R&D at Bühler

Developing the “next big thing”

For Bühler, innovation and longevity are synonymous. Since its origin in 1860, the world has undergone serial technological and market transformations. With its strong research and development mindset, Bühler has considered how new scientific advances could provide potential benefits to customers at each evolutionary moment.

  

Bühler has been continuously launching new solutions for 161 years. The recipe for its success at research and development involves managing a complex interplay of customer expectations, academic research, technological advances, commercial acumen, and the ability to handle the unexpected. But in the end, it’s the market that will dictate the pace of change. Every successful multinational has a process for carrying out research and development (R&D). The idea comes first, then the creative thinking to apply it to a specific market, followed by thorough questioning to test its commercial viability and make sure it fits into a wider corporate strategy. The research is the first two stages of this process, while the development is the final aspect.

To change a market involves the all-important initial idea, which can come from many different sources. Talking to customers is critical, so too is watching competitors and monitoring scientific developments, listening to and collaborating with academia and start-ups, expanding ideas from other markets, and even colleagues having eureka moments – and often it’s a combination of all of these. Which approach is taken often depends on the market. Once a new idea is given the green light, a project manager is appointed, experts are consulted, customers are brought on board, simulations are run, and prototypes are built. As the project is shepherded through the development process, each Bühler department contributes to multi-skilled teams tasked with deciding a project’s fitness for market. From the start, the project needs to comply with wider corporate goals. For example, any current research and development idea has to show it can contribute to achieving the Bühler sustainability targets of 50 percent less waste, water, and energy in customer value chains by 2025. If an idea fails to deliver on these targets, it won’t make it further.

Embracing disruption

Sometimes, something unexpected happens overnight that radically changes a market. Other times, a solution takes much longer to be accepted or a solution designed for one application can unexpectedly resolve a completely different problem. Or sometimes, you find a dream customer with innovation in their soul and suddenly you have the potential to radically change a whole industry. According to Daniel Bieli, Head of Research and Development Die Casting at Bühler, to innovate you must be able to deal with the unexpected and have the ability to be flexible and quickly adapt. “We are living in an increasingly changing world, which means you can’t fall into the trap of doing things the way you did them yesterday. It means everyone from management down has to be agile and have the flexibility to suddenly shift what they are working on and adapt their targets,” he explains.

 

Daniel Bieli should know, because his market was turned completely upside down two years ago by one of the world’s most famous disruptors. At the heart of the Bühler Advanced Materials business lies Die Casting and at the heart of die casting lies the automobile industry with Bühler’s Carat range of machines producing the aluminum parts from which many vehicles are made. Car manufacturing requires high levels of capital investment, which can act as a drag on change as it can be too costly for manufacturers to suddenly shift production methods. When disruptors enter the market looking for the potential to redesign production methods from scratch, it can create a seismic change. This trend began taking shape in 2019, as many electric car manufacturers started looking toward the possibility of producing larger die-cast machines capable of casting single parts, which had previously required multiple castings and assembly. 

Manuel Höhener and Daniel Bieli meet regularly at the Application Center in Uzwil for an informal interdisciplinary exchange. Manuel Höhener and Daniel Bieli meet regularly at the Application Center in Uzwil for an informal interdisciplinary exchange.
You can’t fall into the trap of doing things the way you did them yesterday. It means everyone from management down has to be agile and flexible.

Daniel Bieli, Head of Research and Development Die Casting at Bühler

Bühler responded quickly. “We went to management and told them there was something big going on in the market,” Bieli explains. “This simply was not in our plan at all, so we had to shift resources, build up a brand new project team, hire external designers to produce thousands of drawings and run simulations each day, which meant it was an incredible achievement to be able to deliver a whole new scale of machines so quickly.” Within 18 months, Bühler had expanded its traditional 400 series Carat die-casting machines to include the Carat 560, the Carat 610, and the recently released Carat 840 and 920, capable of exerting pressure in excess of 9,000 tons when locking the two halves of the die cast together. These are massive machines. The smallest of the new range, the Carat 560, is the same weight as a Boeing 747–400. It made designing them even more of a challenge, as every part of the production process had to be simulated: Their size meant it was just not possible to build and test prototypes.

Adapting to the market

The type of market that you are in has a big influence on how you approach research and development. While the Advanced Materials business is being driven by a revolution in electromobility, the Consumer Foods business operates in much more traditional sectors such as coffee and chocolate manufacturing. Dominated by a handful of long-established and well-recognized businesses, it has in the past required Bühler to drive innovation. 

Yet Manuel Höhener, Head of Research and Development Chocolate and Coffee at Bühler, is noticing a change. “For quite a long time, we have been working within the boundaries of so-called traditional markets, with well-established products and iconic brands. Our customers have relied on our technological competencies and innovations to find answers to basic and key challenges such as capacity increase, process robustness, flexible process solutions, and more. In the past couple of years, the landscape has rapidly changed,” explains Höhener. “Mega trends such as healthy and ethical living, premium products, shopping reinvention, connectivity, and shifting market frontiers have generated new challenges, which require new developments and even radical innovation. Currently, the future is being shaped from both sides; by our customers and by us.”

 

Manuel Höhener, Head of Research and Development Chocolate and Coffee at Bühler Manuel Höhener, Head of Research and Development Chocolate and Coffee at Bühler

It is an encouraging shift, Höhener points out. The better we understand the root causes of any given challenge, the better the outcome of our innovative solutions. The closer the cooperation and the greater the dialogue with customers, the more potential there is to achieve successful innovation.

Höhener cites the introduction of digital solutions, such as autonomous machines and process lines, or data-driven decisions into the Consumer Foods market as an example of the need for close cooperation. “We introduced the early stages of digitalization at the Interpack 2017 trade fair and customers were completely blown away because they had not been expecting it. In fact, as an idea it was hard to be absorbed because it was so radical at the time. It is important to work through the process with customers, be there to answer questions, and allow the time that the market requires to embrace the benefits of it. It goes far deeper. We’re talking about major consumer mindset changes.”

Managing the speed of change is a delicate process in the more conservative food sector, especially when it has an impact on texture and flavor. This, in part, is because we as consumers are slow in changing our eating habits, with it often taking a generation for real change to come about. This creates tension when it comes to research and development. While there is no shortage of innovation spurred on by academic research and through startups generating radical change, adoption can be a much slower process. Reconciling these two worlds takes time. “We work with customers and start-ups who are interested in exploring new paths to increase their market share and are very interested in trying out new things. Both benefit from that push to be prepared for the next big thing,” explains Höhener.

 

We work with customers and start-ups who are interested in exploring new paths to increase their market share. Both benefit from that push to be prepared for the next big thing.

Manuel Höhener, Head of Research and Development Chocolate and Coffee at Bühler

Stefanie Keller, Head of the Chocolate Mass, Cocoa, and Nuts Application Center, in conversation with Manuel Höhener, Head of Research and Development Chocolate and Coffee. Stefanie Keller, Head of the Chocolate Mass, Cocoa, and Nuts Application Center, in conversation with Manuel Höhener, Head of Research and Development Chocolate and Coffee.

Science drives change

Bühler not only works on R&D topics with customers and suppliers, but also with universities and start-ups to stay abreast of the latest developments, predict potential trends and, finally, identify how a bench approach could be realized at industrial scale. Two of the push factors driving innovation in the consumer food market are public health and sustainability. “Research includes ideas for usage of low-carb raw materials like chocolate with less sucrose or even without sucrose, chocolate without cocoa, vegan milk chocolate, upcycling byproducts from other processes and many more,” explains Höhener. Another potential area of investigation includes the development of solutions to optimize or even partly replace the traditional processing of coffee or cocoa beans to cut costs and CO₂ emissions. As an outcome of such initiatives, Bühler has built the first 85 percent CO₂-neutral coffee factory together with leading coffee processor Joh. Johansson in Norway, clearly setting a new standard.

“At the moment we are working on new heating systems using hydrogen or other kinds of heating systems instead of fossil fuels as a vision for CO₂-neutral roasters,” Höhener explains. The research and development Bühler is doing in the milling sector is also set to transform the industry. It is an example of how technological advances coming at the right time along with a market appetite to embrace change and close customer cooperation can generate radical change. While digitalization is set to transform each of Bühler’s three businesses, it is the milling industry that is currently at the forefront of change. So, what was it that pushed this also traditionally conservative industry over the technological Rubicon?

 

According to Torsten Nitsche, Head of Research and Development Milling Solutions at Bühler, it has been a combination of push factors around sustainability, regulation, and the risk of variable grain prices. “Customers are realizing that government obligations on them to address sustainability will only be increasing and so they are looking to us to guide them through the digitalization process, as this is an area where we are at the forefront of research and development,” says Nitsche. Millers also know they will be on the front line as food resources become stretched by global population growth and climate change. The industry understands that the route forward is increasing production efficiency.

Torsten Nitsche, Head of Research and Development Milling Solutions at Bühler Torsten Nitsche, Head of Research and Development Milling Solutions at Bühler

With the market ready to change and the technology in place, Bühler needed that all-important client partnership to help drive a digital revolution. It was then that Whitworth Bros., one of the UK’s biggest milling firms with a long-standing commitment to technological development, stepped forward to become a test bed for many of Bühler’s R&D ideas. The result was the opening of the world’s most advanced mill earlier this year. This smart mill is fitted with 15,000 data points, generating information every few seconds on all aspects of the milling process. “When you see the data coming in it is like being in the Matrix and the challenge for us is narrowing down what we do with it next,” Nitsche says.

Markets dictate the pace

Once again, the market dictates the pace of change. Except this time the change is happening so fast that all the rule books about conducting research and development are having to be thrown out the window. “Traditionally we would do basic research and then produce a strict project process, but this is a completely different way of working where we can be much more creative by allowing interdisciplinary teams to take inspiration from different approaches and so open up their horizons,” says Nitsche.

 

Digitalization has opened the flood gates as ideas around automation, quality control, blockchain, predictive maintenance, and production transparency are allowed to bounce off each other in a crucible of R&D that is driving the industry forward. But it is not just digitalization that is reforming the milling industry. The Whitworth mill was built using new modular design techniques with the purpose of making the mill more efficient and sustainable. Named the Mill E3, it is an example of how it is possible to borrow ideas from other industries and cross-fertilize them with your own market.

 

Torsten Nitsche and an employee in the CUBIC makerspace. Torsten Nitsche and an employee in the CUBIC makerspace.
We can be much more creative by allowing interdisciplinary teams to take inspiration from different approaches and so open up their horizons.

Torsten Nitsche, Head of Research and Development Milling Solutions at Bühler

 

“The trigger for the Mill E3 came around 10 years ago when we started looking at how the building sector was using prefabrication and other industries were applying modularization. We saw these as clear trends and realized that it could be a real driver for us when it came to designing the hardware needed to develop the digital mill,” says Nitsche. The challenge with R&D is that the process is never complete. Innovation is an ongoing process at Bühler, however. So what’s the next big thing? The past shows us that in the world of research and development you can never be absolutely sure. One thing is certain though, you are never going to be able to absolutely control what is about to happen next in your market. But you stay at the top of your game by continuously investing in research and development, following the trends, and collaborating with customers and partners.

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