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Rubber soul H

Shipowners need to know the difference between a polymer and a phenolic bearing, says George ‘Sandy’ Thomson*

ow on earth do you get from playing vibraphone in a Cuban jazz band, making acclaimed documentary films and flying airplanes in your spare time to pioneering the development of a unique


polymer alloy for the global shipping industry? “You just gotta be creative and crazy

enough,” says George ‘Sandy’ Thomson, the septuagenarian owner and chairman of the board of the Thomson-Gordon Group, the Canada-based parent of Thordon Bearings. “Engineers can be too rigid and won’t succeed in business unless they tap into their creative side. I have the mind of an engineer, but the soul of an artist,” he declares. There are a lot of creative strings to Thomson’s bow (or more keys to his vibra- phone, perhaps), but after graduating in mechanical engineering from Northrop University, California (founded by Jack Northrop of Northrop Aviation in 1942) and a subsequent stint as a mechanical seals engineer, among other things, he joined the family business to begin his pioneering work reacting synthetic elastomer chemicals.

Polymer science

“I’d found this Indian rubber chemist, Dr Pandi, who had a PhD in polymer science and we’d spend days blending these newly discovered polymers to see if we could find different uses for them. Eventually, we came up with the right formula and manufactured the world’s first polymer alloy pump bearing,” he recounts. After the market success of the bearing in

industrial applications, Thomson and Dr Pandi set about developing polymer bearings for seawater-lubricated propeller shafts, which, at that time, were made of either lignum vitae [Ed: a kind of wood] bearings or the resin phenolic

laminate. A polymer material, he thought, would make the bearing more abrasion resistant and less susceptible to damage in high-temperature, high-pressure applications. “Traditional phenolic laminate-based seawater-lubricated bearings just don’t have the longevity of a polymer system.” Yet, while the technology was there, the

market wasn’t: metallic oil lubricated bearings had come on leaps and bounds since the 1950s and dominated the market, so trying to get the industry to adopt a new concept was very challenging. “Shipping companies would always ask who else was using it, and if nobody was, then you’d be stymied,” he says. Thomson recognised that only regulatory

change could spur the wider uptake of seawater-lubricated bearing systems and so began leading the campaign for a revision of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Vessel General Permit rules. He was success- ful. The new VGP rules entered into force in December 2013 mandating that all vessels operating in US waters must use a so-called environmentally acceptable lubricant (EAL) in oil-to-sea interfaces. The EPA went further, recommending that that ‘all newbuild vessel operators use seawater-based systems for their stern tube lubrication to eliminate the discharge of oil to the aquatic environment’.

Growing ambitions

As the maritime community is rapidly moving towards seawater-lubricated propulsion, the biggest challenges they face are managing growth and responding to market demand.

Recalling the impact of the 1950s introduc-

tion of metallic oil-lubricated propeller shaft bearings on the then market leader Blohm+Voss (B+V), Thomson says that demand took the German manufacturer by surprise. B+V was compelled to enter into licence agreements with two other bearing manufacturers, but these companies soon developed their own systems, which became more successful in the market than those of the original manufacturer. “The potential demand for seawater

lubricated propeller shaft bearings is a concern given the potentially high volume and production increase this will require,” admits the firm’s chairman, but vows the company is ready. “We aim to triple the size of our production plant in Poland and construction of a second facility is underway, with its first units expected to roll out during mid-2016.” In time, Thomson expects that all Thordon

seals will be manufactured in Poland, with the 80 000ft2

polymer bearings and shaft protections systems. “We were considering building a factory in China, but it may prove to be too great a risk. Besides, we have a very effective distributor in China, CY Engineering.”

Creative zone

One thing that Thomson believes differentiates Thordon Bearings from its competitors is a business model devoted to innovation. “We don’t look to see what our competitors

are doing and say, ‘Hey, let’s make one of those’. Instead, we invent the solutions that our competitors want to copy,” he explains.

Traditional phenolic laminate-based seawater-lubricated bearings just don’t have the longevity of a polymer system

Canada facility continuing to focus on

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