Features

Mixing Equipment Update

By Mike Agosta | August 10, 2005

When coatings companies produce new products that utilize new and innovative raw materials and ingredients, mixing equipment manufacturers must adjust their products to meet those needs.

When asking industry insiders whether the mixing equipment market is mature or not, the answers sound like something out of the mouth of a teenager: 'Like sort of, but not really.'

 
This laboratory twinshaft mixer from Buhler is used for predispersion and let-down of products of all viscosities, especially high-viscosity products like coatings.
Confusing though it may sound, this answer is actually pretty accurate. For the most part, the mixing equipment market is mature. There are only so many ways to design and build a mixer and, unless someone manages to reinvent the wheel, seeing something profoundly new is unlikely. That being said, mixing equipment companies aren't resting on their laurels; they are working hard to make products more effective, more accurate and easier to use.

According to Geary Walpole, vice president at Schwerdtel, because coatings companies continue to come out with new formulations, equipment manufacturers must continue to innovate to stay current. "New formulations mean something will always be going on in the equipment markets," he said. "Smaller batch sizes and the utilization of new materials like resins mean equipment makers can never stop evolving, so I say the market isn't completely mature."

Though she agrees that equipment makers must continue to update products to meet the needs of new materials, Kerstin Grosse, sales manager, grinding and dispersion division, Buhler, Inc., pointed out that "the process of mixing has pretty much been invented."

According to Ms. Grosse, many new products are the result of updating existing equipment to keep up with new formulations and to ease and facilitate the mixing process. Buhler, she said, "is working on ways to lessen the need for grinding after the mixing process. A good premix can eliminate the need for a further grinding process after mixing."

Randy Cleaver, manager of project engineering at Netzsch, said that though there is little to be done in changing the actual parts and processes involved in mixing, there is still room for innovation. "Like the main components of an automobile, the basic parts and design of mixers has not changed in the past fifty years, and, for the most part, never will," he said. "However, the process of utilizing a mixer in different applications is on the verge of technology."

An area for innovation in the mixing equipment market is computerization and automation. "Computer programming related to memory, storage of formulations and automated adjustments are important," said Mr. Walpole. "Most things made today have some sort of computer element to them, but it depends on needs. There are a lot of 'mom and pop' shops that aren't in need of computer technology."

 
This vacuum/pressure dispersion mixer, boasts a combination of scrape-surface heavy duty mixing working in conjunction with a disperser for hard-to-blend products. (photo: Lee Industries)
Ms. Grosse agreed that though computerization and automation are important features in new mixing designs, their presence is dependent on need. "When you move towards automated production, certainly software for temperature control and time release additions allow the user to fully program the mixing process," she said. "However, experience shows that manually-operated mixers do a good enough job for a majority of our customers. There are so many different colors and batches and small batches making automation often difficult in the coatings industry."

Price sensitivity is often another issue, often leading customers to choose manually operated equipment, she added.

Issues such as price sensitivity and the need for automation are prime indicators of the need to listen to customers. Because many companies do not buy new mixers with great frequency, maintaining a solid relationship with customers is key. To be successful in the mixing equipment market, companies must provide excellent service and deliver exactly what customers want. "We try to fulfill customers' needs by listening carefully," said Ms. Grosse. "We try to find out as much as possible about what they want to accomplish in mixing so that we can recommend equipment that fulfills those needs."

Many mixing equipment manufacturers have test facilities where customers can "test drive" to find the best equipment for their needs. "Customers really appreciate the testing ability," said Ms. Grosse. "It allows for much more security in the decision making process."

So just what factors are influencing the decision-making process? According to Mr. Walpole, there are a number of things that customers appear to be looking for in today's market. "It comes down to reducing inventory and allowing for just-in-time manufacturing," he said. "The buzz word that I keep hearing everywhere is 'lean manufacturing,' which means to make something when you need it, make it now and deliver it yesterday. Everyone needs to be able to do that today; it's the major trend." He also stressed the need keep inventory levels low, as raw material prices continue to rise.

Another need for customers stems from the increasing importance of R&D. Buhler has developed a number of lab-sized mixers to meet that challenge. "We created lab sized mixers, something we saw a real need for," said Ms. Grosse. "Customers are looking for good small-scale equipment that helps them to make small batches and also is useful in labs and for R&D. These small mixers allow R&D chemists to mimic the quality and results of production-sized mixers."

 
This inline disperser achieves unmatched homogeneous pre-dispersion results when fine powders are rapidly wetted in a large liquid surface. (photo: Netzsch, Inc.)
To say that nothing new is happening in this extremely important market would be wrong. As long as coatings companies are producing new products that utilize new and innovative raw materials and ingredients, mixing equipment manufacturers must continue to adjust their products to meet the needs of coatings makers. Equipment suppliers are focused on lean manufacturing, ease-of-use and facilitating subsequent grinding and dispersing processes, proving that as the coatings market evolves, so does the equipment used to produce it.

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