Commercial Success with Nanomaterials
The intrinsic rule for commercialising nanomaterials: follow the added value route!
Professor Helmut Schmidt, nanomaterials expert and entrepreneur, describes how commercial success can be achieved through enhancing existing products.
Nanotechnology is already making a major impact on the development of new materials. Many market forecasts show a dramatic increase in commercial pro-ducts based on materials whose properties are derived from the nanoscale. Two major areas of growth have been identified - medical technologies and functional materials, plus also some structural materials like nanoparticle reinforced polymers. However, looking at the industrial and commercial reality, there still is a big gap between the advantages of nanomaterials, and their commercial application. In the case of medical applications, there may be a long, and in many cases an unpredictable time to market; in the case of functional and structural materials, the payback mechanisms and times can be very complex and require specific industrial structures.
Materials, as a rule, represent the first (and lowest benefit) level in the value added chain that goes from chemical synthesis to the end product. In general, the time to market can be 10 or more years, accompanied by high development costs. Return on investment, for example, in the chemical industry is obtained through large volume sales into large volume markets. One example is titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in suncreams. However, these kinds of applications are the exception rather than the rule. For this reason, the overall nanomaterial sales from the chemical industry are still marginal. Niche markets are covered by hundreds of small companies, mainly spin-offs from scientific institutions. Products for these niche markets may bring in reasonable profits, but despite many predictions, they have not led to any remarkable turnovers, and most companies stay at the level of a few tens of employees.
Considering the various stages of the value added chain. Each processing step to the final product leads to an added value of about 10 to 100 times of the value gained by the sale of the novel material alone. To obtain sufficient market size and benefit in low nanomaterial volume applications, the fabrication of components from these materials is essential. This, however, immediately leads into an interdisciplinary situation, where nano materials chemists, nano materials scientists, product development experts and high throughput fabrication techniques need to be combined. This approach, surprisingly, still seems to be very high barrier for the average nanomaterial small company to overcome.
Surface Technologies as a Vehicle for Gaining Added Value in Nano Materials Applications
For surface technologies, the materials market (except mass commodity paints, for example, in automotive and architectural applications - domains occupied traditionally by chemical industry) are especially low. Customized surface technologies specifically tailored for end products, however, are generally not within the scope of chemical industry. But, the added value possible through products that incorporate tailor-made and customized surface technologies can be very high indeed, and the potential markets also large. Industries in question include the metal and plastic processing industries, which are very often SMEs, and large companies needing niche products for their systems, such as the IT, camera and computer industries, the automotive and other transport–related industries, cookware and other household product industries. The market sizes add up to several 100 of millions of US$. Only a small percentage of these industries are willing or able to build up a nanomaterial based, wet chemical surface techno-logical process within their own production lines. The vast majority are interested in the final product, but not interested in using unfamiliar technologies within their production processes. For this Reason, the complete, surface finished product, customized to the customers needs, has to be manufactured for these companies.
Nano Material Based Surface Technologies – the Commercial Endgame
It would take too much space to summarize all the numerous important innovations in materials from nanoscience and technology. For example there are photo catalytic surfaces based on nano TiO2, transparent hard coatings for protecting optical systems made from plastic, refractive index-tailored coatings made by wet chemical techniques, low surface-free energy coatings for easy-to-clean surfaces, and anti-microbial coatings based on tailor made silver colloids with controlled release behaviour. Particularly in the area of hard coatings and easy to clean coatings, there are many products are on the market that can be applied to plastic or textile surfaces. However, the real breakthrough in commercialisation is still in its infancy. The most important reason for this is the lack of what might be called “vertical interdisciplinarity”, (vertical in this case means “down to the market”) which links together chemical synthesis, materials science and production engineering. The innovation potential of this is extremely high, but needs to be exploited by a new and appropriate business approach.
The Production Oriented Development Approach of EPG
EPG Inc., founded in June 2006, has developed its own value added business model, based on nanomaterial products, in two specific fields: nanomaterial-based surface technologies deposited by wet coating techniques, and materials and services for oil and gas production – the latter through applying a technology which makes use of a very specific surface modification for loose sand fixation in oil and gas wells without affecting porosity and flux. The value-added business approach of EPG; innovation through incorporating new and customized nano materials in existing products
- The market introduction period can be neglected in the most cases, because the customers are already there!
- The marketing effort can be reduced to visiting a few international exhibitions per year.
- The market risks can be neglected, because they already have been addressed by the customers.
However, it is essential to always maintain a distinctive competitive advantage in material surfaced tailoring with respect to possible competitors. This is all achieved by the “vertical interdisciplinarity” technique, and as a final important step in this process, EPG has developed its own special coating technology. It is a robot operated, ultra precise, thin-film deposition technique, which delivers a high precision coating, even on complex parts. For example, for a 3 μm thick film, the precision is about + 0.2 μm.
Some Examples of Commercial Products
Flexible Nano Glass Coatings on metal surfaces for pressing irons and electric devices
A simple example of a high-tech, glasslike and abrasion-resistant coating on stainless steel metal surfaces is the commercial nanotechnology developed by EPG a couple of years ago. A methyl group containing a sodium silicate system was developed by using SiO2 nanoparticles as “fillers” through a sol-gel technology. This system allows spraying films up to 12 μm in thickness in a one-step process. After curing at 600°C, the remaining thickness is about 5 to 6 μm, a result which is quite unusual compared to conventional SiO2 sol-gel coating, which achieves only about 1 μm in one step. The unique feature of this relatively thick coating is the fact that it can be 3-dimensionally deformed by mechanically processing. This technology is used for mounting coated iron plates on the heating system of pressing irons. EPG is now producing several hundred thousand parts per year. Turnover and EBIT per-unit are a factor of 200 higher compared with sales of the basic material alone! Another example of stainless steel finishes are the fingerprint and scratch-resistant coatings on electric switching devices and outlets. EPG is producing over half a million parts per year!
Interference Pigmented Coatings on High Performance Cookware
Decoration of high-performance cookware having a sandwich structure (steel/aluminium/steel) and being suitable for induction heating cannot be coated by conventional enamels due to their temperature sensitivity: over 500°C, the sandwich structure gets delaminated, and over 600°C the melting point of aluminium is approached. This leads to a real lack of decoration possibilities. EPG was able to develop a nano glass matrix with interference pigments as fillers de-riving their colours from layered platelets coated with interference oxides (e.g. SiO2, TiO2, Fe2O3). These pigments are available in many colours, and, due to their oxidic nature, are very resistance to heat; EPG managed, after an appropriate surface treatment and grinding process, to disperse them homogeneously in the nano glass liquid matrix and to process them using a robot spray technology to coat the cookware. The systems are FDA approved and were introduced to the market at the beginning of this year.
Automotive Tailpipes from Polished Stainless Steel
Chrome plated tailpipes loose their shiny surface quickly through heat, and salt in wintertime. For this reason, a three-micrometer thick “invisible” coating has been developed, protecting the polished stainless steel surface reliably against tarnishing by heat and corrosion by salt. The product has been developed for Porsche cars and introduced into the market only recently. EPG had to develop a highly sophisticated programme for the robot spray coating, because these tailpipes consist of two tubes lying very closely together.
The three above examples demonstrate how nano-based material technologies can be applied to bring science-based developments to the market place. In order to receive sufficient revenue from a nanomaterial, it is essential that a value added step is incorporated. In this case, the value added step is the production of coated parts by a highly sophisticated technology leading to glasslike coatings that could not be produced otherwise - the so called “low-tech by high-tech” strategy. This means that nano materials are applied to the surfaces of already existing products. This leads to the fast market penetration, with low market risk and requiring a very limited marketing effort. The overall risk of this, compared with the “high-tech by high-tech” approach (a good product, but customers have to be looked for and markets have to be opened) are very low. The disadvantages are a heavy investment in the production line, and the need to build up high-level engineering capacities.
Helmut Schmidt, Engineered nanoProducts Germany Inc. (EPG), Zweibruecken, Germany
Source: NANO Magazine - Issue 12 /...
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