Rütgers’ Wetzel offers a similar perspective. “Reliability,” he asserts. “That’s the most important differentiator. You have to be competitive on price but this shouldn’t be the main criterion. A toll processor has to recognize just how much of a risk people take when they ‘go outside of their own shop.’ If the toll processor can’t deliver, then the cost becomes immaterial.”
Lalit Chordia, founder and CEO of Thar Technologies, Pittsburgh, Pa., agrees: “When you consider a toll processor, cost can be a major consideration but at the same time you also look at their capability and track record to make sure your product is not going to be ruined.” Dickson also sees this as a key point, anecdotally talking of “nightmare stories that have come about because a toll processor has promised the world and not been able to deliver.”
Thar’s expertise is in the relatively niche area of supercritical fluid (SCF) technology, which it employs across four divisions offering services from analytical, laboratory and pilot-scale systems and system components, to proprietary research and toll processing services. Thar Process has designed and built two GMP-certified plant-scale systems at its Pittsburgh site for toll processing and also operates turnkey extraction facilities in India and Malaysia.
The company’s toll processing services include multi-purpose systems for processes such as extraction, coating and reactions, and chromatography systems for product purification. All are available for limited production lots but also for on-going processing. Business development manager, Brian Moyer, says “our customers focus on the end product. They probably don’t have expertise in the intermediate stages. We have our own scale-up and optimization group here, so we can offer all of those steps in house and then do toll processing for the company. We’re a single point of access for anyone interested in supercritical fluid technology.”
And a rapidly growing number of companies are interested. Moyer says there has been an increase in the uptake of toll processing generally over the past year, with SCF technology doing especially well. “We are growing at around 25% per annum and we’re seeing growth on all sides of the business — research, development, as well as toll processing.” The food and nutraceutical sectors in particular have picked up on SCF as a way of processing their products without having to resort to the use of solvents for product extraction.
With batch sizes ranging from as little as 1 or 2 kg to production lots of up to 100 metric tons, Thar has to cope with a problem common to all toll processors: how to schedule capacity to meet changing requirements from different customers, all with different materials to process. “That is always a limiting factor,” agrees Chordia, “but we have to work around those issues. We develop our processes based both on what the customer wants and what equipment is available. That’s always an issue, but that’s our expertise — we design the processes to fit the equipment that’s out there.”
“It’s like trying to fit together a jigsaw puzzle,” Pope Scientific’s Segal says. “We have several different scales of equipment and customers that have different quantities to process. And it’s made more complicated by the wide range of materials we can handle.”
Like Thar, Pope also is seeing an upturn in toll processing activity, as is Dickson at Nation Ford. He believes one of the reasons behind the growth in the sector is the recent closure of smaller plants by mainstream chemical companies, brought about by increasing competition from countries such as China and India or as a consequence of mergers or acquisitions.
Paradoxically, Thar also benefits from the lower cost of producing overseas but rather more directly through its joint venture with Indo-Global Spices in Bangalore, India. This gives the company considerable flexibility, according to Chordia. “Our approach to toll processing is two-pronged,” he says. “If cost is the major over-riding issue for a customer, then we can have the material processed overseas. But for that we need longer lead-times. Then there are customers who would not want their material shipped overseas in any circumstances. They want to inspect your facility, feel comfortable with it. For that we use our U.S. facilities.”
Visiting the site
Any reputable toll processor should, of course, be prepared to let potential customers inspect its site. Many tollers will point to ISO 9001 certification as an indicator of their quality management, while all should be able to prove their plants are operated in accordance with all the applicable environmental, health and safety regulations. Expect, in a word, “professionalism,” says Segal, who considers a visit to a toll processor’s facility to be “really critical for the customer, particularly those from food, fine chemical and pharma companies.”
Seeing the scale and scope of operation of a toll processor first-hand should give a reasonable indication of its capabilities. Keep in mind though, that many tollers, if they lack, say, a particular unit operation for a specific project, are prepared to work with their customers in investing in new plant and equipment. According to Segal, companies now are realizing that they are partnering with their toller and accept that some negotiation might be involved if extra capital expenditure is needed to fulfill their requirements.
For most projects though, it will be a case of “what you see is what you get.” And if you are impressed by what you see (and hear, from the tollers’ engineers and operators), the speed at which your project can get under way then could be a determining factor. Dickson, for example, says that Nation Ford, as a privately owned company, can react quicker than others. A point also made by Wetzel: “Our customers tend to be large operators but being bigger means they can be slower to react to meet changing market needs. We’re much smaller, without the layers of bureaucracy to slow us down.”
Of course, many large operators also offer toll processing. For instance, Dow Haltermann Custom Processing (DHCP), Midland, Mich., which leverages Dow’s global strength, claims to be one of the world’s biggest providers of distillation, reactive distillation and other non-pharmaceutical contract manufacturing services. DHCP has world-scale plants at strategic locations in both Europe (three in the northeast of England and one in Antwerp, Belgium) and the U.S. (at Midland and Houston and Freeport, Texas). When it was formed four years ago, DHCP combined Dow’s own contract manufacturing services unit with those of Haltermann Custom Processing, Hampshire Chemical and Mitchell Cotts Chemicals. The result was a company that has become “much greater than the sum of its parts,” according to DHCP general manager Simon Upfill-Brown.
“Using our proven systems for process development and trial production, we help our customers reduce time-to-market and eliminate their capital expenditures in introducing new products,” he says. “We not only get the product to market quickly but we often become the long-term producer for the client.”
And therein lies the attraction of all toll processors, large or small — these companies are prepared to become your production partner, taking their fair share of profit in return for giving you peace of mind.