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19. October 2004

Corporate Development – in quest of the next-generation Buhler products

Corporate Development – in quest of the next-generation Buhler products

Every year, Bühler AG invests some 60 million Swiss francs or about 4.5 percent of its sales revenue in research & development.

Every year, Bühler AG invests some 60 million Swiss francs or about 4.5 percent of its sales revenue in research & development. At first glance, Corporate Development’s share of 5.5 million of this total does not appear to be very much. But the team headed by Beat Häni at Buhler plays a core role. Through the innovation process, it directs and designs the development of next-generation Buhler products, supporting the R&D departments of the divisions and business units from the centralized laboratory.

Buhler has always distinguished itself by its innovative power and global presence. Since its early beginnings, the Group has repeatedly succeeded in keeping an innovative step ahead of the market and setting trends. The market leadership of Buhler is based on the customer focus that it lives. “Our close contact with our customers is an old Buhler tradition,” says Beat Häni, member of corporate management and in charge of the Corporate Development function. “Our engineers’ close contacts with our customers enable us time and again to identify new needs and possibilities for further improving our plants, equipment, and processes.”

Divisions engage in their own research
The further development of Buhler products and their customization to specific customer requirements is normally done in the three divisions – Grain Processing, Engineered Products, and Die Casting. These three divisions have their own independent research & development departments. So, then why a centralized Buhler Corporate Development division? “The tasks of my small division are highly varied,” says Beat Häni. “We are a service function for the entire Buhler Group. On the one hand, with our Corporate Technology function, we operate our centralized laboratories with experienced specialists, who perform special tasks for the product divisions and business units. They thereby accelerate and deepen their developments and improve the quality of these develop-ments.” In addition, Häni’s approximately 40-head staff is responsible especially for the longer-term development of the portfolio of products and services offered by Buhler. “We search for the next-generation Buhler products, give a direction to the search for ideas, and initiate their implementation,” says the graduate mechanical engineer with some pride, summarizing: “In the Buhler Group, we are important drivers of the research & development process!”

Innovation process
Häni develops innovation within the Group by adhering to a precisely defined process. The first phase is to find ideas. This is a permanent process in the individual divisions and business units. In close contact with the people out in the field and on the basis of explicit and implicit customer wishes and needs, ideas are born for new processes and products. “We first see whether the idea agrees with our corporate strategies. This is followed by a careful feasibility check in terms of technology, processes, markets, and competition,” explains Beat Häni. In this analysis, one of the primary goals is to determine whether the idea will produce “differentiating features” for Buhler in the marketplace. “After all, our aim is not merely to improve our plant and equipment, but to always be a step ahead.” This process is supported by a newly established Innovation Committee. Beat Häni believes collaboration with uni-versities and other outside development organizations is crucial. “They broaden our minds and unlock a large number of new opportunities.”

Award of 100,000 francs
The individual teams present their ideas at the annual development conference. The presentation is held in the form of a competition. This challenges the teams to present their ideas in an easy-to-understand way and thereby to “sell” them. The total prize is 100,000 Swiss francs. The money flows from the corporate coffers straight into the R&D budget of the successful business unit, allowing additional development activities. Apart from the assessment of the ideas, the development conference also serves another purpose. Beat Häni: “The conference inevitably also produces an intense exchange of information and knowledge between the individual business units and divisions.”

Additional focus
The development of processes also requires in-depth knowledge of the products made. This knowledge has now led to an additional focus of the Buhler Group. “We have found that we can offer our customers our know-how in the field of end and intermediate products also directly, that is, not exclusively by way of our plant and equipment. Especially in areas where high-value products are involved in relatively small quantities, processes are implemented using only a few small installations. In such a case, it is hardly possible to recoup the cost of development on the basis of these small plants.” As a result, since recently, the Buhler Group does more than just produce and sell plant and equipment. It also develops new processes and sells or licenses them, or it may even participate in joint ventures to make and market semi-finished products and ingredients. Häni: “We are thereby positioning ourselves slightly farther back in the value-adding process.”

Aleuron as an example
Beat Häni cites the example of aleuron to illustrate how Bühler AG makes money not only by selling plant and equipment, but also process expertise. “Buhler has developed a process enabling the isolation of the aleuron layer of cereal grains, which is five to ten times more valuable than flour. We invested some four million Swiss francs in the relevant research. It would have been all but impossible to recoup our investment by merely selling the resulting processing systems. Therefore, we combined the sale of an installation with a license fee per kilogram to utilize the process.” Another example: Together with an outside team and a pasta-maker, Buhler researchers developed a process reducing the digestibility of carbohydrates, cutting the calorie intake for a given quantity of pasta consumed.

Buhler is involved in the marketing of these so-called “low-carb pasta” products, which are made and sold in the U.S.A. A third example concerns an additive for improving the quality and shelf life of bread and offering additional promising functionalities of bakery products (see also page 14, “Veripan”). Alone in the field of new foods, Beat Häni currently identifies seven products or processes in the Buhler research pipeline.

Competing with customers?
Don’t Buhler customers also feel that they now have an additional competitor as a result of this new strategy? Beat Häni believes not: “We have always viewed our customers as partners. This means that such new processes evolve on the basis of their needs and suggestions and in close collaboration with them. Especially with the examples mentioned, we support the grain milling industry, the bakery trade, and pasta-makers in their efforts to satisfy their own customers’ needs even better.” New processes are if possible offered to all Buhler customers. “The customer responding first will be the one to gain an edge,” explains Beat Häni. “Together with prospective users of the new technology, we then discuss the possible business model. It must be acceptable to both the customer and Buhler. Our customers have quickly recognized that our new processes will enable them to gain a competitive advantage.” (bos)

Buhler is a global Technology Group and System Partner for plant and equipment and for process expertise in the fields of Food Processing, Chemical Engineering, and Die Casting, with a worldwide payroll of about 6,100. 

For additional information, please contact:
Beat Häni, Head Corporate Development, Bühler AG Uzwil
T +41 71 955 23 73, F +41 71 955 27 27, E-mail Öffnet ein Fenster zum Versenden einer E-Mailbeat.haeni(at)buhlergroup.com

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