Most people think of bearings as being made of bronze or other metal alloys, but they can wear better and weigh less when they are manufactured from thermoset composite materials. “What you’re talking about here are engineering material solutions to customer problems,” Spaulding Composites Inc. CEO Jack Lyons explains.
Spaulding Composites was founded in 1873 and became a recognized leader in the manufacture and application of thermoset composites by the 1950s. “The durability and mechanical properties that you get out of the combination of the resins and reinforcing materials provide much better physical characteristics than either material does by itself,” Lyons continues.
Components manufactured by Spaulding Composites are used in aerospace, cryogenics, heavy equipment, power generation, energy exploration and a variety of industrial applications.
“You’ll see a lot of our composites used in applications where there is significant mechanical wear and in products that really require durability and reliability under extreme conditions of temperature and exposure to chemicals that react negatively with other materials,” Lyons notes.
Parts manufactured by Spaulding Composites are used internally as part of components that undergo heavy wear, such as pneumatic power tools, medical and dental instruments, and industrial compressor vanes. “Our materials are well suited for high-wear applications because they’ve got oil permeability, so they remain lubricated, wear less and reduce wear on the components they come in contact with,” Lyons points out.
Cryogenic applications for which Spaulding Composites materials and parts are suited include tanks for transporting liquid natural gas. “You would see our materials used in any application where biological material needs to be kept frozen essentially to be transported or stored anywhere around the world,” Lyons says.
Spaulding Composites engineers custom blends of its thermoset composites in addition to manufacturing precision components and parts from them. “We do sell materials to some customers, but our goal is to add value beyond the basic raw materials,” Lyons says. “We will also provide end items to customers that are in a near-finished shape. We also wind tubes of composite material that Spaulding or its customers can then machine for a variety of components like plain bearings, ball bearing retainers and high voltage fuses.
“What really differentiates us is the ability to design and control the manufacture of what I’d call unique blends of materials and provide that to customers typically in the form of components, but in some cases we will provide the base materials, too,” Lyons declares.
Staff engineers at Spaulding Composites must understand not only composites but also the industries of the company’s customers.
“We’ve got a range of engineers all the way up to the Ph.D. level with mechanical and chemical engineering backgrounds – the kinds of folks that not only understand our material science, but also have an understanding of the applications that they go into,” Lyons asserts.
Because Spaulding Composites supplies materials and specializes in highly engineered applications, it can turn around prototypes quickly.
“There are a number of instances where we’ve been able to discuss a range of three or four different options that might satisfy the customer’s requirements, and then a couple things can happen,” Lyons says. “We can provide samples of all three or four of those materials for testing by the customer, or in some cases, we can provide that testing service ourselves to zoom in on the exact best option for that customer’s challenging application. Depending on the material and the design of the component, it’s anywhere from days in some cases to a couple of weeks at the most.”
Because Spaulding Composites blends its own composite materials, it is not always as affected by occasional supply fluctuations as its competitors. “We do have a number of base material suppliers that we have very good relationships with around the world,” Lyons says. “The company was founded in 1873, and we do tend to make a few friends along the way.”
Spaulding Composites manufactures its products in a 100,000-square-foot plant in Rochester, N.H., and another 30,000-square-foot facility in China. Its products are distributed worldwide, with customers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Asia, Europe and South America. Major processes in the plants include combining resins and fabric or filler into a composite material on a laminated sheet or roll that is the starting point for other manufacturing processes. The sheet can be cut or sawed and machined into finished products.
The company also winds its materials into tubes or rolls. Sometimes the product then is machined or milled. Depending on the product, quantities can vary from a few parts to hundreds or up to more than 1 million. “We’re very flexible with regard to the quantity and price breaks we’re able to offer,” Lyons points out.
Spaulding Composites has invested in a new enterprise resource planning system and restructured its plant layouts to improve product flow by resolving problems faster. It also is using visual cues to signal when a bottleneck in production has developed. “We’re also investing in new manufacturing technology and in more efficient equipment with lower power consumption. Just this past week, we brought in a new milling machine that will enable us to process the vanes we make more efficiently.”
The company also has increased its training budget and is partnering with local community colleges that have training programs. A more interactive website will be online by fall. “It’s really about getting out there and building that awareness of what we can do with composites that is going to be an emphasis for the near and midterm future,” Lyons concludes.