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Seal maker finds opportunity in flexibility

By: Rhoda Miel

August 19, 2013

TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. — When automakers first started talking about investing more in fuel-cell-powered vehicles and producing more hybrid engines, Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies group was worried.

If the internal combustion engine was replaced with new technology, that would do away with a lot of the engine seals that are at the heart of the company's business. But the more executives and researchers looked into it, the better things looked for the company.

"Batteries and hybrid cars need a lot of cooling systems for batteries," said Ted Duclos, vice president and general manager of the global fuel power division. And thermal management and cooling falls directly into Freudenberg-NOK's prime specialty.

"We see opportunity," Duclos said during an interview at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars, held Aug. 5-8 in Traverse City. "You can only be open for opportunities if you're flexible."

Freudenberg-NOK — a joint venture between Germany's Freudenberg & Co. and Japan's NOK Corp. with North American offices based in Plymouth, Mich. — has seen the auto industry shifting as automakers look to make more-efficient vehicles. Engine seals had previously been seen as an integral part of the engine, but not necessarily innovative.

That's changing now, with Freudenberg-NOK introducing a line of products under the Energy Saving Seals name that reduce friction better than standard seals, according to the company. The lower friction means lower temperatures, Duclos said, which also lead to longer life for those seals.

The company estimates that if every potential seal was replaced with a low-friction alternative, the U.S. could save three days' worth of oil imports.

Getting to production on those seals required flexibility from the company, demonstrating its capabilities in product development and material choice.

Freudenberg-NOK has experience in compounding and molding multiple materials, among them thermoplastic elastomer, polytetrafluoroethylene and rubber.

"It's that old cliché that if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail," Duclos said. "Anyone in business understands that in order for a business to survive and prosper, it must have the capacity to endure, persevere through business cycles and pursue long-range objectives."

For a current sealing program, for instance, the company began developing the seal in TPE, then moved to polytetrafluoroethylene to get better performance before finally getting the final product in rubber. It is now rolling out production to multiple locations.

"I encourage our engineering people to not get stuck on one solution," Duclos said.