A leader at the manufacture of self-lubricating composite bearings, Polygon’s strategy has been to leap ahead of the competition by developing technologies for the future. Lorie Greenspan reports.
Continuous fiber thermoplastic material has been 20 years in the making at Polygon, which means that two decades ago, the company was already positioning itself for the technology of the new millennium.
This is how Polygon moves itself forward: By focusing on long-term technological advances, not on short-term rewards, the company continually manufactures a level output of sophisticated products. The approach is patient and steady, promising extraordinary results at the end of a much longer rainbow. “Our philosophy has been to think realistically about the markets and the economy,” says Ben Shobert, vice president of sales, marketing and new product development. “There were a lot of accolades and a lot of supposed momentum in the 1990s and all that has just petered out. We want to be genuinely innovative with products that will take time to develop – perhaps longer to develop than the public equity markets are willing to entertain. In the long run, this allows us to offer superior products.”
And this leads back to continuous fiber thermoplastic material, or CFT; although in development for more than 20 years – with intense research within the last five years – Shobert describes this as a “very new material” in terms of applications and actual use. He explains, “This is a family of hybrid extruded materials that are very high strength” and can influence a range of consumer building products, such as fencing, decking and railings.
Another component to Polygon’s business involves the company’s expertise at manufacturing self-lubricating composite bearings. Polygon’s original patents on composite self-lubricating bearings in the mid-1960s stand as hallmarks in the development of journal bearing technology. Since that time, the company’s ongoing research and development activities have resulted in multiple patents on innovative self-lubricating products as well as proprietary manufacturing capabilities that allow Polygon to project superior value in the journal-bearing marketplace.
A history of research
It all began with Shobert’s grandfather, Samuel Shobert, an unusual force in the industry who took his boxing and golf swings as seriously as his development of extremely enduring bearing technology. “He was an unusual person,” Shobert says. ‘He grew up in the slums of Akron and was a Golden Gloves boxing champion. He won a scholarship to college playing baseball.” Also an avid golfer, he eventually patented the composite formula now widely used to produce golf-club shafts.
After college, Shobert worked as a chemist on advanced composite materials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base; his main focus, during World War II, was on the B-17 bomber program. He also worked on minesweeping technology using magnetic imaging to pick up the signature of a mine. The imaging required the use of composite material that would allow for an interference-free signal.
Shobert handed over the reigns to his son, Jim, who now is chairman of the board; his brother, Tim, is continuous improvement manager. Under their direction – and from roots ingrained in the necessity of slow, steady research – Polygon Company has grown into an engineered materials company with multiple manufacturing facilities and global distribution and sales offices around the world. Corporate research and development activities, including an in-house bearing test laboratory, are located in the company’s corporate offices and primary manufacturing location in Walkerton, Ind., (approximately 90 miles east of Chicago, Ill.).
Unlike any other company in the journal bearing market, Polygon is the only organization with composite self-lubricating bearings as a primary product focus. Other bearing organizations see this product line as a necessary offering to satisfy the design needs of the OEM market. For Polygon, the manufacture of this family of materials is its core competency.
Polygon can better predict the performance of this type of bearing, can better define what factors drive product performance, and has a stronger manufacturing infrastructure to support business needs. The company’s abilities as an organization to specify sizing, assembly, and design parameters are unmatched in the self-lubricating composite bearing industry.
Explains Shobert, the value of self-lubrication is immense. One of the most common failures in bearing designs is when lubrication is not properly maintained. Conceptually, a bearing design that is properly sealed and lubricated should result in trouble-free field service. Unfortunately, he says, this is not the case in most applications. In today’s environments it is fairly common that greased joints are not maintained properly. As a result, the boundary/mixed lubrication condition diminishes and the bearing life is limited.
Polygon’s line of bearings offer peak performance under the following conditions:
• when self-lubrication is required;
• when bearing neglect could lead to product liability claims or premature failure;
• when conventional lubricants will not function or cannot be used (as in the food processing and pharmaceutical industries);
• when bearing, lubrication system, and maintenance costs need to be closely monitored;
• when wide temperature ranges, particularly at low temperatures, require bearing performance stability;
• when stick-slip conditions exist;
• when high load capacities are needed;
• when resistance to chemical, galvanic, or fretting related corrosion is a problem;
• when weight reduction is desired;
• when galling and scoring need to be minimized;
• when shock loads present a problem;
• when electrical insulation is required.
These self-lubricating bearings are used in a number of applications, from agriculture and off-road equipment to material handling, and by OEM giants such as John Deere and Caterpillar. And to answer the ever-expanding needs of OEMs, the company employs an aggressive product development plan, adds Shobert. “We try to roll out a new product every nine months.”
PolyLube™: A problem-solver
At the center of Polygon’s product offering is its line of PolyLube™ bearings that use a fiberglass filament wound structure which incorporates a proprietary epoxy resin matrix that results in a very high-strength bearing that is naturally concentric with no seam or overlap. This high strength laminate construction allows for the use of a thin-wall (1/16-inch to 1/8-inch) bearing that reduces the size and weight of the assembly. The resulting composite material exhibits a very low coefficient of friction coupled with high load-bearing capacity.
PolyLube bearings utilize a proprietary design that ensures the anti-friction backing is locked into the backing material with more than a simple adhesion effect. This design also drives excellent resistance to impact fatigue and cavitation problems.
Other products include the PolyLube™ fiber and MRP series bearings that have their liners applied in a dry manufacturing mode. These are inherently very resistant to impact because the liner backing has high strength fiberglass filaments interwoven into the liner backing.
The differences in liner construction can be seen most dramatically during three periods: first, how coefficient of friction and wear change during the break-in period; second, how the bearing handles contamination in a dirty or unsealed environments, and third, long term bearing life. Differences in liner construction also can impact performance.
Keeping its swing
Despite an overall downturn in the bearing and related products market, Shobert anticipates huge growth for Polygon this year, specifically surrounding the range of applications for its new CFT material. Maintaining its market-driven focus, Polygon, explains Shobert, is employing a wait and see attitude before it migrates off shore. “Some of our markets are mature, yet we’re market-driven,” he says, “so if it becomes necessary to move, we will.”
In the meantime, the company will stick to the strategy that has garnered it its fame, utilizing innovative product development techniques coupled with efficiency at technical and industrial marketing – especially via the Internet (www.polygoncompany.com) – and the creation of what Shobert describes as “edgy, hip advertising.” One such ad positions a self-lubricating bearing against a cheeseburger with the words: “Go greaseless.” That pretty much says it all.