In our latest Technology Tuesdays podcast, Design World’s Michelle Froese speaks with David Church, president of Sorbothane, about innovative shock and vibration solutions. Sorbothane has been developing materials and components that isolate vibration, attenuate shock, and damp unwanted noise for more than 40 years.
In this discussion, we cover the history and unique properties of Sorbothane material, including the benefits of viscoelastic technology for a range of applications — from those found in the fitness industry to transportation and even aerospace. We also discuss how this proprietary material is finding new uses in lightweight electronic devices, the “perfect shape factor,” and what could be done to improve its performance (hint: not much!).
The audio and a lightly edited transcript of this conversation follow below. You can also listen to the podcast with David Church from last year here.
Design World (DW): Hello Everyone! Welcome to Design World’s Technology Tuesdays podcast. I’m Michelle Froze. Thanks so much for tuning in today! We are joined by David Church, the president of Sorbothane, to discuss innovative shock and vibration solutions.
Sorbothane is a unique company that’s been developing materials and components that isolate vibration, attenuate shock, and dampen unwanted noises. It does so for a range of industries, from aerospace to the fitness industry, and just celebrated its 40th anniversary last year.
Company name aside, Sorbothane also refers to the brand name of an engineered viscoelastic polyurethane that flows like a liquid under load. For this reason, it’s ideal for engineering design applications that require shock absorption, vibration isolation, and acoustic damping. This proprietary material serves as a solution to a range of interesting challenges, which we’ll discuss in detail with David today.
David, thanks so much for your time!
David Church (DC): Thank you, Michelle, for having me.
DW: Of course! To begin, can you please provide more insight about what Sorbothane, as a material, is exactly, and what makes it so effective as a solution to shock and vibration?
DC: Well…Sorbothane, as you mentioned in your introduction, is a proprietary material that we developed over 40 years ago. It’s a thermoset elastomer which means that, once it’s molded to its shape, it remains there. It cannot be remelted down or remolded.
Sorbothane is also in the family of polyurethanes and is almost like a combination of an ether base and an ester base because it offers similar characteristics in both categories. Our material is compounded so that it has the ability — as you mentioned earlier— to as a liquid, compress under the load. But since it is a thermoset urethane with plasticizers, it has elasticity. Once the load is removed, then it returns to its original shape.
So, because of the characteristics of the molecules within this material, it has the ability to expand and then come back to shape. This allows it to create its own heat, which dissipates the energy that’s in the isolating pad or mount. This is why it works so well in such applications that have shock and vibration. The material has the ability to compress under load, then take that energy to create its own energy, which it dissipates away from the device.
DW: Got it. So, you touched on how the material can flow under load. Can you explain in a bit more detail for listeners who are unfamiliar, with what viscoelastic means?
DC: Viscoelastic means that it’s a material that exhibits the properties of both a liquid — so that it flows under load — and elasticity — so that it comes back to its original shape. This is critical for many applications where there is vibration or even impact loads… so, where you’re repeatedly seeing an isolator compressed from the energy that’s exerted on that pad. It’s also very important that a viscoelastic material has the ability to return to its original shape. And then, if it’s under load, then it must have a small amount of creep. Sorbothane is compounded to where the amount of creep, which is the tendency of the material to continue to be compressed over time, maintains its original properties very well.
It’s, of course, important for many equipment manufacturers that a Sorbothane isolating pad be working just as well five or ten years down the road, as it did when it was first installed.
DW: So, it has longevity. In what ways or how is Sorbothane different than a mechanical fluid power damper?
DC: Compared to a mechanical fluid power damper, Sorbothane is different. It’s more like a urethane rubber component, whereas the mechanical hydraulic is similar to a cylinder that uses air or fluid (within the cylinder) to do the isolating. So, it’s really two different systems for isolating and we seldom cross paths in the marketplace. Most applications that rely on a mechanical type of isolator are not typically the markets Sorbothane is used in, and vice versa. We’re suited for different applications.
DW: I mentioned aerospace in the fitness sector in the intro, two very different industries. Can you please share more about Sorbothane’s impact on them and what other markets it’s commonly used in?
DC: Today, just about every industry is looking for lighter-weight materials, and you can find us in just about each one — from medical devices, tabletops, and a lot of the handheld electronic devices that people are using now (to protect the device).
We’re also getting more into the transportation industry because of the electronics and some of the machinery for transport has been impacted or even getting destroyed by the vibration from the road during transit. So, we’re in nearly every major market out there that deals with vibration or shock. And vibration is the biggest one, as I mentioned earlier, cause of the “lightweight-ness” of the devices or equipment. Everybody wants to go faster and lighter and that’s not a good combination when it comes to keeping vibration out of a piece of equipment.
In the “old days,” when everything was made out of heavy steel, it wasn’t an issue. If you wanted to take out some vibration, you just made it heavier. Well, that’s no longer the thought process, you know? The process in every industry now is to make it lighter and make it go faster, and that creates a whole new set of conditions for engineers to tackle as they attempt to best isolate vibration in smaller, lighter, and faster products.
DW: Given the demand for lighter-weight materials, has Sorbothane changed or improved over time…or, is there any flexibility in how it’s manufactured to meet different requirements?
DC: We get asked quite frequently about what we’ve done or can do to make Sorbothane better. And then I keep reminding people that is the best material out there for many applications, given its features. For us to change it, would make it underperform, in our opinion, because we have a material that has very low creep.
I’d say the only he only facet of the material that we’ve talked about changing recently is if we could find a way of compounding it, so that it could work in a slightly higher temperature range. But Sorbothane creates its own heat, so we must limit the temperature range. This is because if you’re in an ambient temperature of 160 degrees and, suddenly you’re cycling Sorbothane at 30 or 40 times per minute, the internal temperature of that material probably is going to increase by 20 or more degrees. Then, you’re basically working in a close-to-200-degree application.
When it comes to main the properties of Sorbothane, there’s not much room for improvement there. If we could find a way of maintaining these properties and increasing the temperature, it would open up a few more applications and markets for us. But there are always trades off. If you’re going go higher in temperature range, you’re probably going to lose something on the low end. But as you asked, that would be the only area that we would like to see a change…and there’s the technology out there for us to do that. We’ve been discussing the temperature range with some chemists, and we’ll see what can be done.
DW: What about sustainability in relation to the environment? Is Sorbothane considered eco-friendly?
DC: That’s one of the things that for most manufacturers of rubber products, it’s a challenge. In some ways, yes… it’s eco-friendly in the sense that many times you can grind the material. Then, we can use it in other types of applications. But plastics and rubbers, in general, are not considered eco-friendly because they’re a derivative of oil.
But like most manufacturers, we strive to find ways of reducing scrap, such as by re-using the scrap or the waste we have in other areas. We try to do everything we can to keep the ecosystem in balance and help improve it.
DW: For sure. That’s good! Can you please share a little bit about Sorbothane’s history as a material and then as a company? I believe one of its earliest inventions was an insole for shoes. Is that correct?
DC: That is correct! Forty-plus years ago, the working environment transformed and went from many people being involved in the trades or some type of physical labor to more manufacturing desk-type jobs. There were more jobs that were less physical. So, people began looking for ways of staying healthy because they weren’t doing so by sitting behind a desk and doing less strenuous work.
Well…one of the inventors of Sorbothane was a chemist that worked for British Tire and Rubber, and he became an avid runner. He was also trying to find a way to stay healthy. And 40-plus years ago, most running sneakers weren’t developed with the support they have today. So, he thought he would take his skill of being a chemist and working for a rubber company to develop a material for his shoes — one that he felt acted almost like the fatty pad that’s in the bottom of your feet because, as most of us know, it does a very good job of absorbing shock.
So, like I said, he used the knowledge that he had as a chemist and the experience he had in the rubber industry to develop a material called Sorbothane. The first product he manufactured was a heel pad for his sneakers. As that grew in popularity, he figured, why not a whole insole for the shoe? And that became the second product Sorbothane was used for.
Then, the real rise of Sorbothane’s popularity came in the ’80s when the show That’s Incredible! was airing in the United States. Dr. Maurice Hiles [the inventor] was brought on the show twice to talk about Sorbothane, its properties, and how well it worked. There’s also an infamous video out there of him having his hand smashed by a very large man, which is very dramatic [check in out here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=EV4XSYJkjfo&ab_channel=rs1661]. Since that time, we were spring-loaded into the marketplace and worked to continue with that success.
And as I mentioned earlier in our conversation, with the rise of portable devices, lighter materials, and faster-running equipment, it’s opened more doors for Sorbothane because there’s a bigger need for attenuating the vibration in such devices, or getting rid of the shock that happens if people accidentally drop such devices.
DW: That happens to me with my phone, that’s for sure! So, I guess the size of the product or device doesn’t matter, is that right? Sorbothane can fit into quite small electronic spaces, as well?
DC: Yeah, we can mold Sorbothane down to…oh, I don’t know, a quarter-inch by a quarter-inch block or square. And then we have the ability to water-jack cut even smaller shapes than that out of sheet stocks of Sorbothane. So, we have the versatility to provide an isolator that is extremely small to one that could be three feet by two inches thick by three feet, but we don’t get too many of those requests.
DC: But we do get the smaller requests quite often now.
DW: I noticed that you offer custom-engineered products on the homepage of your website for both entrepreneurs and engineers. Can you tell us about this service and how it would be ideal for those in either role?
DC: We felt, or the company did when it was first being developed, that this was important. So, knowing that we are an engineered product and that we’re unique because we’re the only one that has this material, we thought it was important that we put together a team that would serve either engineers from companies or entrepreneurs to help them understand the properties of Sorbothane and how to properly apply it to their application because it so unique.
We feel that that helps us grow with an entrepreneur because he or she feels that we have their best interest in mind by supporting the development of their product. Such companies, in turn, find it very helpful knowing that they have our resources to fall back and that saves time and allows them to do other things in their job. For example, it doesn’t burden them with trying to develop a Sorbothane part. They simply provide us with the parameters of their application and then we’ll do much of the work for them. And this is all free of charge. We don’t charge for our engineering services. This gives both entrepreneurs or an engineer for a company the ability to focus on other things and work on other parts of their project, while we work on the isolator they might need.
DW: Is this where the Design Calculators come in as well? I also noticed them on the Sorbothane site. Can you explain when someone would best use them?
DC: The Design Calculators are best used once an entrepreneur or engineer has had a chance to talk to one of our engineers, so as to ideally understand what parameters and what design features are required for their product. This is because, with any type of shock or vibration application that uses our material, there’s what we call the “perfect shape factor.”
An isolator damper deals with up to, you know, 94 to 95% of the energy — but you don’t always get the ability to design that perfect shape because of limitations in the envelope or of the project where that isolator has to work in.
The Design Calculator gives an entrepreneur or an engineer the ability to see exactly what’s available envelope-wise when using Sorbothane to perform within the function of an application. The Calculator is a very good tool that helps with understanding part of the design equation and what shape is needed to provide, say… 95 or 98% isolation? From there, you can kind of backtrack, I guess you could say, to determine what can or cannot be done because of the space available [in a device or piece of equipment] or what have you. It helps to figure out what kind of isolation is possible for a specific project.
DW: Thanks, David! Just a couple more questions for you…when working with entrepreneurs or engineers, have you encountered any trial-and-error stories or unexpected successes that you might be able to share in relation to Sorbothane?
DC: Trial and errors? In our industry, there are some trial-and-errors because, as I mentioned, you’re not always able to use the perfect shape for an application. So, you’re fine-tuning it to get as close as possible and seeing what you can do durometer-hardness-wise or shape-wise. Sometimes a square might be the best isolator, and other times it’s a disc or it might be a washer. It takes going through that series of which shape factor would be best suited for that application. And this is where a little trial and error comes into play while trying to figure out what shape is ideal.
DW: I see. Well, it’s been more than 40 years now since Sorbothane was founded — and congratulations by the way! Is there anything new or any lessons learned along the way that you’d like to share with our listeners?
DC: Well, I would like to share with the listeners, and this is for our current and past customers, too…you know, over the last 40 years we’ve been very fortunate to work with some very good companies and very good entrepreneurs. We have seen entrepreneurs come to our company, develop a product, and then in over a span of maybe 20 years — or, others shorter and only five years—we’ve seen their products, which we helped develop, become leaders in the market or one of the most preferred products in the market.
Those are the things that give us a lot of, I guess, satisfaction because we helped somebody take a dream and make it real. And, and that’s important to us… these partnerships we’ve formed with companies and entrepreneurs over the years. It’s always been a Sorbothane motto or mindset, and that’s that we’re here to help people, we’re here to protect people, and we’re here to help the world become better.
Sorbothane has no chemicals in it that are on any of the REACH, RoHs, or Prop 65 lists. So, we’re very proud of that, and we continue to make a safe product for the environment and for the people who are using it.
DW: One more question I’d like to sneak in here. Is there a product that you didn’t expect it to work in, or something where say an entrepreneur came to you and you were like…actually, we can make this work?
DC: Yeah, the latest one is with the company out of California. It’s called Road to Pro. It was with a young man who was on the professional tennis circuit, never made it very big, but he developed his own little business of being a teacher. As a tennis player, knowing all of the aches and pains of tennis, he didn’t feel that there was a decent tennis racket damper out there.
So, he bought some Sorbothane sheets, started cutting shapes out of the sheets, and put them on the tennis racket string at the base, where most of the dampeners are used. And yeah, it worked well, but it only worked for one swing and then would either fall off or break. We told him this probably wasn’t going to work because even though Sorbothane is a great damper, it’s not physically capable of molding to applications like that. But he was persistent.
He came up with a design using two little plastic-like cups and developed two little dampers that had an ID on it that slipped in between and pressed them together. Lo and behold slid, it slid onto the racket and became a success. In this case, it was his real dedication and his drive to come up with a solution more than ours, unfortunately. That’s one time where, you know, we weren’t as creative as we thought we were!
Sometimes you have to learn from your customers and that’s one time when we did learn something from our customer. So yeah…now he’s doing very well. He has his product on the market, and it’s been accepted and doing well, and we’re very happy for him because now he’s looking at other applications for our material. So. That’s one within the last five or six years that we really didn’t think was going to amount to anything, but it turned out to be a very good product. And we’re very proud to be a part of it.
DW: That sounds like a perfect fit!
DW: Thanks again for joining us David, and for providing such great insight about Sorbothane. We’re at the end of our available time, but would you be able to share with listeners how to best get in touch?
DC: The best get in touch with us is through our website at Sorbothane.com. We have a new website that we launched at the end of last year, which I hope everybody would take a look at. We have gotten very positive feedback from the people who have used it so far! We also have a dynamic form on the website, which allows you to either get a quote, get samples, or ask for literature…you can do all of that or just ask for one thing, like if you’d like samples, just fill out that part of the form. It even allows you to develop your own request for whatever you need.
We also have all of our standard products on there and a lot of good success stories, which I think is helpful for people to understand where our products are being used and how diverse the markets are that we’re in.
DW: Thank you, David! It’s been great connecting with you.
DC: Well, thank you, Michelle.
DW: And thank you listeners for joining us today. To learn more about us, please visit Design World at designworldonline.com, and be sure to subscribe and share this wherever you listen to your podcast. Thanks again for your time and attention. I hope you all have a productive day!
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