Broad basis

20.06.2007 The Buhler Grinding & Dispersion business unit has undergone sweeping changes over the past few years in an ever-new environment. Novel fields of application such as ultrafine coating materials, paints, or cosmetics have been added to the traditional areas of printing inks and chemicals. The manufacture of printing inks by grinding and dispersion of pigments is closely related to the production of chocolate. The quality of both products increases with the quality and intensity with which the raw materials are mixed and ground. It is therefore not surprising that the origins of the current Buhler Grinding & Dispersion business unit are found in chocolate production equipment.

Independence gained in 1992
Until the early nineties, chocolate and printing ink & paint customers were looked after by the same business unit. When offset printing took off, the printing inks business of Buhler also started to boom. Business was no longer limited to the sale of single machines, but was extended to include complete plants for the production of printing inks. The logical step in 1992 was to create a separate business unit for the inks, paints, and chemicals plant business as part of the corporate reorganization at that time. With a global payroll of roughly 120 and sales (turnover) of about 78 million Swiss francs (2006), the Grinding & Dispersion business unit (GD) has now established itself in the middle of the Buhler group in terms of size.

Changing markets
Over the past 15 years, the market of the GD business unit has undergone pronounced changes. On the one hand, the number of printing ink manufacturers has diminished to just a few market players. On the other hand, the emergence of new printing processes has greatly broadened the product range of printing applications. To meet the increasing demand for installations for making liquid printing inks, Buhler acquired the wet grinding and dispersion technology activities of the German Drais­Werke company in Mannheim in June 2003. In addition, the development of new processes was intensified in order to enter new market segments.

Broad range of products
Today, the Buhler GD business unit stands on a broad basis. “We specialize in developing complete solutions, systems, and production plants allowing high­grade reaction products such as pigments and expensive component substances to be dispersed very finely and very uniformly throughout various carrier substances,” says Markus Hofer. Hofer has headed the Grinding & Dispersion business unit since April 2006.

With this broad range of products, Buhler has ceased to supply machinery and processing installations merely to the printing inks and paints industry. In its capacity as the market leader, the GD business unit is now also setting new standards in the electronics industry and in cosmetics applications. Today, Buhler plant and equipment produces more than just printing inks and paints for the world’s markets. It is also used for making electronic inks, active substances for foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and functional coatings for – say – the shipbuilding, aerospace, and automotive industries.

Functional units
With the expansion of business activities to additional fields, the traditional organization of the business unit became obsolete. Markus Hofer: “Step by step, we have built a new, market­oriented organization.” The new structure is based on two basic ideas. On the one hand, the global sales and service organizations are to receive the best possible support from the bases in Uzwil in Switzerland and Viernheim in Germany.

On the other hand, permanent teams are being replaced by project teams. These functional units are created on a case­by­case basis, made up of specialists who are members of one of the three basic functions – sales, project handling, or customer service. These project teams are headed by area managers who are in charge of the activities in a given geographical region. Increasingly specialized The age of universal production plants appears to have gone forever. Markus Hofer observes a trend toward customized processing systems. “The applications are becoming increasingly sophisticated and the differences between products ever­wider. As a result, the specialization of the related plants is also continuously increasing.” Together with the expansion of the business fields, this increases the flexibility and delivery time requirements for the GD business unit. Thus, Markus Hofer’s team supplied over 400 mostly tailor­made systems to customers last year. What has also changed is the share of sales by market segments: Today, paints and printing inks account for a mere 40 percent of total sales. The share of coating materials is already at 40 percent, and that of active substances and specialties 20 percent.

Growth in Asia
Not only the internal organization of the Buhler GD business unit is being adjusted to the changed market conditions. “We are also busy adjusting our local organizations,” says Markus Hofer. As a result of the changes that have taken place over the past years, Hofer’s business unit now generates over 50 percent of total sales revenues in Asia, one third in Europe, and the balance in America.

“We do our main business in the highly industrialized countries,” says Markus Hofer. As a logical result, he is strengthening the local bases in Japan, Singapore, and North America beside the centers in Uzwil and Viernheim. But Markus Hofer has identified China and India as the markets promising the greatest potential for growth for his business unit. “These two countries are becoming increasingly significant in the manufacture of chemical reaction products and active substances, including especially pigments. It is foreseeable that these products will also be upgraded there.” And experience teaches that Buhler equipment and processes are excellently suited for the high­quality upgrading of such materials.

Inside the Grinding & Dispersion research laboratory. <br />
<br /> Inside the Grinding & Dispersion research laboratory.