This article is part of a 5 article series ‘Scale up to Success’ published by the INSPIRED project. The series tracks the essential aspects of scale up for nanomaterials in printed electronics, and articles will be published every 2 weeks until the end of 2018. You can read articles published to date through the INSPIRED website.
Meeting Customer Needs and Ensuring Success in the Scale up of Nanomaterials
Commercial success and meeting customer needs in the long term is achievable through efficient scale up protocols. However, both aspects of the material production and the economics of the scale-up need to be considered. There is no point in having a highly efficient material if it is at a price point that is too expensive for the end-user (the potential paying customer). Likewise, if a material is lower cost but sub-standard in its quality, it is not viable for many end-user applications. Whilst this approach may yield a customer once or twice, it is not a strategy for long-term customer retention. The way to ensure happy customers in the long-term is through balancing (and optimising) the scale-up process to produce a material of good quality at an attractive price point.
The Business of Scale-Up
The economic side of the business is key. If a price is not considered feasible at the first point-of-view, then it is unlikely that a sale will be made or that the client will return in the future. In the nanotechnology industry, there can be huge variations in the price of some materials, and from a purchaser’s perspective, this can be pivotal whether they use a material, regardless of the quality.
Often, in larger corporations, the purchaser may not be trained in science and will be looking for the best deal (or what they think is the best deal) after scouting around, and they may not have the technical knowledge to understand a high-quality product versus a low-quality product. So, whilst having a high-quality product is important, the product being attractive from a financial perspective is also very important.
Thomas Swan (UK), an advanced materials manufacturer of graphene nanoplatelets (GNPs) and other nanomaterials, discovered that undertaking the scale up process(es) during the INSPIRED project helped it to gain a better understanding of customers needs. INSIRED also helped it to manage expectations, gain a better understanding into product benefit to the average customer and enabled it to build better relationships and collaborative partnerships with customers and external partners.
From Thomas Swan’s perspective, the incorporation of graphene into inks had to offer something beyond other commercially available inks. The unique selling point (USP) of Thomas Swan’s graphene-based inks is that they are made from a cheap and easily available material that can be tuned to meet the customer’s needs. There are also no post-processing methods involved, and there have been discussions into using graphene alongside silver to create hybrid inks to give customers even more scope to tailor the properties of the ink to their application.
Thomas Swan believes that both price and quality are important, because a customer is less likely to try a more expensive ink if their current product is satisfactory. However, Thomas Swan aims for a high degree of consistency and quality within its products and has methods of identifying any potential problems before the product reaches the customer. Representatives from Thomas Swan have stated that, for them, the consistency within the product is more important than the overall price, so that customers don’t need to keep changing process due to raw material differences between product batches.
A key way to bring down the price is to scale-up production and optimise the process. Optimisation needs to reach an equilibrium where it brings the product cost down but is not unnecessarily over-optimised so that it causes a secondary increase in the price. Cost of scale up often has a high up-front cost, especially with complex synthetic/fabrication methods. It is also true that specialised products, such as nano-formulated inks, require multiple stages of scale-up and optimisation, which further increases the cost (although projects such as INSPIRED are aiming to bring the cost of nano-formulated inks down). However, even though the upfront cost is more, it will mean that a larger amount of material can be made at a lower cost per unit weight/volume. For example, 1 kg of material will cost more through a series of un-optimised pilot processes than it will through a single optimised large-scale process. This saving in process costs can then be translated into value for the customer, where the product can be offered at a lower price per unit, whilst maintaining a high quality.
Another area is volume. Companies must have the volume ready or have the capability to reach larger production volumes. This is for two reasons. The first is to meet a potential increase in demand brought about by a lowering of product price through process optimisation. The second is for pitching to global corporations. If a company wants to use their nanomaterial in the latest tech, aerospace, automobile, or other high-value sector, the multi-national company involved with producing the end-user commercial product will want to see evidence that its supply demands can be met – this can take the form of current production or potential production volumes.
Another route through which customer needs can be met is through the adoption of standards, regulations and good manufacturing practice (GMP). For the conventional customer, whether researcher or SME, evidence of adherence to relevant ISO standards is a key way of showing that the material is of high quality. For global companies, it is more complex. Aside from meeting the ‘usual’ standards, for a nanomaterial to replace an existing material in a commercially available product, the corporation will require advanced testing for a wide range of properties under many environments, often at the supplier's expense. Without these extra tests, it is highly unlikely that the nanomaterial will be integrated into the specific commercial product.
A fundamental aspect of scaling up the production side is optimisation of all processes involved – from the raw material to the final end-user material/formulation. For many nanomaterials, it is simply the optimisation of the nanomaterial to achieve a high yield and a high purity product. It becomes significantly more complex for nanomaterial-based formulations, for example inks, where the pre-cursor nanomaterial needs to be optimised, as does the resulting formulation (and in some cases the application process, such as inkjet or screen printing of nanomaterial-based inks).
Ensuring that the yield is high helps to maximise profits. Ensuring a consistent quality not only instils consumer confidence in the product, but it also ensures that the specific properties of the material are the same from batch to batch (or the same at any point in a continuous production process). Consumers do not want a product that varies in quality depending on when they order it. This is an avoidable position for the supplier but can be commercially catastrophic in the long term if not addressed.
Nanogap (ES), a silver nanowire manufacturer, found that the INSPIRED project enabled it to work directly with the final customer, which in turn enabled it to develop products specifically designed to meet the customer applications needs. Now, Nanogap can tailor their silver nanowire ink formulations to be efficient in general application areas, and also adapt their existing products to meet any specific needs on an individual basis. This is in addition to increasing the production capacity to meet the larger product volumes required by some customers.
From Nanogap’s perspective, it believes that price and quality are both important in today’s expanding market, with quality the most important factor—if you have a high-quality product, then you won’t be out of the market. Nanogap has kept its prices low and now offers the most competitive prices in the market for these types of inks, whilst still providing a tailored service that fits the needs of the customer. For example, changes in the ratio of nanomaterial to filler within the ink to meet the application needs, any issues that the customer can expect to have whilst using a silver-based functional ink and for providing solutions to any issues that arise whilst using their products. Because Nanogap has developed a scalable, controlled and tailored approach at the raw nanomaterial production stage, it can offer the customer both a high-quality service and a competitive price.
For nanomaterial-based inks, the drive for quality becomes even more significant. Where some nanomaterials just need to be optimised for low-tech usage, inks are often used as a conductive medium in electronics. To be used in such a way, the ink formulation needs to be optimised at the basic nanomaterial level, at the formulation stage and at the printing stage, to ensure that the active conductive elements within the formulation matrix are uniform (and the surface is uniform), thus ensuring that the conductive properties are even throughout the entire surface of the ink. If this quality is not achieved in ink-based formulations, then they are inappropriate for commercial use.
Both a high-quality material and an attractive price point are needed to satisfy a customer base, regardless of whether these are new or existing customers. Whilst both aspects are required, it is the optimisation of the material scale-up which yields a better price point for the customer and it is the easiest way to bring about value in both quality and cost.