By Nikolaus Fecht
China has taken on a pioneering role in using a technology platform that had its beginnings in Germany over 20 years ago. This platform is the microreactor technology (MRT), which makes it possible to build reliable and economical productions plants for chemical products.
In 1995, the then director of the Mainz Institute of Microtechnology, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ehrfeld, wondered whether the successful miniaturization in microelectronics could also be implemented in process technology. Together with representatives of the chemical, pharmaceutical and automotive industries, he started investigating this possibility.
Using the Andrussow process for the production of hydrocyanic acid in the gaseous phase, he proved that mixers with microchannels produce significantly higher yields than established technology. Ehrfeld became a pioneer of the "micro and milli-reactor" technology platform from which Ehrfeld Mikrotechnik was created.
Intensifying processes with MRT
This technology platform has existed for about two decades and thanks to its extremely miniaturized design, it is more efficient and effective than conventional systems when it comes to highly effective mixing, excellent heat transfer, and short and defined dwell time. "Processes can be intensified considerably using MRT," explains Managing Director Dr. Joachim Heck. "This allows users to achieve significantly higher yields. More materials are made from the same amount of raw materials."
Thanks to the small channel diameter and the resulting significantly larger surface-to-volume ratio, the MRT system also boasts higher efficiency. According to Heck, this also means lower energy consumption, relatively small reactor volumes (increased safety) and attractive cost savings.
First reference plant in China
Despite all positive arguments, the proverbial saying that a prophet has no honor in his own country seems to hold true here. Technological breakthrough could not be achieved due to a lack of reference projects. "Even if a technology sounds promising in the lab, decision-makers invariably want to see successful production facilities," Heck reports. Due to the use of channels on the millimeter rather than the micrometer scale, the channels are less likely to clog and are robust enough for production. Instead of Europe or the USA, the first reference plant was built in the teeming metropolis of Shaoxing on the Chinese east coast.
Ehrfeld designed, manufactured and delivered a milli-reactor with a production capacity of 10,000 tons per year for a manufacturer of chemical products for agrochemicals. At a length of 7 meters and a weight of 5 tons, the reactor is equipped with about 150 rectangular reaction channels and exchangeable static mixers and has a raw material throughput of about one cubic meter per hour. According to Ehrfeld, it is twice as productive as the reactors used previously by the customer.
Double the production capacity
Before, the Chinese company used more than 20 large batch reactors with a total volume of about 50 cubic meters. The continuous milli-reactor with an inner volume of only 40 liters achieves twice the production capacity. In addition to the significantly improved yield, the possible production qualities, safety aspects and fast return on investments also play an essential part in the decision to use MRT. Due to the successful implementation of the technology platform, the Chinese company is planning to have a second milli-reactor by the end of this year.
MRT is under-represented in Germany
"Unlike companies from Germany or the USA, the still relatively young Chinese manufacturer of active ingredients does not cling to tried-and-tested technology," Heck explains. Using the new technology platform is the next logical step in this company's development. The Chinese chemical industry is generally more open to innovative technology since it is still very young. "This is why China is currently the leading region for MRT, while only few companies in other countries such as Germany use this technology platform successfully, secretly and quietly," says Heck.
For the Managing Director of Ehrfeld, this reference project is a wake-up call for the industry that is being clearly heard in Europe. However, it is still unclear whether the European chemical and pharmaceutical industries will be able to get on board with this technology. "But we are noticing that the decision-makers are having a concrete interest in introducing this technology platform top-down," says Heck happily.
Uwe Rothaug, Managing Director of Kurtz GmbH from the Franconian Kreutzwertheim near Würzburg, also has a lot experience when it comes to Asia. "It is an illusion to believe that copying German technology in China is enough to achieve a 'super' cost reduction," explains Rothaug. "It simply doesn't work like that since there are many factors to consider." For example, the company would have to adapt the machine to the Chinese supplier structure in order to be able to procure the necessary parts. Furthermore, the principle of "old German machine - made in China" some like to practice does not work since it would not be very well received on the Chinese market, which has seen strong technical developments in recent years.
Recipe for success: the best of both worlds
Instead, the Franconian company opted for a different production strategy that is based on the motto "The best of both worlds." "For the key technology, meaning the heart of the machine, we are still using parts developed and manufactured in Germany," says Rothaug. Everything else, such as the welded frame or the machine housing, is bought or produced in China. This combination is well received by the customers. For example, the control technology and the solder pots for automatic soldering systems made in China both come from Germany.
Market knowledge is essential
Kurtz did not encounter any technological or other obstacles since the company was able to build on the experience gained with the technology transfer of machines in the south Chinese province Guangdong back in 2006. "We already operate a facility there and know the suppliers," says Rothaug. "We were able to draw from over a decade of experience, allowing the new project to run smoothly and quickly."
Using German expertise in China
A tried-and-tested recipe for success is building the first machines or systems with specialist staff from Germany. According to Rothaug, it only took a year to develop the first prototype since the Chinese employees were quick to learn and implement the expertise. "Things only move that quickly if the entire infrastructure is set up. This usually takes about one-and-a-half to two years," remembers Rothaug. The concept also worked the second time around: The subsidiary in Guangdong now produces over 200 soldering systems per year with steadily rising sales figures.
Based on years of experience in China, including the establishment of two facilities, Rothaug is sure that the Chinese and German cultures complement each other perfectly as long as both sides are open with each other. "The German companies are the long-term planners of strategies that are quickly and very actively implemented by the Chinese companies," says Rothaug from experience. While the Germans are still planning and sometimes tend to brood and plan for far too long, the Chinese already begin working. "However, this approach also increases the risk of making mistakes, since taking action quickly can also lead to hasty actions," says Rothaug.
Partnership leads to success
A company is successful in China if it succeeds in combing and integrating both cultures. And Chinese companies have identified the advantages of their German counterparts. Today, there are German professors teaching at Chinese universities. "The situation is slowly shifting in favor of China; our technological lead is diminishing," says Rothaug. Still, the China expert does not consider the situation to be critical. After all, he sees the partnership of both countries as being the path to long-term success.
Trumpf Laser- und Systemtechnik GmbH from Ditzingen has already implemented several projects in China, employing more than 1,000 staff in various business segments on the Chinese market. While its affiliate company, Trumpf Werkzeugmaschinen GmbH + Co.KG also produces in China, Trumpf Laser operates sales and service organizations there.
"The Chinese market is different from the traditional German market, which is strongly driven by technology," explains Markus Lindemann, International Sales Director Asia and Africa at Trumpf. The important question for Chinese customers is how German technology can be used to produce large quantities at low costs, he adds. Therefore, the price has the top priority in all industrial sectors.
Checking relocation of manufacturing
The company from Ditzingen has the advantage that they deliver uniform laser systems from Germany to the entire world. Their systems do not need to be adapted to local markets. However, the company constantly checks whether relocating its manufacturing capacities would be sensible. This would be possible for products that can be installed or completed on site in an economic manner. "However, the core expertise would always remain in Germany," emphasizes Lindemann.
Geringer Halbleitertechnik GmbH & Co KG from Barbing near Regensburg specialized on machines that are used to position various electronic components on component carriers (multichip die-bonders). "We are currently expanding sales of this machine in China. Chinese institutions are among our customers," says Karl-Hermann Flach, the company's Vice President for semiconductor fastening technology.
Geringer also makes use of relationships to European and American customers who have branches in various regions of China. The long-time manager is optimistic about the future, as the Barbing-based company was approved as a supplier for state-run companies in China just in time for the new five-year plan. "This approval is necessary to be able to participate in government tendering processes," explains Flach, who is very pleased with this approval.
Precision and flexibility are key
From a technical perspective, the plants have the perfect design since they allow for flexible expansion and various manufacturing processes. Another huge advantage is their high precision, as they are capable of placing several chips on the component carriers with an accuracy of a few thousandths of a millimeter. "Precision is of utmost importance to us, flexibility ranks second and speed only comes in third place," explains Flach. New technology is in demand in China, seeing as the local semiconductor industry aims to modernize itself in light of the competition from global players from the USA, Europe and Japan.