More focus on auto upholstery19 June 2004
Founded in 1894, Zschimmer & Schwarz are said to be the biggest, privately-owned chemical company in Germany. There are around 520 employees at the Lahnstein facilities, 40 of which are active in the leather sector, based either at Lahnstein or travelling around the world visiting customers. Zschimmer & Schwarz's main focus is on fatliquors but the company also produce surfactants, tanning agents and auxiliary products. 'Originally, we began producing surfactants and emulsifiers and that is how we got into the fatliquor market', explains Gerald Neumeier, manager of the application department and field service. 'The manufacture of fatliquors is basically the same chemistry and everything we produce here is of a similar chemistry. The fatliquor market is still growing and business is good for us at the moment. To move into the finishing market would require new equipment and, basically, it is not our chemistry. 'We have learnt from the past to produce everything ourselves and stick with what we do best, hold our market share and hopefully become the leader in the fatliquor market. At present, we are probably one of the top three manufacturers of fatliquors in the world.' Provol BA is one of the company's most successful fatliquors and is based on lecithin. It is a combination of natural phospholipids with synthetic softeners and is particularly suitable for clothing, upholstery and other nappa leathers. Raw material Zschimmer & Schwarz are present in all the main sectors, such as shoe upper, garment and upholstery leather, but the company are planning to place more of an emphasis on the growing automotive sector. 'Our strategy is to have a different approach compared with our competitors which is mainly to offer products based on natural raw materials', says Neumeier. However, the company's products are mainly based on synthetic raw materials as they see an advantage for the customer with regards to a constant product quality that is not influenced by variations in raw material. 'Of course, any degree of softness can be achieved', says Neumeier. 'Further advantages are a higher stability against heat and light and a more neutral odour. We believe that the automotive sector is becoming more aware of the advantages of the products we offer, in particular our Prinol range.' Specialist products Zschimmer & Schwarz manufacture a number of specialist products that many of their competitors do not have the equipment or know-how to produce. Novaltan AL is an old product but still very popular and is the company's only inorganic product. It is pure, crystallised aluminium triformate which is sulfate-free and, therefore, makes the products much lighter and this is particularly important for the fur industry. Another speciality is Novaltan PF, a retanning agent based on a special aliphatic aldehyde that is easy to use and it is less harmful than formaldehyde. It improves tightness and is suitable for all leather types. According to Dr Francke, Zschimmer & Schwarz are the only manufacturers of fatliquoring agents who have a plant for the continuous sulfonation of fatliquors and oils with SO3. Consequently, sulfonated oils can be effectively produced to a very high quality. Around 25-30% of the company's value turnover in Lahnstein originates from the leather division, but this figure is steadily increasing. The remaining sales come from the company's other core products for the synthetics, ceramics and surfactants industries. The company produce around 100,000 tonnes of chemicals a year and all the reactors are multi-purpose. Production in Brazil Zschimmer & Schwarz started production of their leather chemicals at a new facility in Brazil in March. Zschimmer & Schwarz Do Brasil Ltda are located in San Leopoldo, near Porto Alegre, and are a 100% subsidiary of Zschimmer & Schwarz GmbH. To begin with, the facility will produce a limited range of the company's products and will also be used to manufacture the company's other products in the fibre, ceramics, cosmetics and cleaning industries. 'Opening a new production facility in South America does carry certain risks but, compared with China at the moment, we believe these risks to be acceptable', explains Neumeier. 'We have been active in South America since 1977 so we have some experience in this market, with around 30% of our leather business coming from the region. We are aiming to produce 5,000 tonnes of chemicals a year but we have the capacity to produce much more if demand increases.' With 30% of the company's business originating from South America, another 30% is generated in Europe and the remaining 40% of the company's leather business is in Asia. 'Italy used to bring us 40% of our business, but those days are gone', says Neumeier. 'Italy is still an important market for us, but not so much now. But maintaining our customer base is very important, particularly in Europe.' Upgrading technology Zschimmer & Schwarz also installed a new self-developed formulation software system towards the end of 2002. 'This was a difficult system to set up as it needs to control all the company's leather processes', explains Neumeier. 'The so-called LARS (Leather Application Recipe System) 2000 is a very user-friendly and client-based SQL-database system. At the touch of a button, it is possible to translate into one of five languages in order to follow a task from the beginning, for example from the R&D department, to the end of the leather process. This includes the job description, the application formulation, necessary analyses and the final evaluation. The LARS 2000 programme is running well since it was installed, considerably reducing the amount of office work. Obviously such a complex system took time to develop, but we are prepared to share our programme with other interested parties.' The company's high-stack warehouse is also fully-automated and 12,000 pallets can be handled by seven computer-operated service machines. Special areas are provided for toxic, fire-risk and flammable materials, together with separate tank facilities for storing combustible liquids, thus ensuring an effective segregation of all the company's products. The company's effluent treatment facilities are also state-of-the-art. All effluent produced by the company is treated both mechanically and biologically in Zschimmer & Schwarz's own purification unit to ensure that only high quality water is discharged. Gas and dust emissions are kept to a minimum through a combination of filtration, absorption and after-burning processes. Any hazardous chemicals are transported using specially controlled vehicles, mostly by rail from the company's facilities. Even at the research and development phase, the environmental impact of any new product is always assessed.