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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Despite the late but necessary change of venue from a Katrina-devastated New Orleans to Orlando, Fla., February’s Informex 2006 trade show confirmed the growing importance of custom manufacturing and toll processing to the chemical industry. The event drew more than 4,000 visitors, a level matching the previous year, in spite of the logistical nightmare faced by CMP Information, Princeton, N.J. and London, U.K., which had bought the show in 2005 from the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA), Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the 500 exhibitors, including 110 first-timers, set a record.

Further evidence of the strength of the sector is CMP’s commitment to make Informex a global event, starting in China in November — a sound decision judging by the 76 companies from that nation exhibiting at Orlando, the second largest contingent after the 285 from the U.S. Traditionally, though, Informex has acted as a shop window for SOCMA members involved in custom manufacture and toll processing to display their capabilities. Much of their expertise lies in their knowledge of particular chemistries and having the know-how and equipment to run the relevant processes more efficiently and economically than their clients can in-house.

But 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.

Solid experience

An example of this type of toll processor is Hosokawa Micron Powder Systems, which has its Custom Toll Processing and Technical Center in Summit, N.J. Equipped with all the company’s well-known brand names — such as Mikro-ACM air classifying mills, Alpine fluidized-bed jet milling systems and Mikro-Pulverizer hammer-and-screen milling systems — the center boasts the technical and process know-how to handle most powder-processing requirements.

Center manager John McGovern notes that the longer process runs in tolling can help fine-tune the equipment and process design. “You may run into some problems you wouldn’t anticipate in a short run,” he says. “That’s definitely one advantage, but another one is being able to keep the customer focused on you.” In other words, if a company has run tests on Hosokawa equipment and followed up with some interim toll processing before committing to buying, it is less likely to take its business elsewhere.

Not all customers opting for tolling will go on to purchase equipment, of course. McGovern estimates that around 25% do, although he says “you often see a long gestation period, where we might be custom processing for a company for two to three years as they develop their market.”

He says that customers most often request jet milling on the Alpine AFG fluidized-bed opposed jet mills which can produce very fine, 10-μm or smaller, particle sizes. “Along with that, we also do a lot of formulation work,” he adds, “where we mix materials and then mill that composite.”

Hosokawa’s toll customers generally come from the industrial chemicals and minerals sectors, with processing requirements ranging from small test samples all the way to runs of up to 500,000 lb/yr. “We have an unusual set-up,” explains McGovern, “in that we have a stand-alone test lab and a stand-alone toll processing facility.” This allows customers to progress all the way from preliminary feasibility work to being supplied with equipment fully proven in toll processing.

Fluid Energy Process and Equipment, Hatfield, Pa., also maintains its own lab facility for testing and producing small-scale batches, while operating an extensive toll-processing operation across its two powder-processing divisions. “The processing division has much more volume than the equipment division and traditionally larger profits,” notes Steve Baxter, executive vice-president.

With 20 process stations offering capabilities ranging from precrushing to jet milling, classifying and drying, the division can handle most operations in the 0.5-μm to 200-mesh range.

Baxter says having both equipment and powder-processing divisions “is a great advantage. We get a lot of leads for equipment from people who aren’t ready to buy right away, but we can get them going by producing small lots of product. Then if they don’t want to buy equipment, we can carry on and produce millions of pounds for them. But if they do want to buy, then it’s a turnkey deal because they have been processing on our equipment anyway.”

Another long-standing player in the jet mill market, the Jet Pulverizer Company, Moorestown, N.J., has a custom processing operation at the facility where it manufactures Micron-Master mills. Offering milling, processing, pulverizing, micronizing and custom grinding “from small batches to truckloads,” the toll processing operation features precision jet milling from 40 μm down to 0.5 μm.

European initiatives

Micro-Macinazione, Molinazzo di Monteggio, Switzerland, which produces Chispro jet mills and mainly focuses on the processing of active pharmaceutical ingredients, has set up a custom micronizing service with a capacity of more than 1,000 metric tons per year, claimed to be the largest in Europe.

Meanwhile, Niro A/S, Copenhagen, Denmark, recently opened a test facility for its new Swirl Fluidizer, which transforms pastes, filter cake and highly viscous liquids into a fine, homogeneous powder in a single process step, at the company’s main test station in Søborg, Denmark. Here more than 35 different pilot plants are available for feasibility and pilot-scale testing on samples from a few grams up to hundreds of kilograms per hour.

Although not providing full-blown custom processing, the test center nevertheless offers Niro customers the chance to evaluate equipment like the Swirl Fluidizer in short-run projects before making a purchase. A similar test station is operated in the U.S. by Niro Inc., Columbia, Md. However, the company’s marketing manager, Mads Skaareborg, emphasizes: “There is a sharp distinction between contract manufacturing and testing. There is no doubt that contract manufacturers do use Niro equipment, and Niro has built its own facility in Copenhagen, but we don’t have contract manufacturing as such in the U.S.”

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