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Nanocoatings to recharge Bühler

Nanothechnology has a wide range of uses. swissinfo.ch

Swiss technology company, Bühler AG, has set up a commercial partnership with one of Europe's leading advance nanotechnology materials research institutes.

This content was published on September 13, 2002 - 16:59

The Institute for New Materials in Saarbrücken (INM) will help Bühler develop new products.

Bühler, a 140-year-old, family-run company, which is based in Uzwil, near St Gallen, is already a major supplier of some of the equipment used to make nanopowders and nanoparticles.

It now plans to offer high tech nanocoatings to the makers of automobiles, sunglasses, and other consumer goods to make them easier to clean and the surfaces in general more durable.

The company traditionally makes industrial grinders, mills, extruders and related equipment used in a range of industries, including the chemical processing industry, to formulate resistant coatings for laminate floors, gravure printing inks for luxury packaging, color pigments and inks for industrial inkjets.

By moving into nanotechnology, a form of molecular engineering being increasingly used in industry, Bhopes to move up the value chain and to improve the margins on its sales.

Buhler currently has interests in more than a 100 countries and employs about 6,500 people worldwide.

Although its gross revenue last year was $950 million, the privately owned firm has been seeing its margins steadily erode in its old economy business units.

Partnership

To understand how to develop commercial nanocoatings, Buhler formed the partnership with the Institute of New Materials (INM) at the University of Saarbrucken in June of this year.

"We observed that when particles get into the hundred nanometer range, the binding capacity of their surface increases exponentially, and the particles want nothing more than to clump together again," says René Zimmermann, one of the key managers who promoted the adoption of nanotechnology by the firm.

"We realized a partner with the know how required to overcome these hurdles."

The INM is known for its industrial application of nanomaterials, working primarily on applied research, which was an important attraction for the Swiss firm.

"We have to make money and sell products and not spend years in the research labs," says Zimmermann.

Rekindling growth

"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.

The INM has a budget of some $14.7 million a year. It also has an international clientele that includes Sony, General Electric, and Bayer.

"It has a good reputation internationally," says Harper, pointing out that Nanogate GmbH is a spin off from INM.

The deal with INM enables Buhler to develop new materials and retain the patents on them, said Zimmerman.

Good choice

"They made a good choice with INM, it's considered a leader in its area and it has stayed current because of its close alliance with industry over the years," says Christian Schmidt-Maag, an investment manager at Capital Stage in Zurich, which has a venture capital fund targeting nanotechnologies.

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

The first products to go on the market are so-called "master batches" of coatings that will make surfaces used to make surface easier to clean and longer lasting.

"In general, today's nanocoatings are either durable or easy to clean, not both," Arnosti said.

Bühler 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.

The company is actively developing its new market with promotional events, such as hosting a two-day introduction to nanocoatings events at its site near the Austrian border later this month.

swissinfo

key facts Buhler

140 year old, Uzwil-based firm to produce and sell nanotechnology based coatings
Traditionally a machinery supplier but margins getting thin
Needed new growth from high potential business
Formed partnership win German research institute to speed up commercialization

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