With Ideas, Cooperation and Technology LicensingDiscover Engineering for a New Age
Providing functional turnkey solutions for demanding industry projects based on innovative technology and process know-how: The EPC group transitioned itself beyond an engineering company. The key to their success? Strategic partnerships, a strong focus on technology and offering the right solution in the right place at the right time.
It is said that that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks — well, that is not true in the case of polycarbonates (PC). The versatile polymer continues to be the engineering plastic of choice for many applications from compact discs to professional 3D-printing, despite having been in production in industrial quantities since the late 1950s. Even today, new applications continue to come to the fore: The lightweight and temperature stable thermoplastic is durable and impact resistant, making it well suited for use in construction, automotive components or aerospace parts.
In 2020, some 6.15 million metric tons of the lightweight material were produced worldwide with substantial additional capacity expected to come onstream in the next years. And the material is a global player:
The US, China and South Korea are the leading PC producers in the world, followed by Japan and Germany.
The Number One in PC Technologies
But while production plants can be found all around the globe, a major chunk of the expertise comes from a mid-sized German engineering specialist: The EPC Group is now the global number one technology licensor for polycarbonate production technology with well over one million tonnes of licensed capacity.
Another feather in the cap was when Shell announced in 2020 that it had selected EPC as its preferred PC technology partner for future integrated DPC-PC projects to be undertaken by Shell, to be coupled with their own DPC production process, explains Karol Kerrane, Managing Director at EPC Engineering & Technologies. The EPC team of polymer experts developed the transesterification technology in Rudolstadt, Germany (in close cooperation with the renowned TITK institute), starting in a small glass batch reactor and scaling the technology up into commercial continuous operation within a few short years.
Quite often EPC develops its own proprietary technologies, but also collaborating with start-up companies that have completed innovative and promising research, even perhaps demonstrated the process functionality in a lab-scale and are looking for a industry partner to join them on their journey to commercialization.
Timing is Essential
“We pride ourselves in the ability to scale-up innovative technologies that are in their infancy into commercially feasible processes that can be replicated around the planet. We have very existing work ongoing in the field of polymer recycling — a mega trend that is foreseen to grow,” forecasts Kerrane.
“The success of a technology development is influenced by many factors, but timing is critical,” explains Kerrane. “We live in a world driven by supply and demand. Right now the market is demanding technological solutions for the environmental challenges that humanity is facing and for this reason EPC is investing time and resources into development and optimization of processes for recycling and for the production of biodegradable polymers.”
Going New Ways
The polymer Jack of all Trades has in fact a major drawback, as its production process historically relied upon the use of the very toxic feedstock phosgene (COCl2). Phosgene-free polycarbonate production is safer and easier to handle. The phosgene-free EPC process uses a transesterification route of BPA and diphenyl carbonate — based on a patented process technology of which EPC is rightfully proud. In fact, the company is recognized in Germany and beyond as an innovator, bagging several awards like WiWo magazine’s Global Market Leader–Future Champions 2022 or a position among the Top-50 innovators in Germany.
Strategic alliance and long-term collaboration is the key to successful business development and sustainable growth.
This success is not a given for a relatively small and highly specialised engineering and technologies firm — and yet, EPC looks back on more than 1,000 successful projects in over 40 countries worldwide. The secret to this is the long-term commitment to innovation, as well as strategic alliances and collaborations with partners in academia and industry to achieve World’s Best Practice, Kerrane believes. An impressive number of patents, developed in-house or together with partners, underlines this strategy.
An Ideas Thing
While EPC boasts recent successes, it also looks back on a long history: A predecessor firm was founded in 1873 as A.O. Henkel, a company specialized in mechanical agricultural engineering. The story really took off in 1994, following the re-unification of East- and West-Germany, when Peter Henkel founded both EPC Engineering Consulting GmbH. The next generation of Henkels (Nadine, Jens, Ulf and Tim Henkel) lead the company to further growth and success from 2002 onwards. The company grew into the EPC Group, consisting of Cryotec Anlagenbau GmbH and Hi-BauProjekt GmbH, a devlopment that brought great synergy into the dynamic organization.
Cryotec has its own workshop in Wurzen, Germany, were it focuses on design and fabrication of CO2 recovery plants, air separation units, and in recent years technical solutions for hydrogen generation. Cryotec has specific expertise in providing skid-mounted and containerized plants.
A major strategic change came in 2017 and 2018, when EPC was rebranded as EPC Engineering & Technologies, underlining the commitment to process technology as opposed to simply engineering.
In 2021, the Henkel family appointed Franz-Josef
Willems and Karol Kerrane as Managing Directors. This new management duo has pledged to continue the sustainable growth of the company, developing new technology and engineering solutions, accessing new markets. Once again Kerrane draws the focues to the benefits of long-term collaboration: “Strategic alliance and long-term collaboration are the key to successful business development,” states Karol Kerrane in accordance with the company claim, “Ideas Inside”.
With a Little Help from my Friends
Today, EPC’s R&D experts are collaborating with multiple German institutes and associations, from the renown Fraunhofer Institutes to the TITK located in Rudolstadt. It’s this environment of collaboration, coupled with dedicated inhouse strategy & innovation workshops, that helps to develop the necessary ideas for future technologies and business opportunities alike, the technology specialists believe.
Since hardly any industry project is exactly like the next, a close cooperation with customers and partner companies is required to ensure an optimum performance. This allows the engineering experts to provide technologies and services for applications as novelle as the production of soil enhancers from lignite — a process that was developed by their partner Novihum Technologies from Dortmund, Germany.
The scope of a typical project like the one in Ningbo/China ranges from providing the process technology license,designing the engineering package and delivering key equipment to the construction site to providing quality control and supervision of installation and commissioning on site.
In the case of international projects, EPC is always open to work with local design institutes and contractors to provide the local content such as civil works and installation.
An Optimal Process
Despite the name, the company should not be confused with typical multinational EPC-organizations that offer engineering, procurement and construction services. EPC focuses on process technologies and relies on the project investors and local partners for the onsite construction and installation works.
The company calls this approach “Functional Turnkey” and works hard to deliver ready-for-use industry plants and infrastructure that employ state of the art technologies to provide an operation that is both economically and ecologically viable.
To achieve “worlds-best practice” — with an attractive price tag — it is important to draw on the strengths of each party, divide the workload and let each party focus on what they do best. “We focus on technology and the core process,” Kerrane explains. For polycarbonates, this performance can at least in parts be attributed to a unique and patented reactor design: EPC’s proprietary Variplant-technology that allows for a precise control of the production capacities as well as for the production of different polycarbonate products at the same time — a decisive competitive advantage in a market that requires flexibility and profitability.
Closing the Circle
Of course, ideas don’t stop once a plant is built or a material is produced, states EPC’s managing director: “Sustainability and circular economy have always been a fundamental part of our design philosophy.”
By re-circulating spent streams and waste products within production plants, the specialists can save costs and energy as well as reduce the environmental footprint. This move towards promoting “circular” production processes is a major driving force at EPC, and they take pride in the partnership with Fraunhofer IVV for recycling technology of Expanded polystyrene (EPS) and PA6/PA6.6 based on the so called CreaSolv® Process (CreaSolv® is a registered Trademark of the CreaCycle GmbH, the inventor of the used solvent formulations).
EPC offers a number of different PET recycling processes that combine mechanical, physical and chemical processes and can be adjusted according to the customers requirements. Special care is given to optimizing the cost of the design and implementation of the plant infrastructure, which includes heat recovery as the basis for optimal process control. Thus, the recycling processes themselves have a positive energy balance. Last but certainly not least, there is the raw material production for electrodes in lithium-ion batteries: In early 2022, AMG Lithium, a susbisdiary of global raw materials specialist AMG, entrusted EPC with the detail engineering of a new battery grade lithium hydroxide refinement plant in Bitterfeld, Germany.
“Polystyrene recycling is a big topic in Europe because of the current regulations,” explains Jörg Hamann, head of technology at EPC Engineering & Technologies. The engineering experts focus on recycling processes, that do not change the chemical structure of a polymer, the technology specialist explains. The CreaSolv® Technology for the conversion from solid waste via dissolution back to solid polymers is a pure physical recycling process in compliance with European regulations, as the material can be reused directly without additional steps required.
It’s this unique combination of research and development, technology expertise, collaboration with partners and experience with international projects that allows EPC to thrive in a challenging and highly competitive global environment. “EPC is a German company with an international outlook,” Hamann states. “We are always keen to hear from talented individuals looking to contribute and grow within a diverse and enthusiastic team.”