Global market leader of base material for PCBs enters new markets beyond electronics
Whilst not belonging to the traditional portfolio of the company they have actually become an important product division and for the general public they are a familiar part of our landscapes: wind turbines that generate electricity. "There are tremendous centrifugal forces having an impact on each blade of the wind turbine", Karl Stollenwerk, general manager of Isola GmbH, Düren, stated "the rotor e. g. has to be ruggedised accordingly." However, it is not only the strength but also the flexibility and the need for light weight that are part of the specification of a wind turbine. "At the best, only a breeze is needed to set it in motion", the manager specifies. But what is Isola's concern in this all? This company is attending the continuos improvement process of the wind turbine industry: an amazing fact in view of the fact the traditional company founded in 1912 has been well-known in the market for completely different products: Isola's vested business is base material for the production of printed circuit boards for the electronics industry, used in computers, vehicles and aeroplanes, TV sets, mobile phones, or DVD players, by way of example. Isola is known as global market leader in this sector. It therefore raises the following question : Why does the company switch to different sectors? "We made a virtue out of necessity", Karl Stollenwerk describes the recent history: "From 2000 until today the European market of our core business has shrunk by 50 per cent. We were forced to release 65 per cent of our staff in the course of the last 9 years. Thus, it is high time to oppose this development and we have started to focus more and more on future markets beyond electronics."
From wind power to safety features and equipment
Wind power is a part of it but also solar technology, new applications in automotive engineering, ship building, railway engineering, and aircraft industry, the field of safety equipment to the point of producing state-of-the-art materials for the architecture. "Since 2001, the large badge production in the sectors automobile electronics or mobile communication as an example has increasingly been shifted to Asia. It is a long time ago that we were able to compete with their cost and price structure", Dr Manfred Cygon, Director New Applications with Isola GmbH, gets it to the point, "however, our methodological skills as well as our technical know-how provide us with the necessary tools to break into new markets where it depends on innovations and extraordinary ideas." In detail this involves an enormous wealth of experience in the area of plastics processing which Isola is able to develop using new joining and separation technique by a co-operation treaty contracted with the FH Aachen accompanied by a potentially intense co-operation with the FH Aachen's faculty of mechanical engineering and mechatronics under the management of Prof. Johannes Gartzen. Isola is a specialist in laminates, the combination of different materials, especially of fibre-reinforced plastics that can be used in various industries. Thus, these laminates are suitable for computer boards as well as for the stabilisation of blades – that is where we've come full circle. "The FH Aachen is assisting us in designing completely new materials that set new standards in e. g. automotive or power engineering", Karl Stollenwerk comments that both parties benefit from the fertilising transfer between science and research on the one hand and the economy on the other hand.
Versatile high complex plastics versatile
High complex plastic "made by Isola" can be used for the outer skin of aeroplanes or trains as well as for a car body or for boat building and house building. Fiber-reinforced plastics – fibres or glass fibres embedded in artificial resin – or so-called composites, compound material based on plastics, often unify numerous beneficial characteristics that are very interesting for the users: usually they are relatively light and hence easier to process. A low weight for example in vehicles, trains, or aeroplanes reduces in addition the mass that has to be accelerated or to be slowed: both fuel and expendable parts can be saved. Plastic and its composites e. g. in the form of copper-clad base material can mostly be produced in a resource-efficient manner: the use of precious natural resources is limited to a minimum. In addition, the plastic production is shown to be extremely versatile. Once the materials are electrically conductive or dielectric, once pressure-resistant, semisolid, heat-resistant or cold-resistant, UV-resistant, of high rigidity or maximum flexibility, and – not uncommonly – they show a decent thermal insulation. Being non-perishable, plastics and their composites are long-living and recyclable at any time. "Contemporary plastics are able to fulfil nearly every producer's wish", Dr. Cygon enthuses and continues: "You just need to know how they have to be build up. That is Isola's strength."
Valuable contacts have been established
Valuable contacts with other companies - preferred with market leaders – of the targeted future markets have been established or are even coming to fruition. The business field "Smart Cards" has been established, too. In the form of credit cards or fuel cards, of bonus cards or insurance cards they cannot be assumed away of our daily life. Each card is based on a particular laminate in which Isola is specialised. In the wind power industry promising quality tests with rotor blades being reinforced with laminates of Isola are currently being conducted. Thanks to Isola's technology for novel architectural roof and facade-systems with their exceptional shapes and geometry will shortly convince even the most demanding of architects. Beyond this Isola is working on new safety laminates for vehicles: inserts of plastic for tanks giving vital protection e. g. civil vehicles respectively the passengers from assaults – a market booming in conflict areas. The advantage over the bullet proof steel used so far is that the vehicles will be essentially lighter and with it more economically affordable . Furthermore, Isola is active in the field of electric mobility. "Electric cars as vehicles of the future need extremely efficient batteries in order to gain acceptance in the market. Here, we have a hit in our hands with our know how on boards", the management of the Duren based company evaluates the prospect optimistically.
Ideas meet with approval by parent company
To the question how Isola can progress and how realistic the management evaluates the chances to return to the old growth general manager Karl Stollenwerk follows the history of the company: "Isola has already experienced ups and downs and each time we emerged from them stronger." To the background: founded in 1912, the company was able to overcome World War I, the stock market crash and the Great Depression in the 1920s, World War II and the post-war era. In 1954 for instance the company was only able to bear the enormous expenses related to the rebuilding by the participation of Rütgerswerke AG Frankfurt am Main. Hereafter, it has been nearly solely a real uphill climb until 2000. Isola grew, acquired other companies world-wide, became a world market leader with base materials for PCBs for the electronics. This development has lasted in Europe until the beginning of the 2000s. Then, however, the first crisis in the electronic sector emerged. Isola was put up for sale and was taken over by the US financial investor TPG and Redfern Partners. Currently, it is produced at ten locations, spread over the US, Asia, and Europe with a total of 1,800 employees. Because of the dwindling demand the Americans adjusted the capacity, invested in new and more efficient production concepts. The latest streamlining took place in summer 2009: MAS Italia, the Italian plant of Isola group, was shut down.
Innovation driver of the group
However, Isola Düren remains stable despite a massively declined number of employees and a grave decrease in turnover. The Düren plant is in the meantime deemed to be even as the innovation driver of the group – first and foremost thanks to the new market development champions Karl Stollenwerk and Dr Manfred Cygon. "Our idea to open up new markets that meet with the US's approval", so the encouraging leadership, " give us largely a free rein and we are full of confidence that we will soon be able to leave the trough behind us." Local job seeker will be happy. Isola is still one of the largest and popular employer in the economic region Aachen/Düren. In particular, academics respectively managers-to-be are very welcome at the prestigious company. "In quest of trainees, we are engaging bachelors or masters of the branches engineering, chemistry, or process technology", Dr Manfred Cygon describes the internal training concept that ought to result in a permanent position after 15 months: "Applicants are welcome!" Moreover, examinees of universities or colleges find in Isola a attractive industrial partner for master thesis.