Using resources efficiently

Steinbeis provides technological and financial consulting support to a start-up company

The Steinbeis Transfer Center for Energy and Environmental Process Technology and Eco-Management has been helping a new start-up company make more efficient use of its resources. The partnership is part of a project on material efficiency sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi). The Steinbeis team pinpointed a variety of potential savings the new company could make. Now, the center is helping the company put these measures into practice to enable expansion and boost production.

The medium-sized business, a metal-working company that makes nickel and ironbased metal alloy foam materials, was trying to find a way to reduce material waste in production. The previous production process had recently been overhauled but was still in the pilot stage with the associated high volumes of rejects.

As part of the VerMat program sponsored by the BMWi, the Steinbeis experts from Munich started by systematically pinpointing all costs resulting from material and energy use. Their method adhered to Cleaner Production guidelines (VDI 4075); the main focus was material usage and the corresponding costs. The assessment: potential six-figure savings, especially with the use of nickel alloy powder.

The second step for the Steinbeis experts was to evaluate possibilities for saving money. The team consciously chose two completely different approaches. One was the conventional approach: optimize processes. The other was to find new ways to use products coming out of production. To optimize production, the team worked closely with production and development staff, looking systematically at all parts of the process to identify the cause of rejects. They also looked at measures already introduced to improve operations – before evaluating each option.

In addition, the Steinbeis Transfer Center worked out and assessed new ways to produce metal alloy foam materials, examining each approach from a technological and financial point of view. To apply nickel alloy powders more efficiently, a subsequent project worked on by Steinbeis looked more closely at ways to reconfigure processes, with a view to integrating any changes identified into the production process. Doing this plays to one of Steinbeis’s key strengths: multifaceted technological know-how, throughout the entire Steinbeis transfer network. By entering into new application areas, the Munich-based transfer center was able to tap into the wealth of experience offered by its experts.

The medium-sized company involved in this project was founded as recently as 2005. The metal foam materials it produces are mainly used in the automotive industry for making filters and catalytic converters used in diesel engines. Tolerances are so tight in this field that almost 50 per cent of produced materials have to be thrown away. Some rejects could be avoided by optimizing production or tweaking processes. Sintering materials at over 1200 °C causes materials to warp. Inevitably, a significant proportion of the products fall short of requirements laid down by today’s target customers. So the project team decided it would be important for everyone involved in the project to look at other possible application areas for the products from a technological and financial standpoint, especially in large-scale industrial applications.

One highly attractive application for the material turned out to be as a catalyst support in a variety of industrial applications, ranging from emission controls – such as removing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide and heavy metals – to use in various production reactors. This would draw specifically on the thermal resistance, the large inner surface area, or the actual structure of the metal alloy foam.

A conservative estimate of the company’s optimization potential would be revenue growth between 40 and 55 per cent. Based on the existing capacity of the pilot plant, that would already equate to 290,000 to 385,000 euros. In the medium term the company plans to expand production volumes by a factor of five, with corresponding optimization potential.

For this initial project two thirds of the costs involved in carrying out the detailed analysis were funded by the BMWi. The cost of upgrading production has been estimated at no more than 300,000 euros. For a highly acceptable financial investment, the company could thus adopt several specific ideas from the Steinbeis transfer project: as well as optimizing its production, it will be able to start selling its products to new customers. So the time has come to implement ideas and start translating them into actions. The investment needed, which will probably by recouped in less than a year, will make it possible to improve revenues significantly, to diversify, and to establish a broader customer base for what is still a young company.

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