s easy to overlook how critical our fluids are to any manufacturing process. In fact, they are the lifeblood of a plant.”

The conclusion, he continued, is clear enough. “Oil and fuel prices remain high and seem likely to continue rising in the future. So it’s going to be essential for manufacturing companies to have a quality supplier of lubricants who is dedicated to R&D and to moving forward with new and better products. That’s the challenge facing our industry.”