With nearly 150 years’ experience, Buhler Inc. offers its customers a lot more than process equipment. Already a strong global presence, its venture into new markets – such as nanotechnology – promises further market domination. April Terreri has the storY.
There’s a lot happening under the roof at Buhler Inc. As Richard Lindstrom puts it: “We do have a story to tell and it’s almost impossible to tell it all in one article.” The story would have many chapters, and perhaps even volumes, as Buhler is involved in manufacturing equipment used in a wide range of diverse industries whose companies serve their own consumers’ everyday needs. “We have consistently – throughout the life of our company – adventured beyond our core business to what we envision will be the needs of the future,” adds Lindstrom, director of the Minneapolis-based Engineered Products Division of the Uzwil, Switzerland-headquartered corporation. “This has been the driving force of Buhler for years and it’s why we can claim such exceptionally high market shares in many of the markets we serve. For instance, well over 60 percent of chocolate manufacturers worldwide use Buhler equipment for their chocolate processing.”
Buhler is the silent mentor behind some of the world’s most prominent companies using Buhler equipment and process technology to create their own high-quality products. A $1 billion global technology group, Buhler operates a network of manufacturing facilities and sales offices in about 80 countries, with over 1,000 sales engineers and service personnel supporting its global presence. Buhler’s strength emanates from its expertise in five fundamental technologies including casting, grinding, mixing and dispersion, drying and cooking, and material conversion. Providing process technology to its customers, Buhler engineers, manufactures and installs individual pieces of equipment or entire plant systems, such as automation systems.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Buhler is its ability to predict where future markets might be developing through a keen understanding of how evolving business behavior might translate into emerging markets. “Very early in our growth, the leaders of our company correctly identified the countries that would become significant grain producers who would need milling equipment to grind grain into flour; this was Buhler’s first core business when it started in 1865 in Uzwil, Switzerland,” Lindstrom says, adding that Buhler now supplies this equipment to global grain producers, including many third-world countries.
Supporting worldwide markets, the U.S.-based Buhler facility in Minneapolis operates three divisions which include the Grain Processing Division, the Die Casting Division, and the Engineered Products Division.
The Die Casting Division serves primarily manufacturers of automotive, aeronautical, and small tools components. “We sell to fabricators who then sell to OEMs; this is a significant growing market for us,” Lindstrom says. Continually advancing its technological expertise, this division applied for 69 patents this past year – the highest number ever in the company’s history.
Buhler created the Engineered Products Division by merging two former divisions, namely the Process Foods Division and the Process Technologies Division. “We recognized a lot of synergies in the equipment manufactured within these two divisions,” Lindstrom explains. “So, whether our equipment was being used to process foods like cereals, snacks, pasta, or chocolate – or whether our process technologies were being used to develop PET-type plastics, inks, coatings, or pigments – all of these products were essentially going through similar equipment.” By reducing the cost-intensive complexity of its products, Buhler now focuses more acutely on streamlining manufacturing processes, thereby increasing overall efficiency.
This division offers six product lines. From the former Process Food Division are equipment and processes for manufacturing pasta and chocolate, and extruder systems for markets such as cereal, snack, and feed manufacturers. Buhler is prepared for what it expects to be a strong growth market in health foods. “Because of our engineering and technological expertise in extruder systems, manufacturers come to us for process developments and equipment for their new cereals, snacks and other foods; the health-food market will offer significant growth for us, especially in North America,” Lindstrom says. “We are positioned very well to take advantage of the change that will take place in the food market in terms of producing more low-carb, low-fat, and low-sugar products for the marketplace.”
From the former Process Technologies Division, which encompasses grinding and dispersion capabilities, are equipment and processes selling into the ink, coatings, and fine chemicals markets. The sixth product line includes thermoplastics equipment and processes. “In this area, we’ve developed unique processes for making PET-type plastics like water bottles,” Lindstrom says, adding that two of every three water bottles used throughout the world every day most likely were processed using Buhler equipment.
The real focus of the Engineered Products Division is “to move our wealth of engineering and process technology into new and growing markets,” says Lindstrom. One of these new markets is nano-particle technology, a new technology still in its infancy and one used in just about every industry. A nano-particle’s base size is one-millionth of a meter and, when added with other materials, these particles positively affect the way in which other materials behave. “They are derived from a variety of materials and are used in diverse formulas for hardening ceramics, increasing the strength of plastics, and producing coatings resistant to graffiti, for example,” explains Lindstrom. “They are also used to produce the brightness and clarity in things such as plasma and TV screens.”
Creating two significant alliances in the field of nanotechnology, one with a leading European institute, Buhler is moving into yet another area. “We are finding opportunities now where we can branch out from just selling equipment and processes into creating and selling actual products,” Lindstrom says. One of these products is Leuron(r), a substance found in the outer layers of wheat kernels. Leuron(r) offers high value-added properties and, when added to ingredients of other products, can increase nutritional values by up to 20 percent. Leuron(r) adds value to cereals, breads and baked products, dairy products such as cheese and yogurt, breakfast powdered beverages, and fruit-containing beverages. Buhler also discovered Leuron(r) can be used to create skin lotions, offering significant sun-block benefits. “This is just another example of how we can take a familiar material, discover its inherent benefits, and then develop it into products with a waiting marketplace.”
Another of Buhler’s strengths in the global marketplace is its ability to recognize exceptional synergistic “fits” to its manufacturing culture. One example is its recent acquisition of Drais-DM, a Mannheim, Germany-based company. “This represents a strategic acquisition that will allow us to grow our market share in our grinding and dispersion product line,” Lindstrom says. “With the Drais-DM acquisition, we are now the leading supplier of equipment used in the production of inks and coatings and we are well positioned to not only dominate the paste markets (for heat-set and cold-set), but for the liquids markets as well for inks, coatings, and fine chemicals. For these radically different viscosities you really need different types of equipment and our strength before the acquisition was in equipment primarily for processing heavy paste materials.”
Lindstrom attributes Buhler’s continued success to the diversity of its products and technologies as well as to its culture of forming alliances with other companies. Its heritage also includes forming alliances with its customers. “Our tag line is: ‘Your Performance in Mind’,” he says. “It’s our heritage of employing forward-thinking strategies and of working closely with our customers so they can improve their processes and their bottom line. It is our vision to drive into new and profitable markets and not to just sit back and enjoy the fruits of our significant market shares in our mature markets.”