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Oilite bearings and the Chrysler Amplex Division

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Oilite bearings and the Chrysler Amplex Division

by David Zatz

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In 1927, Carl Breer observed that a car's clutch would slip when oil, grease, or graphite was packed in. GM made a bushing of compressed powdered copper and graphite, but it crumbled. He hired an outside engineer, paired him with metallurgist Bill Caulkins, and helped them work on a new way to make self-lubricating bearings.

Together, Sherwood and Caulkins were able to compress powdered copper (88.5%) and tin (10%) with some graphite (1.5%) in a die, heat treating it in a furnace in the absence of oxygen (a process called "sintering").

The resulting metal was "astonishingly high in physical strength" and about 40% porous; so they put it into a high vacuum, then released the vacuum by exposing it to oil, rather than air. They finished up by pressuring the oil, forcing it into the metal of the bearing. When the final product was clean, it seemed dry; but when there was friction, the higher temperature brought the oil out. It was re-absorbed when the temperature dropped again.

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About a third of the volume of the "Oilite® " bearings were oil; so much that they usually needed no service after installation. Oilite bearings would be used in distributors, generators, starters, and ball joints as well as water pump and clutch pilots, starting around 1932.

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The group went to Walter P. Chrysler to suggest that he set up a new company to sell products based on the discovery, leading to Amplex Corporation and its Oilite Division.

The engineers moved on, developing other sintered metals to create all types of bushings and gears. An oil impregnated bronze for leaf springs and joints eliminated leaf spring squeaks, and was launched in the 1932 Chrysler "Floating Power" CP, moving quickly throughout the product line. Even in the Depression, the company made a profit.

Amplex saved hundreds of thousands of hours of machinists' time during the war, producing high-precision, quality sintered products without waste.

By 1935, Amplex had a five-acre, nine-story plant in Detroit, with nearly 200,000 square feet of floor space, making air conditioning and heating equipment, marine and industrial engines, and other "high-grade specialties."

Carl Breer suggested making a "porous powder strip metal in continuous form" to replace the expensive wire mesh then used as gasoline strainers in fuel tanks. To make it, Mr. Breer proposed pouring in mixed powdered metal into a machine with large rollers which pushed them together into a thin sheet.

The resulting sheet steel strips were heat-treated and form into steel back type bearings, which was useful but did not solve the problem; eventually, the engineers cracked the puzzle by making a powder of a uniform size, and sintering it into flat shapes. The resulting strainer was much more effective for straining gasoline, and cheaper as well. Breer wrote:

Vehicle of our executives ran out of gasoline in the country one day. He stopped at a nearby farm house... and asked for a small pail of water. The farmer graciously complied... and saw the executive pour water into the gasoline tank. To the farmer's astonishment, our executive stepped on the starter and away he went! What really happened was that our new strainer was so effective that it had let the gasoline through but not the water. When the water was added to the gasoline tank, it raised the little gasoline left in the tank to where the strainer would let it through, enough to let him make it to the nearest gas station.
An Oilite fuel filter in the gas tank was self-cleaned "by the sloshing action of gasoline in the tank." A 1946 brochure noted, "...this was the only filter that met military requirements to prevent the passage of dirt and other impurities." It removed the need for a glass sediment bowl at the fuel pump, and would remain standard through the 1950s.

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In the 1950s, Amplex started making abrasives; for 1959, Amplex launched "Iron Oilite grade A212" for bearings, along with other high density powdered iron parts.

Eventually, Amplex was moved to the Diversified Products Group, along with Airtemp, Cycleweld (which made adhesives, sealants, and petroleum products), and Marine and Industrial Engines.

In 1961, Amplex developed new metal-based friction materials for automotive use; it had plants in Trenton, Michigan, Detroit, and, by 1966, Van Wert, Ohio. Amplex made its three billionth part in 1962, and in 1965, the Chrysler Amplex Division was the leading powdered metal parts maker, turning out over 6,000 different powdered metal products. By 1970, the division was also selling cold extrusion and ceramic magnet products.

In 1986, Norton Co. of Massachussetts bought Connecticut electroplator and abrasive maker Amplex, keeping the Amplex brand name and using it to this day (2015) for abrasives.

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On November 28, 1988, with Chrysler Corporation running low on money again, Lee Iacocca led the sale of Amplex to ICM Industries, an auto parts supplier founded by former International Harvester executives Rutherford and David Shelby.

ICM Industries also joined with MAAG of Zurich to buy Pullman Company's Ferralloy metals division. They operated Ferralloy as a joint venture, and threw Amplex into the mix, renamed ICM/Krebsoge. The combined company mostly made powertrain components, remaining in Detroit, and employing 1,150 people. They started out as the largest producer of powdered-metal parts in North America, and were led by president and part-owner Kim E. Schatzel, a woman who started as a management trainee.

Sources include the Chrysler Museum, Carl Breer's book,The Birth of Chrysler Corporation and Its Engineering Legacy, and annual reports.

By 1993, ICM/Krebsoge was owned by Powder Metal Holding. Most of the former Amplex/Ferralloy's sales went to the Big Three, but they also sold to Europeans including Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, BMW, ZF, Bosch, and Opel.

In 1996, Sinter Metals, now the United States' largest producer of powder metal components, purchased PMH (via ICM/Krebsoge), the second largest producer for $215 million. In 1997, Sinter Metals, Inc. was purchased by GKN plc, which today is the world's largest producer of powdered metal components. (GKN was founded in 1902 as Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds Ltd in England, but traces its history to 1759's creation of Dowlais Iron in Wales, 1854's screw-making debut of John Sutton Nettlefold, and 1864's IPO of Patent Nut & Bolt Co. by Arthur Keen.)

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