Try before you buy

There is another side to toll processing. It involves the companies that arguably have the best possible know-how and hardware — for the simple reason that they are the equipment manufacturers themselves, offering toll processing services that utilize their own products.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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Teaming up

An equipment maker can certainly benefit from working directly with a toll processor that uses its hardware and helping that processor build up a good working relationship with customers. A case in point is the collaboration between the grinding-and-dispersion-equipment specialist Netzsch, Exton, Pa., and toll processor Custom Processing Services (CPS), Reading, Pa.

“We have a great strategic alliance,” explains CPS’ president Greg Shemanksi. “They don’t own us, we don’t own them, but we have a great working relationship in that we provide their testing on the dry milling side, and they have a wonderful test lab with some small custom wet grinding. What we are able to do is to use their equipment in real world situations so their potential customers can come in and try out grinding machines in a processing plant. That’s a benefit for Netzsch. And on our side if people just want to fill a gap before they purchase equipment — whether they are waiting to build up a market, or have to do test marketing, or find the right formulations before they invest — then they can go ahead and use our tolling services until that happens. So there’s a definite benefit for both of us.”

Typical of the equipment used by CPS is the CGS 100 fluidized-bed jet mill from Netzsch-Condux, Hanau, Germany, which at the time of its installation in 2003 was the largest mill of its type at any tolling operation anywhere.

Powder processing is clearly an operation that lends itself to toll processing. As Shemanski says, in many cases the client company might be developing a new product and has decided to defer investment in equipment until a market for it has been established, or might want to address new markets for an existing product by grinding it finer or blending it with another product. These are probably more strategic decisions than those that can apply to toll processing involving some of the more esoteric unit operations.

Special separations

The processing of heat-sensitive materials is one area that often requires esoteric technology. It is the forté of Pope Scientific, Saukville, Wis., a manufacturer of wiped-film molecular stills, evaporators and fractionation equipment that also operates a toll processing service. Dean Segal, vice-president of sales and marketing, says that with today’s increasingly complex molecules, “you can soon reach the stage where you need molecular stills — because there’s no other way to process them [without degradation] — yet there’s still very little being taught in the chemical engineering schools about the technology.”

A consequence is that many of Pope’s customers are prepared to work with the company on developing a process all the way from the lab bench through the pilot stage and on to Pope doing toll processing on the jointly developed process equipment. “An important example of this to us,” says Segal, “is the hybrid still, where we marry together a fractionation column and a wiped-film evaporator to get the highest purity of heat-sensitive materials. In some cases it’s the only answer — separating fatty acid esters of different chain lengths, for example. It works great for that and has become important for us, both as a product line and for toll processing.”

Another specialist separation process available in the tolling market is supercritical fluid extraction (SCF). Ken James, director of technology for Supercritical Fluid Technologies, Newark, Del., says that awareness of the technology in the early days of the company was quite low but has been on the increase since around 2000. “In many ways though,” he goes on, “it’s still a relatively new technology and a lot of our clients like to be able to do a feasibility study on their process and products. So we need a full feasibility and processing lab facility for them. It’s a driver to keep moving them forward, to get them into the comfort zone where they will want to make the capital investment in the equipment.”

“On rare occasions we will get a client who wants nothing to do with the equipment, who just wants to send material for us to process and send them back the extracted material,” says James. The founder and CEO of competing SCF company Thar Technologies, Pittsburgh, Pa., Lalit Chordia makes a similar point: “People come to us and say ‘you guys are the experts. You tell us what to do.’

We do everything — if they want us to license a process, or if they want us to produce a piece of equipment to install in their plant, or if they just want us to process their material, we can do it.”

Powder-processing tollers also have clients that take the “hands off” approach. “We have some customers that essentially are working out of an office. We receive materials, warehouse them, process them and then distribute them. It’s almost a virtual company set-up, with customers acting more or less as materials brokers,” says Hosokawa Micron’s McGovern, for example.

Fluid Energy Processing and Equipment can also take on much more than simply processing materials for its clients. “We do direct shipping to many of our customers’ customers,” explains Baxter, “and for some of our major customers we maintain a 30-day supply of the product we’re providing for them.”

Toll processing customers of that stature, of course, may never be the biggest purchasers of equipment — Fluid Energy has been toll processing for some customers for more than 20 years, for instance — but the synergy stemming from both manufacturing process equipment and demonstrating its capabilities to potential customers through toll processing has clearly been of great benefit to both sides of the marketplace.

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