A lubrication technology developed two decades ago is being revived for beverage can manufacturing with spectacular results. Ty Phillips talked to Bob Mack, who came out of retirement to make it happen.
In the autumn of 2005, Bob Mack was living in Florida with his wife, enjoying the semiretired life. At 67, the man who had owned SH Mack & Co and helped develop the world’s first synthetic canmaking lubricant still did some consulting, but for the most part days were behind him.
Then his phone rang.
It was Jim Athans, who owned lubrication manufacturer Chemtool. The old friends—who went to high school together and have been friends more than 55 years—caught up on
each other’s lives, talking for quite a while before Athans got to the point of the phone call. He wanted to get into the can lubricant business, and he wanted Bob Mack to help him.
On top of the fact that the can industry was a mature market not in need of other lubricants, another factor loomed large. Both Mack and Athans were in their late sixties, not exactly the time many choose to take on a new business adventure.
“By the way,” Athans said during the call, “how’s your health?”
“Well,” Mack said, “I think it’s pretty good.”
“How long do you want to keep working?” Athans said.
“ I don’t know,” Mack said. “How long are you going to go?”
“I’m good for 20 more years,” Athans said.
“Okay,” Mack said, “mark me down for 19.”
And, with that, Mack returned to the canmaking industry after a mostly 15-yearly absence. Mack’s first industry breakthrough came in the 1970s when, as SH Mack’s owner and one of its chief chemists, Mack developed a synthetic lubricant that used detergents and surfactants in combination with fatty acid soaps
to create exception boundary lubrication surface activity and cleaning. Until then, historically, canmakers had been using emulsions that created dirtier cans and also prevented higher machine speed due to cooling limitations. After selling SH Mack in the early 1980s, Mack had kept his hands in chemistry and aluminum lubrication for various consulting jobs he accepted over the years. When Athans called with the job offer at Chemtool, Mack said he’d try it on one condition: If the product they created was better than anything else out there.
“To get into this mature market where no one was really looking for another “me too” lubricant, we needed to come in with something new and better,” Mack said. “We’d be the new kids on the block. Unless we were different and better, nobody was going to pay much attention.
Mack began looking over some of the chemical compounds that had helped Chemtool become one of the world’s largest producers of grease and metal-working products. The advances the company had made simply astounded him, particularly one method for Emulsifying high-molecular weight molecules into water-based systems. In its advertising campaign, Chemtool calls these bigger particles
“Normally these heavier molecules are hard to emulsify in water, which is why they’re usually not used in normal metalworking operations, “ Mack said. “Through applications in their other technologies, which include grease manufacture, die-casting, and metalworking. Chemtool has been able to achieve terrific results with these large molecules in various metalworking operations.
“It’s really amazing what they’ve done. It almost can’t be done. This is totally innovative and revolutionary.”
The New Kids on the Block )clockwise from top left) Chris McKenzie, Bob Mack, Craig Hoffman, and Jose Guzman
Mack decided all that was needed was to transition Chemtool’s breakthrough NuSol® technology to the specific needs of canmaking. Within six months, Chemtool had created the 127L cupping lubricant and began running it on test equipment. The early signs were all promising, and showed Chemtool’s new lubricant could drastically reduce tearoffs. But one last obstacle remained: convincing plant managers.
Through a longtime business relationship, Chemtool representatives landed a meeting at Crown Holdings. Upon seeing a demonstration of the new technology, a Crown production manager got interested, and the plant manager agreed to give it a try. So, roughly a year after coming out of “retirement”, Mack and other Chemtool officials headed to the Crown plant in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where Chemtool’s lubricant was tested in one of Crown’s machines, a Minster cupper.
The results were nearly instantaneous.
“Within hours, they agreed it was new and different,” Mack said. “Tear-offs went down sharply, the interior of the cans was clean. The production manager rubbed his fingers in it and said it felt silky, that it was great stuff.” Crown managers decided to add it to all three of the plant’s cuppers. Tear-offs continued to go down. It wouldn’t be long before the NuSol® bodymaker coolant version was added to the bodymakers at the La Crosse plant. At that first real test, Athans leaned over to Mack and told him it appeared they were onto something here. “We were both quite pleased,” Mack said.
“He wasn’t as familiar with the can business as I was, and at one point he asked me, “Does it usually go this quickly?” I told him no. Usually they might use it on one machine and try it for a day or two, and then add it to the others later if it’s going well.
“The production manager international put the lubricant on too heavy to see if it hurt anything, and it didn’t. Then he put it on too light, and it continued to run well.”
Those were all good signs to be sure, but the real success came when Crown managers calculated the tear-off rates when using Chemtool’s cupper lubricant. The plant has shown a significant improvement in tear-offs with the new Chemtool lubricant.
“Tear-offs generally stop production for three to four minutes if operators are on the ball,” Mack said. “Being conservative, I’d say Chemtool’s lubricant lowers tear-offs between 40 and 75 percent. At La Crosse, they’re making an additional 40,000 to 100,000 cans a day due to increased production brought on by less downtime.
The word has traveled quickly. Since that initial test, Chemtool has been gaining acceptance with some of the biggest players in the North American canmaking industry, including another Crown plant in Bradley, Illinois.
The 127L is being used at four Ball plants in Findlay, Ohio; Fort Worth, Texas; Kent, Washington; and Williamsburg, Virginia. Other Ball plants have tested the lubricant as well, Mack said.
Initial testing was scheduled to begin in June at Rocky Mountain Container, the plant that supplies the Coors brewery in Colorado and several of Rexam’s US plants. Also, Chemtool has begun initial testing at one of Metal Container Corporation’s plants. Mack said the company has several other new projects in the works, including its reach with plans to add plants in Brazil, and the company is fielding a new wave of inquiries from canmakers in Europe, South America, Mexico and the Far East, Mack said.
Chemtool washer chemicals have been formulated and are expected to be tested in several US plants this year. And there’s a major R&D effort continuing at Chemtool with
what Mack calls a radically-different inside spray and coating that he said should bring great benefit to the two-piece can industry.
“We’re optimistic about gaining fair market share at all of these major manufacturers,” Mack said. “The results haven’t been average: they’ve been pretty extraordinary in terms of lowering tear-off rates and improving tool life. And that gets everyone’s attention quicker and
“We’re hoping to continue to gain traction and become a major supplier to the industry. People are already saying, `We’re glad Chemtool
got into the canmaking business.`”
Printed in the September 2007 CANMAKER magazine.