Science Friction: The Art of Using Friction to Your Advantage

Friction gets a bad rap. The world sees it as something it needs to eliminate because it generates wear and waste. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a business best-seller by Roger Dooley, Friction, that declares war on friction, from a customer-experience perspective. Even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says that his secret to success is eliminating friction. But is this true? Do we really want to eliminate friction?

As lubrication technology developers at Interlub Group, we’re quite knowledgeable on the subject and, therefore, understand friction in an uncommon way. Which is why we would like to share with you an uncommon take on friction.

Fundamentally, we think of friction as a force that renders our universe, together with gravitational, electromagnetic and nuclear forces and without which there would be no life as we know it. Acknowledging friction as a building force allows us to develop ways to make the world flow better, both in our personal lives and in business:

  • We move forward thanks to the friction in our cars’ tires and railroad tracks.
  • We progress as individuals when friction challenges our lives and well-being.
  • We understand friction within our organizations to perfect them.
  • We leverage friction in communication to reach new levels of understanding.

However, it’s also incorrect to say that because friction is necessary, we must take it as it is. Friction is the mother of undesirable conditions, such as the attrition of the physical elements that surround us, including the environment.

A study commissioned by the British Ministry of Education and Science, called the Jost Study, says that unnecessary mechanical friction (the one we can avoid) equals 2 percent of countries’ GDP, a number worthy of any government’s attention when considering economic development. In other words, there’s a degree of friction that’s unnecessary and pernicious that we need to address. We can conclude, then, that friction is a phenomenon that we should neither blame nor glorify but understand.

Friction Is Also Human

At Interlub Group, we see friction as something beyond just a mechanical phenomenon. We see it as something that occurs in all aspects of life, such as interpersonal relationships, organizational structures, and social dynamics. Even more so, we understand that friction, in a conventional industrial setting, happens at a molecular level, though it manifests at machine and global scales.

Because of this, we understand friction as a science that tries to approach this phenomenon in its different contexts and manifestations, taking action to generate adequate degrees of friction to make both our lives and world flow better.

Having said this, we research and develop solutions to optimize friction, focusing on different scales:

  1. Molecular scale – supramolecular and nano interactions.
  2. Surface scale – contact roughness on surface materials, traditional chemistry, friction coefficients, rheology, and tribometry.
  3. Sensory scale – what human senses perceive as machine performance, operation temperature, vibration, and degradation.
  4. System scale – cost-benefit company performance, lubricant consumption, and process efficiencies.
  5. Time scale – long-term environmental and societal impact/sustainability.

Principles of ‘Science Friction’

“Science Friction” is the interplay between these different scales and what triggers most of our company-wide innovation initiatives (as mentioned previously here), as well as the development of innovative lubrication solutions for our customers’ most critical challenges.

For example, based on our scale-centric approach, we’ve leveraged research on new polymers to create web-like structures (molecular scale) that enable lifelong lubricants (surface scale) to act on components destined for no maintenance (sensory scale), which, in turn, eliminates costs (system scale) and reduces the ecological footprint of an organization (time scale).

From this example, we can learn that by analyzing problems on different scales, like an exercise of zooming in and out, the universe of solutions increases exponentially. This is how we resolve friction across scales in a more sustainable way for all parties involved.

With evolution and change comes a lack of clarity and certainty, which usually increases friction in organizations. An evident source of friction in organizations lies in the communication among its members. For us to move forward, we must approach this friction differently. Can we apply science friction’s insights beyond the physical world to overcome this challenge?

Interhuman understanding makes us an amazing species, allowing us to share ideas and create solutions to, say, reach other planets — a feat we never would have accomplished without collaboration. Studying and understanding friction in communication in its various dimensions of emotional and rational intention/perception, as well as its different individual and collective scales, allow us to build companies that push the limits of what is possible today.

With this approach of understanding friction at multiple scales, also in a human context, we’re able to leverage our organizational structure to create solutions that optimize friction from a mechanical context in ways that are completely innovative, such as intelligent lubricants that can change their viscosity dynamically, depending on the input required to perform; products with next-gen nanoparticles that can save millions in wear; and energy losses that damage our environment.

Friction is a given force in our universe. We’re not saying we should eliminate or just accept it; we should uncover this incredibly complex force’s mysteries that still lie before us. This is how we enter a new era of leveraging friction to make our organizations and the world flow better.

About the Author

Rene Freudenberg is CEO of Interlub Group | The Uncommon Lubricant Company©, an organization that tackles some of the most demanding productivity and maintenance challenges in a wide range of industries. The company serves more than 2,500 customers in 37 countries, with headquarters in Zapopan, Jalisco, Mexico.