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Five months later than hoped, the West Coast's newest lubricating grease plant is fully operational. Tomlin Scientific, which has formulated and marketed specialty greases since 1991, last week said it has completed bringing on stream its 1-million-pound-per-year grease plant in Santa Ana, Calif.

Its tiny size means Tomlin will have the merest nibble of the 505 million pound U.S. lubricating grease market, but company officials say they'll concentrate on low-volume/high-value offerings, such as synthetic greases and testing services.

"This move will allow Tomlin to expand its product line and market penetration," Tom Willey, company president, told Lube Report. "We are currently equipped to manufacture lithium, lithium complex, calcium complex, silica, and benton and/or clay greases."

The company's primary products are greases for down-hole rock bits for oil and gas drilling. Forty percent of its business involves lubrication of rock-bit machinery, and it claims to have captured 85 percent of the global market by creating the "genuine" greases branded by original equipment manufacturers. Another 40 percent of its business is developing custom greases for private-label customers; these are made by third-party contractors to Tomlin's specifications. Tomlin now will be able to manufacture some of these greases itself.

Investment in new grease making capacity has dwindled throughout the United States, and more than 10 grease plants closed on the West Coast over the past decade. Picking up the slack, Chemtool Inc. opened a massive 75 million lb./yr. plant last September in Tehachapi, Calif., about 110 miles from Los Angeles. Lubricating Specialties Co., the only other large West Coast player, makes greases in Vernon, Calif., also near Los Angeles.

With only five employees, Tomlin does not expect to compete in the same arena as those two heavyweights. Instead, its strategy is to formulate specialty greases for private-label customers, and then to manufacture them in batches ranging from 8,000 pounds down to as low as 500 pounds.

"We are the only manufacturer in the U.S. to have a 500-lb. saponification kettle," Willey said. "The more conservative batch size offers the opportunity to the smaller consumer to acquire a more sophisticated product than was previously available to him." Minimum batch sizes at most grease manufacturers start at about 10,000 pounds, he pointed out. "In the past, the smaller consumer had to buy a me-too product which was drawn from a larger production batch of material designed for another customer" and then try to adjust it to meet their own specialized needs.

The plant design allows further expansion, to about double its current capacity. Product is being shipped in bulk containers, 55-gallon drums and 5-gallon pails, and a cartridge-filling line will be added by year end.

The new plant actually opened nearly a year ago, in October, and was to have been fully on stream by April. But permitting delays dogged the facility until engineering changes were made that satisfied municipal authorities -- including structural improvements that city officials demanded when the plant turned out to be directly over an earthquake faultline.

"Before moving in, we'd been told it might take seven weeks to get the permits," recalled Willey. "We had anticipated there might be some delay, so when we moved in we had a three-month stockpile of product inventory to draw on." That proved inadequate, as the delays piled on.

"Luckily, being a family-owned business we could work nights to catch up with orders," he added. "I don't know if hourly employees would have been able to devote that much time." Willey's sons, Ryan and Scott, are the company's R&D and lab manager and its plant manager/greasemaker, respectively.

By Lisa Tocci

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