NEUHAUS AM RENNWEG, Germany—To date, GBneuhaus has only produced its nanotech-enabled coatings in this small village in the state of Thuringia. But that’s about to change: The 28-year-old firm in June founded a company in Pune, India, and will soon begin producing its antimicrobial coating there, Managing Director Michael Petry said.
“We have the first customer in India who will send us two or three pallets of light switches, and we will produce the first batches here,” he said. “But for the long term, we have to build up our own manufacturing system in India.”
Petry expects to be fully operational in India by the middle of next year. “One thing I learned in India is patience,” he added. “But the market is very promising in India,” in part because of a widespread problem with hygiene.
Halogen bulbs have been GBneuhaus’ “bread and butter” business, helping it grow from 11 employees in 1990 to 120 today.
“In the early ‘90s, it was very fashionable to have these halogen lamps in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in living room ceilings,” Petry said. And of course the lamps were popular for the front of cars. His firm coated the relatively inexpensive lighting solution to ad qualities, such as whiteness and brightness.
Automation—it was mostly DIY but includes a Krautzberger robot, which sprays products with complex geometries like door handles, glass tubesl and light switches—let the firm scale to growing demand: “In 2009, after the world economic crisis, we had a quantity of 8 million coated lamps a year, and within two years, due to automation we did in our factory here, we were able to do 25-30 million,” he said.
Now, though, LED lights are stiff competition, “and LED will take over more and more,” he acknowledged.
Except in India and other price-sensitive markets like China.
“If you look at the Asian market, still the main lighting is halogen lamps because they cannot sell any LED headlights in India. If you pay $4,000 for a car, you cannot afford $400 or $500 just for one LED headlight—because if something gets damaged, you have to take out the complete lighting. And with the halogen bulb, you just take out the bulb.”
This situation will last until roughly 2025, Petry predicted. By that time, “there will be other LED lights or be other technologies.”
Government agency led fact-finding tour
Petry gathered some information with the help of the State Development Corp of Thuringia. That organization’s Thuringia International Export Team took Petry and other small and midsize companies on a fact-finding tour in India in 2016, Arnulf Wulff, a senior VP at the organization, said.
GBneuhaus “came to the conclusion that India was definitely a market for them, for export and also possibly as part of their supply chain,” Wulff said. “So they decided to establish their own company and work with manufactures there.”
Part of India’s appeal, Petry said, is that a €100,000 investment in new product development will last a year there—vs two months in developed markets like the U.S. “And I would say the long-term potential in India, with 1.3 billion people, is much higher than 320 million in the United States.”
The State Development Corporation of Thuringia also two years ago established the first German-Indian Roundtable of Thuringia. “Till today, they come together four times a year,” Wulff said.
Batch Size One will come into play
To plan for a future beyond the mid ’20s, GBneuhaus is investigating Batch Size One—the move to extreme customization in manufacturing that is also known as “Order of One.”
The firm’s sol-gel technology—a fluid coating system lets engineers create transparent coatings and very thin layers—will play a role.
“We took the chemical base and said, ‘OK, if we add colored pigments in a nanoparticle size, and if we add other nanoparticles, we change the grid of the chemical structure on the surface so we can reach different functionalities on the surface like hydrophobic and hydrophilic,” Petry said. “And we can not only work on glass but also on metal and plastics.”
The sol-gel technology is front and center with the antimicrobial coating work the company plans to do in India.
Additionally, hydrophobic coatings are needed for outdoor cameras because it makes the lenses easy to clean. That is one of three core fields in India—together with UV-block for plastics.
“Another great advantage of the sol-gel coating is that the functionalities can be combined in one coating, like antimicrobial, easy-to-clean and anti-scratch for plastic light switches,” Petry said.