Who will be the next Gutenberg?

Edward P. Salek, CAE, Executive Director | TLT Headquarters Report March 2018

And which tribology innovation will drive history’s next disruptive technology?

Whether it’s extraordinary fuel efficiency or some other technology that equals Gutenberg’s printing press, the work of STLE members will play a major role.
© Can Stock Photo / welcomiaw

The International Colloquium Tribology is one of the premier technical conferences for individuals in the tribology and lubricants field. Over the years, it has become known as the TAE Conference (Technical Academy at Esslingen is the host facility) or simply the Esslingen conference (the city near Stuttgart where the TAE is located).

Whatever the name, the 21st biennial conference held in early January offered an impressive combination of keynote speeches, technical presentations, exhibits and networking for nearly 600 participants. My travel schedule for the conference allowed a weekend in the ancient German city of Mainz, about 10 miles from the international airport at Frankfurt.

Mainz has a rich history dating back to the 1st Century BC. One of the most notable dates on its timeline is the mid-15th Century, when it was home to Johannes Gutenberg. He is best known as the inventor of the movable-type printing press, and the story of his life and work is well-presented in the fantastic Gutenberg Museum in the heart of Mainz. Movable type had been used in Asia hundreds of years earlier, but Gutenberg’s innovation was developing a casting system and metal alloys that made production of books and other documents much easier. 

Gutenberg almost certainly did not recognize that his printing press and related developments (he formulated oil-based ink for example) would become the enabling foundation for a communication method that would change civilization. In fact, his fledgling printing business ran into financial difficulty within about five years, and he died in relative obscurity in 1468. But 545 years after Gutenberg’s death, historians were nearly unanimous in proclaiming him to be the most important individual of the last millennium (1000-2000 AD).

The Gutenberg Museum experience put the Esslingen Conference proceedings in an unexpected perspective. It caused me to realize that the researchers and practitioners describing their work at the tribology event could be characterized as modern-age descendants of Gutenberg. Each man and woman had a vision of how the science of tribology can be an enabler that will drive progress and benefit civilization.

Many possibilities for a disruptive and life-changing technology that could rival the printing press were evident at the three-day conference. Could it be: electric mobility, additive manufacturing, extraordinary fuel efficiency in conventional vehicles or high-performance specialty products like greases or metalworking fluids? Advanced condition monitoring of production processes through the Internet of Things is another early-stage technology discussed at the conference that could spark a revolution in both lubricant formulation and predictive maintenance.

STLE President Mike Anderson with Falex Corp., one of the TAE’s keynote speakers, summarized how tribological innovations will drive progress. “Solutions to critical technical problems in manufacturing, energy production and use, transportation vehicles and almost every aspect of our lives are impacted by technologies that benefit from tribology, the ability to control friction and wear loss,” Anderson said. 

Support for events like the Esslingen conference is part of the STLE strategic plan to work with other technical societies, in this case the German Society for Tribology, for the purpose of advancing innovation in the field. Information sharing at scientific and technical conferences plays a major role in providing the inspiration for research or product developments that have the capacity to improve quality of life.

It’s not possible to predict which of the many ideas presented at Esslingen might change the world in the future. Gutenberg most certainly could not have foreseen the impact of his work, and the same is true for today’s tribology researchers. But two things are clear. First, disruptive technology is not a 21st Century discovery! Second, good things in the future will be derived from the practical application of tribology principles.
You can reach Certified Association Executive Ed Salek at esalek@stle.org.