Old company learns new tricks; Buhler to develop nanomaterials

Aug. 16, 2002 — Buhler AG may be 140 years old, but the Swiss company is not stuck in the past. It’s retooling for the age of nanotechnology.

The company, based in Uzwil, Switzerland, wants to parlay its market-leading position as a supplier of high-end equipment to the chemicals, food processing, paint and powders industries by developing and marketing nanotechnology-based coatings and thin films.

Buhler plans to sell these new coatings to existing and new customers, according to Rene Zimmermann, who oversees development in Buhler’s Engineered Products Division.

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Although it has not signed up any new customers yet, according to Giorgio Agnosti, business manager of new nanotechnology products, the firm is in advanced talks with a number of potential customers.

The company is actively developing its new market with promotional events, such as hosting a two-day introduction to nanocoatings event this September.

“In general, today’s nanocoatings are either durable or easy to clean, not both,” Arnosti said. Buhler wants to take coatings to the next level by developing a system that solves that problem — something demanded by industries such as food production, transportation and health care.

Buhler, whose gross revenue last year was $950 million, traditionally has made industrial grinders, mills, extruders and related equipment used to make resistant coatings for laminate floors, gravure printing inks for luxury packaging, color pigments and inks for industrial inkjets.

But the privately owned firm has been seeing its margins steadily erode in its old economy business units.

“One of the key things about nanotechnology is that it is rekindling growth in companies that belong to some of these ‘sunset industries,’ enabling them to get a little bit more from older processes,” said Tim Harper, founder of CMP Cientifica, a nanotechnology market research organization.

Buhler’s engineers became acquainted with nanoscale technology as each new generation of mill made smaller and smaller particles. To help expedite their nanotech know-how, Buhler formed a commercial partnership with the Institute of New Materials (INM) at the University of Saarbrucken, which was announced in June.

The deal enables Buhler to develop new materials and retain the patents on them, according to Zimmermann.

It is a risky strategy to start selling value added products, instead of the capital equipment used to make them, within a company that employs 6,500 people. The opportunities for conflicts of interest are many, said Robert Mehalso, president of Microtec Associates who is also an adviser to Ardesta LLC, Small Times Media’s parent company.

It may be difficult to find support among salespeople for a brand new products division that could potentially compete with some of their customers. “It is usually smarter to spin off new activities such as these,” said Mehalso, whose company helps commercialize small tech products.

Buhler does not rule out a spinoff of its coatings business, said Agnosti, but for now it is keeping the business in-house.

INM, which spun off the German company Nanogate GmbH, is well known in Europe’s emerging nanotechnology sector.

“They made a good choice with INM,” said Christian Schmidt-Maag, an investment manager at Capital Stage in Zurich. “It’s considered a leader in its area and it has stayed current because of its close alliance with industry over the years.”

With a budget of $14.7 million, INM is making a name for itself in a number of nanotech applications. A General Electric and Bayer spinoff, called Exatec, aims to exploit INM research by making new polycarbonate materials that will make car windows lighter, safer and more design friendly.

If the phrase “milling equipment” conjures notions of pioneer-era millstones on display at museums, or a coffee-machine accessory, there’s another high-tech way of thinking of it.

Buhler developed the bead mill, which uses beads instead of the more traditional rolls. “The grinding media is separated entirely by centrifugal forces,” Arnosti said. The smallest particle the firm’s equipment can produce is around 10 to 20 nanometers.

These mills are sold to top ink suppliers worldwide, such as Japanese ink manufacturer Nissin and the privately owned Flint Ink, of Ann Arbor, Mich., according to Zimmermann.

It is a ‘classical’ approach to make nanoparticles — just breaking them apart,” said Schmidt-Maag. “But it’s an energy intensive way to manufacture them.”

Zimmerman agreed that the energy consumption is intense but he said that it is a much cheaper process under the right conditions.

Other products that can be made with this kind of mill include coatings, master-batches for the plastics and chemicals industry, but not drugs.

“You couldn’t count on this kind of mill to make a very pure product. When you grind particles to a granularity of 50 nanometers you will also get a few atoms from the grinding surfaces mixed in. For ink, that is not a problem, but for medical products, it would be,” said Schmidt-Maag.


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