Forget your mother’s frying pans; this is not the sort of home appliance, Betty Crocker cookware material that received raves when it was introduced to the consumer market.
The material known as PTFE, more commonly known as Teflon®, the registered trademark of E.I. DuPont, has developed as an industry of its own. Invented in the late 1930’s, Teflon® was held exclusive to “high tech” products of the time. The industrial market for PTFE emerged in the 1970s with improved economics and wider knowledge of this remarkable polymer.
In the late 70’s, T-Lon’s current chairman, William Olson, founded T-Lon Products to service one of the world’s largest manufacturers of agricultural and construction equipment. “Engineers in the mobile hydraulics industry were always looking for a better seal material that would perform at higher pressures and provide longer life,” says Olson. “We were successful in the test labs and T-Lon was started. We knew that Teflon® would be the wave of the future.” Olson coupled his entrepreneurial spirit with PTFE manufacturing and grew the Wisconsin facility into a thriving, global concern.
The Tour Begins on the T-Lon Production Floor
T-Lon first manufactures hydraulic seals for cylinders, then develops a host of other components for industries that rely on durability and superior design to complete its products.
After leaving the administrative offices, the first leg on the T-Lon tour is the production floor, where a noticeably comfortable environment is enjoyed. The production area is climate controlled to assure material consistency during processing. The aisles and work areas are exceptionally clean. The products in process nearly match the colors of the rainbow. “We process more than 60 different blends of PTFE resin, many pigmented as required by customer specs, others simply appearing naturally from blended additives,” says Robert Olson, vice president of sales and marketing. “We can discuss why the different blends later in our tour.” Many of the production machines look the same, but a closer look reveals each work center is specialized.
Christopher Olson, president, adds, “We have diverse product offerings. With that we have customized and matched process and equipment.” Looking in nearly every direction, the founding product line of hydraulic piston seals is apparent. “In the past few years we have heard the ‘I wasn’t aware that you did these parts too’ comment come from our customers who toured our facility,” says Christopher Olson. In light of this, an effort was initiated to expand the industrial awareness of T-Lon product offerings. This initiative culminated in the publication of the new T-Lon products catalog and development of the Website, www.t-lon.com which also covers the range of T-Lon’s piston seals, buffer seals, wear bands, four-piece seals in both imperial and metric sizes. A more comprehensive description of products is available in each resource.
Since accomplishing these marketing activities, a noticeable increase in international sales has occurred. “Hydraulics is a technology that is commonly used worldwide,” says Stephen Russell, international marketing manager. “There are typically two designs, metric and English. Although some design variation exists within each technology, the basic principles remain constant. Our international sales are typically directed through distributors, although we supply some international OEMs. We send products to customers on four continents.”
Production orders appeared in process with a final destination of France, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and Canada. Russell asserts, “Our participation at industrial trade shows has spawned great interest internationally as we are recognized for having very competitive pricing at an outstanding level of quality. The advantage we have as a small organization is being able to respond quickly to the demands of an international market. Through use of our Web site, our customers have access to our products and services regardless of their global location.”
Not all parts on the production floor are hydraulic seals. Many are designed to meet specific customer needs. As Olson explains, “Our customers are very diversified. We service the chemical and food processing, valve, pharmaceutical, and compressor industries. These customers are all very specialized. In this segment of our business nearly all parts are made to our customer’s specifications. There is no standard line.” A unique component of T-Lon, Olson notes, are its engineering partnerships with clients, enabling the manufacture of a product designed for a specific need.
Designing with PTFE Requires Highest Expertise
After the production floor comes the engineering department. The company’s Director of Engineering John Roberts hails comes from the fluid power and valve industries and offers customers more than 25 years of experience in R&D, product development and design engineering functions.
“PTFE is a very valuable material to the design engineer,” says Roberts. “The chemically inert characteristic of a polymer that can withstand a wide temperature range, provide an effective and durable seal, and is low friction, makes PTFE a very popular choice for the designer. A variety of filler materials are commonly blended with virgin PTFE. All these blend variations are available to our customers for specialized applications. There is an effort on the part of T-Lon and our resin suppliers to continuously offer our customers material blends with enhanced properties.”
However Roberts warns, “The manufacturing process is often as influential on product performance as the dimensional size or choice of filler material. I often reflect on my past design and testing experiences where unreported process changes caused significant delays in a product line’s delivery to the marketplace. T-Lon is committed to working with our customers to match our process to meet their objectives.” Having such experience within T-Lon ensures the customer of a resource that can be relied on for technical contributions during prototype, production, or application trouble-shooting.
Christopher Olson adds, “Our customers need assurance that the product they qualify in their design remains consistent through production.” Several years back Olson set an objective to gain ISO/QS 9000 compliance. Now, as each work center has its specialized design, so does each worker have a specialized instruction driven by revision controlled process route sheets. It makes no difference whether the operation is a molding press, sintering oven, CNC lathe, or finish cut – all is defined and controlled.
“We continue my father’s sales philosophy to treat everyone with the same courtesy and integrity regardless of size,” Robert Olson says. “As indicated by our process route sheets, everyone is on a level playing field. Everyone receives a product traceable to the machine it was made on and the controlled lot of resin it was made with.” T-Lon’s quality system also is based on a philosophy of “continuous improvement.” Use of systems such as multi-point, in-process checks and statistical process control insures products will continuously meet or exceed expectations.
Into the T-Lon Test Lab for Materials Evaluation
After exiting the engineering offices, next on the tour is a room from which can be heard cyclic humming and pounding, which is T-Lon’s test lab. “With customer supplied test assemblies, we are continuously evaluating materials/process changes,” says Roberts. “Each customer’s industry is competitive; technology advances and product value must advance accordingly.”
Nearby, processing equipment is being built. “Advanced systems and capabilities are being added each year,” reports Scott Wendt, plant manager. “To improve our finish product consistency, CNC/programmable controls were installed years ago. An intranet Web-site is being developed to manage the flurry of programs and fixtures for all the different types of parts we produce. We regularly meet to verify our implementation of new techniques and to target our next opportunity.” To facilitate all this productivity, T-Lon needed more space, and in the recent past, has launched upon capital projects to expand the footprint of its manufacturing facility.
“There are a number of PTFE seal manufacturers in the country,” Robert Olson explains. “What’s unique about us is that we’re one of the few Teflon manufacturers to be fully integrated, having the capabilities to produce a product from base resin to finished part, long-run production to short-run prototype, or immediate shipment of material billet. We’re one of last family owned PTFE houses and we intend to stay that way. Most others have been bought out through corporate acquisition but we maintain that private ownership is essential to continue our business philosophy. We’re small enough to be able to react quickly but we also have the capability necessary to satisfy any large project for our customers. We currently own property necessary for a new manufacturing facility so as we grow we can ensure our customers and employees continuation of sound business values that have proven to be successful.”
Driven by its commitment to satisfy the customer, T-Lon has integrated fabricating and finishing capabilities allowing for accommodation of a wide range of customer needs. From simple shapes such as rods, tubes, billets and blanks to high volume automatic molding presses, to complex shapes, prototyping, retrofitting and short-run specials, T-Lon’s capabilities include an integration fabrication process, simple to complex designs, small to large usage requirements, problem-solving partnerships from product development to production.
“Our machining capabilities can transform basic shapes into complex parts with precision tolerances and exacting finishes,” explains Olson. For parts with requirements T-Lon’s process is designed to meet any need. “We’re always in close contact with suppliers and constantly testing new materials,” says Olson. “In the recent past we’ve developed proprietary blends being used that have met and exceeded expectations.” Those materials include PEEK, a material harder than Teflon, used in hydraulics and compressors.
T-Lon also manufactures custom parts with compounds that feature excellent material compatibility, low friction, wide temperature range, excellent dielectric properties, environmental durability and sanitary FDA acceptance.
T-Lon’s use of PTFE has helped the company to manufacture myriad products for a range of companies. Research combining polymer, mineral and metallic filler is a continuous service that T-Lon Products can provide.
Since the inception of T-Lon Products, personnel have helped engineer more than 20 different blends of filled PTFE material for the purpose of maximizing properties. T-Lon products extend the service of customized materials to satisfy the specific needs of customers.
The bottom line, however, is T-Lon’s customer approach, a blend of cutting edge manufacturing capabilities and old-fashioned customer-oriented service. Says Olson, “What we are selling here at T-Lon is security. Security to our customer that they will receive a product, a consistent product, at a fair and competitive price, with a commitment to customer satisfaction by each employee, not only now, but to continue into the future.”