In our latest Technology Tuesday’s 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 40 years. In fact, the company is celebrating four decades in business this year!
In honor of Sorbothane’s anniversary, we discuss the unique history of the company, including how the material was developed for insoles to support runners and then became essential for industrial industries to protect vital cargo and equipment. We also cover Sorbothane material’s properties, the company’s new standard products (launching this fall), and how its online Design Guide Calculators can support your application.
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 Tuesday’s podcast. I’m Michelle Froese. In this podcast, we speak with David Church, the president of Sorbothane, a company that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, which says a lot about the quality and staying power of the business — and the material.
You see, Sorbothane also refers to the brand name of a uniquely engineered viscoelastic polyurethane that flows like a liquid under load. This proprietary material is ideal for engineering design applications that require shock absorption, vibration isolation, and acoustic damping.
Since 1982, Sorbothane — the company — has produced individualized shock and vibration solutions for several diverse markets in a range of different challenges and applications. We discuss a few of these in our conversation today, along with the history of the company. I hope you enjoy the chat with David and thanks so much for tuning in!
David… thanks so much for your time and congrats on 40 years in business!
David Church (DC): Thank you, Michelle. We’d also like to thank Design World for being part of that for us. We’ve been working with Design World for over 10 years, so it seems, getting the message out about Sorbothane and our capabilities.
DW: Appreciate that, David! So, I’m wondering if you could start by sharing a little bit about what inspired the origin of Sorbothane as a material and how it was developed.
DC: Okay. I’d love to share that with everybody. Sorbothane was developed because a chemist at British Tyre and Rubber was also an avid runner. He found that the insoles in his running sneakers weren’t satisfactory in reducing the shock as he ran. So, his goal was to find and develop a material that would act similar to the natural fatty pad on one’s hand or heel to dissipate the energy. His main purpose was to reduce his own pain from running. That’s how Sorbothane came about…one person was developing a product for his own personal use.
DW: That’s quite interesting! I know we spoke last year, and you provided a lot of insight about Sorbothane. I’ll share a link to that podcast in the show notes in case listeners would like to reference it. You did touch on the unique history of the material…it’s quite the story.
Can you also share how Sorbothane went from an initial concept in, I think it was the mid ’70s to a full-fledged company in the early ’80s?
DC: Now that’s an interesting story when you think about Sorbothane and its development back in the early ’80s to where we are now. The real key to how Sorbothane got noticed in the marketplace was the fact that in the ’80s, there was a television show called That’s Incredible!, and one of the producers found out about Sorbothane through some personal contact that he had with the inventor of Sorbothane, the chemist, Dr. Hiles.
So, they invited Dr. Hiles to come on the TV show and demonstrate how Sorbothane worked. And from that show, it was introduced to millions of people around the United States. That just lit up our telephone lines for months and months after that show aired because everybody was quite fascinated by how Dr. Hiles was able to put a puck of Sorbothane on his hand, and then he continued to hit it without damaging the fingers of his hand. And that is how Sorbothane really got launched into the marketplace.
From there, we were able to develop a relationship with a lot of customers based on their unique applications and what they required for shock and vibrations. Back then, it was definitely revolutionary what Dr. Hiles did in composing this material, which not only took energy away but also returned to its original shape — over and over again.
In many liquid-type damping devices, once the liquid is dispersed, the energy through it never recovers. Then, if you have an elastic dampening material, of course, it will take that energy, but it usually can’t dissipate enough of it to make it worthwhile.
So, as I said, it was a very interesting the way that Sorbothane came onto the market and the fact that we were on a one simple television show called, That’s Incredible!. Sorbothane was then launched into a company or a material that became well known throughout the United States and then throughout the world.
DW: That is pretty incredible! For those listeners who are unfamiliar, can you explain what viscoelastic means exactly and how Sorbothane can flow under load? I’m interested in how and when that’s beneficial.
DC: Sure! Viscoelastic means that a material exhibits the properties of both a liquid, which is a viscous solution and a solid, which is an elastic material. Viscoelastic behavior is desirable in applications that experience shock from vibration. Many materials claim to be viscoelastic. However, many of these materials only have trace viscous and elastic properties.
As I mentioned earlier, liquid can form under load and transmit forces in all directions, but it doesn’t return. The energy is lost. And it cannot do so over and over again. The elastic material will deform under load and return to its original shape, but many times such materials are too stiff and fail to allow for the energy to be fully dispersed throughout that material.
Since Sorbothane has a combination of long and short-chain molecules, this allows the material to act like a fluid. The long chains allow it to flow, and the short chains allow it to have the electricity to return to its original shape.
DW: Got it. What types of industries can Sorbothane work well in? I imagine there are quite a few given its features?
DC: Any industry that’s dealing with vibration and shock, which is just about anything that has an electric motor or a combustion-type engine where you have energy being dispersed into a device. And then, of course, that energy can have some harmonics that will cause unnatural or unwanted sounds.
So, we deal with many different applications in the medical field, including isolating blood centrifuges and medical devices on mobile parts. Many medical devices also don’t like vibration or shock as they’re being pushed around the hospital. Many of them have to be isolated from the carts they’re on so that the circuitry inside is not damaged by the vibration that’s coming up through the carts.
We also do a lot of isolation in applications in the transporting of precious cargo or sensitive devices. We have applications where we’re isolating very expensive MRI machines from the manufacturing plant to the hospitals.
We also do a lot of work with art museums throughout the country and world by developing systems using Sorbothane to isolate the precious cargo they’re crating to ship from one museum to the next.
And then, we do quite a bit of work within the automotive industry, mostly for protecting sensitive equipment that’s used on different vehicles. A unique example is that we use our material to isolate a Class Eight scrubber for diesel engines that up until they started using Sorbothane, saw a lot of sensor damage and were often unable to read properly because of the vibration from transport, from the factory to the assembly plant.
So, Sorbothane has a unique history of protecting vital equipment over the 40 years that we have been in operations.
DW: Were all the benefits of the material readily apparent from the start, or did some of them say acoustic damping or other features become slowly evident over time based on new applications?
DC: Oh, yes. Sorbothane, the original application, was for insoles and heel pads for shoes…that was the major application that it was being used for. And then as I mentioned, it was introduced on That’s Incredible!. From then on, we got a number of new inquiries and new applications that people were asking us to look into and see if Sorbothane would be able to be used. That’s when we saw all the other benefits of Sorbothane from the acoustical side to the vibration side.
When we developed the initial application for Sorbothane, it was just for shock dampening. It was designed for the impact of running, walking, and such. As the new queries and applications came in, we began to ask: What about vibration? What about acoustics?
Since Sorbothane is an extremely dense material, it works well for acoustic-type isolation. And then we found that for vibration, it also works very well there because it’s a dense material. When you’re adding it to a piece of equipment, it’s adding to some of the weight that is needed and almost acts like a tuned dampener, which is what some people use to take away vibration.
So yes, over the years and over the many different applications that Sorbothane was asked to look into after That’s Incredible!, we found where it could be used. We also continue to find new places to apply Sorbothane that we haven’t considered in the past, which makes it an exciting company to work for — and challenging at times as we research how to apply our material to unique applications that we haven’t thought of previously.
DW: I can imagine! Do you typically work with engineers or entrepreneurs at the early stages of the development of a product? Or do customers tend to seek you out after our product’s been designed, hoping for better material options…or different options?
DC: Yes, yes, yes, and yes.
DW: I imagine you provide a lot of guidance!
DC: Yes. Ideally, we would like to be brought into a project in the early stages and with any company working with elastic materials, seals, gaskets, and vibration and dampening of energy. The sooner we can get brought in, the better because we can help develop the right shape and durometer, and thickness of the dampener that needs to be designed for that application. Also, we’d like to work with the entrepreneur or engineer to make sure we have enough room for the isolator.
If we’re brought into a situation after some other material was designed for the application, then you sometimes run into space restrictions. Sorbothane is different from synthetic rubber or a silicone-type dampener when it comes to how it works and how much Sorbothane material is required to work properly. So, the sooner we can be introduced to the project, the better it is to make sure we can develop that proper shape value for that application.
If it’s later down the road, a lot of times it’s more challenging to get the best performance. We can design the product to fit into an envelope, but it might not be the proper shape value to offer the best performance. For example, it might give you 80% or 75% isolation. But if we can develop the proper shape value durometer for the Sorbothane part, we’ve been known to get up to 94% isolation or dampening of the energy.
DW: That’s excellent. I noticed that you have quite a few resources on your website, as well as Sorbothane Design Guide Calculators. Can you please explain how they work? I assume that this might be helpful for some of the information that you just explained.
DC: Right…we’re really proud of the development of the calculators on our website because they allow entrepreneurs and engineers to force certain basic shapes, isolating discs, isolating rings, squares, and rectangles. You can input the size shape that you’re estimating you would need for an application and then put a load on it. Then, you can choose different durometers and put them into the equation to see how much isolation you’re going to get for that shape.
The calculators allow for some initial evaluation of…say, does a disc work better than a ring? Or, does a square work better than a rectangle for your application? And what durometer and thickness are the best from this calculation? So, these are good tools for providing an initial understanding of the shape value you’re going to need for your application.
We don’t yet have and we’re working on adding bushings and stud mounts and other types of shapes or products. So if someone needed a customized female bumper, they could determine what shape and what dime or what thickness they’d require. But that’s a little more complex than the simple shapes that we have on the site now.
DW: Got it, so the calculators are a very useful tool. I’ve also heard about the development and growth of your standard Sorbothane products. Can you share more?
DC: Oh yes! We’re constantly updating our standard product brochure to provide entrepreneurs and engineers with off-the-shelf solutions, which are more economical for them and more economical for us. What we have done over the years is develop new sizes of hemispheres that we have not had in our product family to give us that missing range…like an inch and a quarter. We did not have these in our catalog for many years…or an inch and a half. We’ve added that to it.
We’ve also added some different features, such as urethane-coated Sorbothane hemispheres. Sorbothane, because of its properties, is naturally tacky. For some applications, the tackiness is not wanted by the end-user. So, we came up with a way of doing a urethane coating on top that covers the tackiness and allows them to use the product.
We’ve also expanded our products and are coming out with a new wave wavy Sorbothane sheet. From our years of experience using Sorbothane, we always talk about the bulge factor of Sorbothane, and that getting the material to move and bulge out allows it to perform better. Now, when you use a sheet of Sorbothane, of course, you must take a lot of weight to get that sheet to bulge out, and then it doesn’t work as well. So, we’ve developed a wavy sheet, which is going to be launched in the third quarter of this year when our new standard product brochure comes out.
We know will interest the marketplace because the waves on the sheet are able to move and bulge a little bit more than what a flat surface or sheet would.
DW: It sounds like the innovations are ongoing, which is probably kudos to the 40 years in business. I imagine also that Sorbothane was able to address the challenge of COVID well, considering its years and decades in business. Can you share more about how the company was affected by the pandemic?
DC: We faced the challenges as many companies did and by protecting our employees. We made sure there was little chance of contracting the disease when they were at our facility in Kent, Ohio. We went through a stringent disinfecting of the company every weekend to make sure that all the machines were wiped down and disinfected, including the lunchroom tables. We also put partitions up between workstations to make sure that operators were separated. If we had to have people work together, we made sure they were properly masked and kept disinfecting their hands so that none of the common tools they were using would be contaminated.
It was a very challenging time. We were fortunate that we have a number of companies and customers that are essential businesses. We needed to be open to produce products for the medical industry and our medical customers. So, we survived it.
I give kudos to our employees for their perseverance through that time, and their dedication to coming in, because there was a lot of fear with that pandemic. Like I said, we have to really tip our hats to our employees for their dedication to come in during that time, even though it was a very stressful time for everybody.
DW: Agreed. Did the company go through any other major challenges over the last four decades or any successes that you’d like to share?
DC: Well, unfortunately, once we came out of that pandemic, there was the freeze down in the southern parts of America, including in Texas and Louisiana. These are areas where many of the chemical plants are located, and many of the chemical plants were affected by that freeze and were shut down for an extended period of time. So, coming out of the pandemic, we went from the pandemic to a force majeure with our raw materials. We were on allocations nearly all the way through 2021. This meant we had to work hard to properly schedule our production so that we could maintain our product supply to all our customers without interrupting their business.
Essentially, we went from the pandemic to force majeure, and now we’re facing the supply chain issue with getting spare parts for our machinery. We’re facing the same challenges that all companies are right now with supply chain issues. But we feel very fortunate that we’ve done such a good job to maintain a constant flow of raw materials required to make the parts for our customers and to keep our machinery running. But the last few years have been a very challenging time for, well…I would say for anybody in manufacturing in the world.
DW: Absolutely. I was going to say your supply chain must be pretty solid by now based on those challenges. So, David, what makes you most proud about working at Sorbothane?
DC: There’s a combination of things that I feel proud about. One is the fact that the company takes care of its employees and provides them with a good medical plan. We’re very competitive with wages. The plant is maintained well…it’s clean. We’re very conscious about safety and we’re a good partner with the community here. So, getting involved in a community, I think that’s vital, and it makes me proud to be part of Sorbothane.
Another thing about Sorbothane that I’m proud of is the fact that most of our applications protect either an individual from harmful shock or vibration or a piece of equipment from energy vibration that would otherwise shorten its life or usefulness. That’s what’s exciting about working with Sorbothane. What we do here is make everybody’s life better — throughout the United States and the world. Everything we do here is about protecting the individual and making somebody’s life better through the products that we’re designing for major companies and individuals.
DW: That’s quite inspirational. We’re nearing the end of our available time today. Is there anything I should have asked you or that you’d like to share before we end the conversation, David?
DC: No, I can’t think of any. I wish I could!
DW: Perhaps the best way for listeners to get in touch, I assume through your website?
DC: Yes, yes. And maybe that’s something I should have mentioned. We’re launching a new website that should be up and running by the end of the third quarter. So, we’re excited about the new look. The site will offer more user-friendly interactions, allowing an engineer or entrepreneur to find information quicker and have more information at their fingertips. This is so they can better understand how Sorbothane works, how to get in contact with us, and how we can partner with them to help them develop the products they need for their application.
DW: I’m looking forward to seeing it. Thank you so much for your time and insight, David. It’s been great speaking with you again, and congratulations on the 40th anniversary! That’s pretty special.
DC: Well, thank you. Yeah, we’re very proud of what we have accomplished over these 40 years.
DW: 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. Thank you listeners for your time and attention, and I hope you have a productive day.
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