From Innovation to Successful Scale Up

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.

Plotting the Translation of Innovation into Successful Scale Up

For any novel nanomaterial to achieve commercial success, there needs to be a transition from production at the bench scale to pilot scale and then beyond to industrial production levels. Whilst it is true that some processes are not scalable for one reason or another and will remain at bench level, there are many reasons why a company will look at scaling up their production.

Achieving an efficient scale up transition is one of key missions for the INdustrial Scale Production of Innovative nanomateRials for Printed Devices (INSPIRED). This H2020 pilot line project involves 13 partners from 7 countries working together to find ways of producing industry relevant quantities of nanomaterial formulations (in this project, functional inks) for use in high throughput systems.

There are multiple routes to acheive scale-up, but each material, application and company has different needs. Thus, it is more beneficial to look at why a company should consider scaling up their production.

There is an industry-wide issue across the nanotechnology sector (and not just in functional inks) in trying to produce nanomaterials that are of low cost without compromising their performance or environmental impact. Evaluating costs often presents both positive and negative pathways to those looking to scale up, in that there are greater costs involved with taking a material to a higher production level, but many companies will undertake scale as part of bringing the cost of their material unit costs down.

What justifies the increase in cost?

This is one the major ‘whys’ of scale up, but it is simpler than many people think. Yes, there are high upfront costs, but the introduction of optimized bulk production methods enables the company to produce much higher volumes at a lower cost than if they were to produce the same amount of material using multiple smaller volume methods. So, although the overall operating costs for smaller production facilities are lower, the higher production volume often means that the price per unit of material (be it gram, kilogram, or otherwise) is lower. This has a knock on-effect with increasing market competitiveness because the consumer price can then be lowered and the material in question can be explored in more application areas; again, this presents a potential exponential increase in sales because the material now has a higher demand across many areas.

Another core reason why companies look to scale up their production is due to demand, and this can be a result of lower costs (as mentioned above) or can be an independent factor due to general market demand. If the demand for the product is already there, then companies should look at scaling up their production to meet this demand and to avoid being forced out of the market by competitors with greater volume capacity.

There is another aspect to demand, and this is not through the current demand, but the need to show that the company can produce specific volumes if requested. This point applies more to companies who are looking to supply materials to large corporations with the intention of their materials being used in a commercially available product. Aside from all the barriers that companies need to go through to get these contracts, the ability to meet demands on time and in the right quota is perhaps the most important; and if a company cannot prove that they will be able to meet the volume requirements, they will not acheive the contract.

The final aspect to consider is the potential to build meaningful relationships and collaborations. Better collaborations between supply chain partners is needed in the nanotechnology sector, and both production volumes and tailored materials provide the opportunity for companies to explore more options within the supply chain. Additionally, many companies outsource aspects of the scale-up process to universities and research centres. This approach enables companies to build long-term relationships with these establishments and enables the company to acquire the use of specialists through these relationships; which often provides a win-win scenario for all parties involved and a greater number of advancements for the industrial partner.