Innovation at Bühler

Our innovation strategy

Accelerating innovation is key to Bühler’s strategy, but just how do we stay ahead of global trends and invest in the right idea? The answer, says Bühler Chief Technology Officer Ian Roberts, involves a good dose of resilience, clarity on where to capture value for our customers based on extensive research, and staying true our vision to create innovations for a better world.

  

Ian, why does Bühler invest 4 to 5 percent of its turnover into innovation every year?

IAN ROBERTS: Throughout our 161-year history, new technologies, new markets, and new business opportunities have driven our growth. Innovation is embedded in our DNA. The Bühler family holds us to two rules. The first is we must be the innovation leaders in our sector and may not reduce research and development (R&D) spend, even in times of crisis. The second is that we run the company as you would a family, which means thinking of the next generation. This takes resilience, staying power, and consistent long-term investment.

Innovation for us is focused on reducing energy, water, and waste in our customers’ value chains by 50 percent. Whether that is through new technologies or our new digital services, our aim is to drive efficiency and increase yields while cutting unplanned downtimes and minimizing waste. Innovation fuels the value we can bring to our customers, and we must invest in R&D to keep looking for the next big thing. 

 

Is keeping pace in such fast-changing markets a challenge?

Markets certainly can move very fast, which means recognizing trends and being ready for them when they happen. A good example is plant-based alternatives to meat. This has gone from a vegetarian and vegan niche in terms of market size to becoming rapidly mainstream to the point where awareness around sustainability is driving a fundamental shift in people’s diets and in value chains.

We began developing dry textured protein technology in the 1980s. But it was not until 2010 that we began building our scientific understanding of high moisture extrusion by stablishing a partnership platform for plant-based meat alternatives with ETH Zurich, where master’s and PhD students worked on new plant-based meat analogues. We sponsor research, develop new technologies and products, and apply our expertise to scale up to production level. As consumer demand grew, we had the industrial infrastructure and technology needed to underpin our customers’ business growth.

 

Ian Roberts, Chief Technology Officer at Bühler Ian Roberts, Chief Technology Officer at Bühler

When you established the ETH Zurich platform, how did you recognize that plant-based meat would become such a trend?

We looked at pressures on the food system and at scientific trends. Setting up the World Food System Center at ETH Zurich to explore global food challenges gave us early insight into the pressures that the agricultural system would be under. It became clear that if the global population grew to 10 billion, we would need to deliver protein more efficiently. Of course, plant-based meat is only one of those solutions, but it became clear to us that with our capabilities and technologies we had the potential to become a key player in that space.

 

How do you manage such long timescales when it comes to changing markets?

Food is a conservative industry, based on traditions and great taste, and with a large installed asset base. This means that change can take some time. Recently, we have seen an explosion of the food and agriculture start-up space. Start-ups move at a pace that outstrips the market and can disrupt the traditional industry, but they frequently lack access to the necessary infrastructure. As such, we have formed partnerships in Singapore, Germany, China, Switzerland, and the US, providing access to technologies, process experts, and ingredient and flavor partners to support plant-based meat start-ups. These facilities are not exclusively for start-ups; many of our more established customers take advantage of them. To take a trend from the research stage to being able to underpin a global shift in dietary behavior, as in the case of plant-based meats, you need to partner with existing and new companies and ensure they have the facilities to create, test, and scale production.

 

How do you keep track of scientific breakthroughs that could influence the market?

There are many ways. We look at patents, scientific publications, we work with leading institutes around the world, and we sponsor PhD and Master projects. Sometimes we work in consortium groups in precompetitive spaces to sow the seeds of future activities. We also get a good feel for new technologies and new trends by working closely with startups through start-up ecosystems.

A very important source for us is being close to our customers who study trends in great depth. We build partnerships with our customers to jointly understand trends and then help them to take advantage of these trends.

Ian Roberts, Chief Technology Officer at Bühler

A very important source for us is being close to our customers who study trends in great depth. We build partnerships with our customers to jointly understand trends and then help them to take advantage of these trends. At our Networking Days, we engage in discussions with customers and experts to gain greater clarity on future requirements. These avenues give us a broad perspective, as identifying a new trend or business opportunity involves piecing information together from multiple sources.

 

How do you bring all that information together?

Once we identify an opportunity, we start basic research by combining the knowledge of colleagues and external experts to see if this is a business opportunity. The board of our Urs Bühler Innovation Fund plays a key role in bringing views together from different industries and technology spaces. We also explore how we can contribute to addressing the global challenges – for example, what is the role we can play in enabling our industry to contribute more strongly to mitigating global warming? This all factors into the formation of our 5-year strategic plan which guides our implementation priorities.

 

What process does each business use to move from initial idea into a business proposal?

There are different ways of doing this. If it is a new product development, technology, or service, we have a well-established project management process to carry out our own development. If it is an existing technology that is being adapted into a new application, it requires less R&D and can often be managed in our network of application centers.

 

Do you have examples of where Bühler applied existing technologies?

Deploying proven technology into a new application space is always an interesting option, as it is quicker and has less associated risk. With broad technology and process portfolios both in food and in advanced materials, we have several successful examples of this, such as the use of battery technology. We combined our know-how and experience from our Grinding & Dispersing business and our decades of experience in extrusion to improve the efficiency and product quality consistency of lithium-ion battery production through a continuous electrode slurry process. Another example is working with companies to put additional protein such as pulses into the pasta experience to get more nutrition onto the table for kids. We are taking an existing technology and adding another dimension to a staple food by changing the ingredients, while maintaining the performance of the product in its preparation.

 

How do you decide to allocate your R&D budget? 

There needs to be close alignment with the business leaders and our strategy. Then we look at the resources and investment needed to make this a success relative to the opportunity it provides. We decide what we will do, then we assess how we can leverage our ecosystem of partners to do this faster and with a higher chance of success.

 

We have talked about it taking a decade or more before a process is ready for the market. How do you know when to keep investing in a plan, and when to bin it?

We are curious technologists and innovators by nature, so without constraints we will try to do everything because it fascinates us. We have a strong alignment with the business and our strategy to guide where we play and where we do not. It is a hard thing to “kill” a project because we are passionate about our work and become extremely invested in our projects and our project teams. In any project, we learn continuously and sometimes that learning is that it will simply not work, will not work at a viable cost, or the market is too immature. This is not a failure, but an important lesson that enables us to redeploy valuable resources to projects that may succeed.

R&D requires agility, but also resilience and staying power. In food, tradition and local preference means we cannot change things overnight. Even in the faster moving automotive sector, change is inhibited by the rate of transformation of the manufacturing asset base. The market for electromobility has now opened up, but this has taken decades.

 

When you look for the next big thing, how far ahead do you look?

We should know what we want to achieve during the next 5 years. There will be some changes, and some opportunities will arise faster than expected and some more slowly. It is also important to prepare for what we will need to master so that we can be ready for 2030 and beyond.

 

Are you ever surprised by trends? Do you have a good example?

I have been disappointed and surprised. I am usually overly optimistic about how fast things will pick up, so the time taken can sometimes be disappointing. Then things such as the uptake of sustainable proteins market surprise me, that after years of waiting, the adoption rate is so high.

We know it is being driven by major investments and a huge awareness around climate change and sustainability, but it has already created a permanent structural change in the food market. The opportunity here is huge, and we want to lead this change and the market.

Ian Roberts, Chief Technology Officer at Bühler Ian Roberts, Chief Technology Officer at Bühler

 

Why is it important that Bühler focus its innovation on sustainability?

We sit at the center of the value chain. We provide the capability for companies to feed around 2 billion people a day and move 1 billion people through our Food and Advanced Materials businesses. Across the board our customers are looking at their role and the impact that future regulations will have on their business practices.

Like Bühler, many have declared net zero targets and are seeking good partners to contribute to achieving their targets. It is our responsibility to make sure that we support them on that journey while simultaneously helping them cut their operating costs. For many companies without the R&D resources of large multinationals, we also provide the opportunity to access new technologies, quantify their processing CO₂ footprint, open up new application and business opportunities, and support them in making plans to reduce their CO₂ footprint.

What role do our application centers play?

The extensive network of application centers we have around the world is there to benefit our customers, be it for testing new technologies, developing new products, or training their employees. It is not just the technology or processes, but crucially, it is the knowledge that comes with the people who run them and now with well-established digital technologies it is the capability to tap into global knowledge input at all locations.

Built on generations of institutional knowledge, our technologists and experts can significantly accelerate the development process of companies, be they start-ups or established multinationals. A global network enables us to understand local context, market trends, consumer preferences, taste, retail environments, sales structures, raw materials, and regulatory environments. In this way it is not only more convenient for our customers, but also locally relevant.

A topical example of this is the global network of extrusion labs that we have built over the last 5 years, with new sites in Singapore, Germany, China, and the US opened over the last 18 months. 

The scale of our impact relies on providing solutions to our customers that not only support their business success, but also accompany them on their net zero journeys.

Ian Roberts, Chief Technology Officer at Bühler

What excites you most about research and development?

Think about the opportunity we have at Bühler. We work with companies that provide the food for a high portion of the world. We have a key role to play in sustainable mobility. We can and do contribute to the sustainable transformation of the food, feed, agriculture, and mobility industries.

We have spoken for many years about how we can prepare for 10 billion people and achieve a good quality of life on planet Earth in 2050, and do this in such a manner that respects the balance of our planet, with climate change and biodiversity at the forefront. I am convinced that Bühler can contribute strongly to achieving this goal. Not alone, but by learning to partner well within our ecosystems, be they academics, start-ups, NGOs, multinational companies, or governments, to combine our knowhow and capabilities to deliver on our targets of delivering a 50 percent reduction in energy, waste, and water consumption in our customers’ value chains. However, the scale of our impact relies upon providing solutions to our customers that not only support their business success, but also accompany them on their net zero journeys. How could this not be exciting?

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