Innovation starts with understanding04.05.2009 Since the end of 2008, Buhler has had a new, state-of-the-art, and flexible Analytical Laboratory. This new center of competence is headed by Béatrice Conde-Petit. Shedding its self-understanding of being a pure mechanical engineering company and shifting toward a process engineering philosophy, the Buhler Technology Group has been undergoing constant change for years. One expression of this change is its new Analytical Laboratory, which was inaugurated at the end of 2008. Over 2.5 million Swiss francs have been spent at the Group’s headquarters in Uzwil on this lab designed on the basis of the latest findings in the field of laboratory engineering and equipped with cutting-edge analytical instruments and laboratory devices.
“My strength is starch”
The new Analytical Laboratory of Buhler was built under the direction of Béatrice Conde-Petit. A food scientist with a doctorate and qualified as a university lecturer, she switched in early 2008 from research and teaching at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich to Buhler. “My strength is starch,” says multilingual Béatrice Conde, who was born in Chile and grew up in India and Bolivia. “Since my studies, I have been concerned with the structure of vegetable foods and their secrets. Among other things, I have investigated all the aspects of starch. Thus the subject of starch has become my actual strength.”
Her move to Buhler was predestined. “During my research activities at the ETH, I concerned myself intensely with grain from the raw material to the finished products. Time and again, this gave rise to points of contact with Buhler. When I was offered the opportunity to join Buhler, I did not hesitate for long. The interface between basic research and practical applications has always interested me. The opportunity to apply scientific food science insights to practice attracted me.”
First assignment: design the lab
When she joined Buhler, Béatrice Conde immediately received her first assignment – to design and build the new Analytical Laboratory. Her starting point was the equipment and the staff of the existing in-house Buhler lab. “This assignment was a big opportunity for me. Within the scope of the budget, I had all the latitude I needed,” says Béatrice Conde- Petit in retrospect.
In a record time of nine months, the laboratory crammed with cutting-edge equipment and analytical instruments was created as a new part of the research and development wing on the Buhler premises. “We are now equipped to handle all types of analyses,” explains the new laboratory head. “Today also a biotechnology laboratory has been added.” Additions were also made to the existing laboratory team. It now includes 18 specialists in the disciplines of chemistry, physics, grain analysis, particle analysis, microscopy, food technology, and biotechnology plus the administration.
Analytical center of competence
The new Buhler Analytical Laboratory understands its role as being an analytical center of competence for investigating foods and engineering materials at all processing stages. “We act as service providers who offer analytical services for all Buhler processes – from the raw material to the finished products,” says Béatrice Conde-Petit, summarizing the services offered by her lab. The lab’s wide range of analytical methods paired with its state-of-the-art analytical infrastructure provide the key for understanding the transformation of organic and synthetic materials in upgrading processes. “Our analyses support the Buhler engineers and their customers in designing production plants and processes. In the field of research, we are currently working on the scientific foundations required for developing tomorrow’s technologies.”
The new central Analytical Laboratory of Buhler offers a wide portfolio of analytical services: chemical and physical analyses; flour quality checks; particle analyses and bulk solids con- sulting; microscopic techniques for structural analyses; application of biotechnological processes; food technology consulting. These services are available for various product groups: cereal grains, flours, and starch; animal feeds, oilseeds and biomass; chocolate, cocoa, and sugar; pasta and extruded products; printing inks, paints, and chemicals; plastics and biopolymers.
Business units as clients
Most clients of the new Analytical Laboratory are the Buhler business units. “About 50 percent of the jobs we handle are routine assignments that we receive from our business units,” explains the head of the lab. “They involve either analyses for the Buhler engineers themselves or for customer projects.” In addition, Béatrice Conde’s team also develops its own methods. “When new issues crop up, we are challenged to develop new methods,” continues Dr. Conde-Petit. For example, her specialists investigate the transformation of wheat in the pasta production process in all its discrete stages in order to find out what exactly happens. This is so although one might legitimately assume that Buhler already knows this process down to the very last detail. Béatrice Conde: “Though a lot of empirically developed processes exist in the field of food science of which we have model ideas, we have not yet proven everything that is ultimately going on.” The aim of various research assignments carried out in the Buhler Analytical Laboratory is to find explanations and fundamental principles for insights gained empirically by the engineers and thus to determine new approaches to processing.
“The development of innovations frequently starts with the understanding of the traditional process,” says Béatrice Conde-Petit of one of her basic experiences. “As a consequence, our research efforts have a concrete goal: To research the basics in order to invent new processes and products together with our developers and engineers.” At the start of the innovation chain is the product that a Buhler customer wishes to make. Béatrice Conde: “At first, our focus is on the customer’s needs or the market requirements for a product, for example in terms of texture, color, particle size, or digestibility. This produces the requirements for the structures of the new product. It is then our task in the laboratory to investigate the relations between the product characteristics and the process conditions. This requires a targeted analysis of the structure, from the molecular composition to the microstructure and the macroscopic properties. Once we have managed to link the required product properties with a process, the step to the process is no longer far away.” The end of these analysis and development efforts are products tailored to customers’ requirements and made on Buhler equipment using Buhler processes.
In order to improve the capacity utilization of the lab’s highly specialized equipment, Béatrice Conde-Petit’s team also handles analysis assignments for third parties. “We have a wide range of equipment for conducting very diverse analyses and know numerous special methods. To better utilize the capacity of our equipment and of our staff, we also handle third-party assignments.” In concrete terms, the services offered to third parties include analyses of cereal grains, cocoa, oilseeds, plastics, and engineering materials at all processing stages. A detailed catalog is available which provides information on the individual analyses and the prices.