After 45 years, Valvoline’s Rob Sels still leading fight against corrosion [tweet this]
Interpreted by some as a defiant anthem against the dangers of complacency, “Rust Never Sleeps” could also describe Sels’ need to constantly improve upon a product – which just happens to prevent corrosion on metal surfaces – that’s been around for 85 years.
He’s been on the job for 45 years, driving round after round of innovation for Valvoline’s Tectyl™ protective coatings.
“I started in administration, but they needed a person in the laboratory,” he recalls. “It looked very interesting, so I said, ‘OK, let me give it a try for a couple of months.’”
It worked out well. He rose to senior product specialist at Ashland’s Valvoline laboratories in Dordrecht, Netherlands, where’s he credited with dramatic, environmentally friendly changes to the Tectyl coatings formulation.
Product was born in tough conditions
The product is a powerful corrosion preventative, used by manufacturers of heavy trucks, buses, rail cars and other vehicles. It was developed when Ashland owned oil refineries, which operate in a highly corrosive environment. When the Dordrecht plant started production, shortly before Sels arrived, the formula included highly flammable aromatic solvents, so called because they have a strong, distinctive aroma.
“It’s not very pleasant, so we tried using another kind of solvent without the aromatics,” he recalls. A new formulation was developed with non-aromatics, matching the effectiveness of the original. One problem remained: Solvents were still involved and the European Union was beginning to regulate them more tightly.
“That was the main driver to develop water-based Tectyl coatings products,” says Jaap Spies, business manager for Valvoline Protective Products in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Rob had all the experience and knowledge. He developed a lot of new and interesting products and he had principle knowledge for the green line we wanted to develop.
“We have been leading in the business for a long time with this new product,” he adds.
The solvent-based formula contained waxy, oily components that did not mix well with water.
“So we had to develop ourselves new technology to get a product that can disperse in water,” says Sels. “We have to develop, from scratch in our lab, all those products, all those technologies.”
First in its class
The new formula for undercoating vehicles was the first waterborne product used by a bus manufacturer in Europe. In addition to corrosion, it helps to protect vehicles from damage caused by vibration and by rocks thrown from the tires.
After the products were launched, skeptical manufacturers had to be persuaded they would work.
Vintage Tectyl advertisement from Holland, dated 1958.
“People were very suspicious about it. They said, ‘OK, you only use it in the summertime because in wintertime it’s water and can freeze,’” Sels recalls. “But gradually the regulations became stricter, so they made an experiment in the wintertime and it went perfectly.”
Aside from the environmental benefits of replacing solvents, there is also less of a fire hazard in factories. “The companies are very happy with less fire hazard,” says Sels.
Innovation from Sels has been constant since 1970.
“With his inventions, he has been the founding father behind the bitumen-emulsion underbody coatings,” says Rob van Trier, regional technical manager for Valvoline. “He has this experience, 45 years, starting with lubricants. He is kind of an encyclopedia for all the new people.
“Rob is able to think out of the box. He has created products that were not there on the market, but there was a wish with our customers. He actually developed those products from scratch,” van Trier adds.
Sels is still enjoying himself, too.
“I am working here 45 years and I’m excited because of the close relationships with my colleagues and the whole team in general,” he says.
Vintage Tectyl advertisement from Practical Motorist magazine, dated January 1967.
Transferring his knowledge
“Part of my education was to have skills to be a teacher, so I like to transfer the knowledge,” he adds. “I like to train them, to make things interesting for them, to explain the tests, what can be done and the pitfalls. I try to train them to think for themselves and not only follow instructions, and to give them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from that.”
Sometimes the mistakes are made by a customer. Sels recalls a bus builder who was having a problem with an undercoating.
“They changed the manufacturing process and changed some materials so our product didn’t interact with their glues and their sealants,” he explains. “We worked very closely with them and came up with an even better version of our product. The customer was very satisfied and is still using the product now.”
In a competitive business, innovation is a huge advantage.
“Product development, innovation, that is really Rob,” says Spies. “He is figuring out all kinds of new technologies people can use.”
Van Trier, who worked in the lab with Sels for several years, agrees:
“Rob is one of the greatest to work with. He has this competitiveness, ever-existing motivation and a positive approach to finding new solutions. That’s really motivating for the other people working together with him.”
When Rob Sels is not in the lab, he’s growing hay and vegetables – or at least trying to – on the 12-acre farm he shares with his wife, Ria.
“I try to grow all the vegetables that normally grow in the warmer areas. Of course the climate is not too good in Holland; sometimes a lot of rain,” he says.
But he also grows ideas on the farm.
“It’s the quiet life, to be outside in nature in wintertime and summertime. It gives me good moments to think about my job. If you have this problem to solve, there are very good moments to empty your mind but still think about the problem,” he says.
His wife, a “farmer’s daughter who grew up 200 yards away,” runs the farm, Sels says. They have a horse for their daughter, Valerie, but the 21-year-old is away at the Delft University of Technology and the University of Leiden. She’s studying life science technology (DNA processes in cells), so there will be another scientist in the family.
Sels was born in the area, the son of a steelworker and housewife. Early in their marriage, he and [wife] traveled extensively in Burma, China and India.
“I learned a little bit of Chinese and could manage things like booking hotels,” he says. “We saw a lot before the times became too modern. I saw the old Shanghai before all the skyscrapers.”
He earned his degree in chemistry and physics at the University of Utrecht.