Solutions competence for fluid engineering challenges — The company Bürkert Fluid Control Systems has kept media, processes and ideas flowing for over 70 years. How do they do that? By never losing sight of the requirements of plant operators and starting to find new approaches where others run out of ideas.
What can you learn from the manufacturing of sports cars that is helpful in the production of baby food? You could be forgiven for thinking that the answer would be “not a lot” — but, with an open mind and the ability to think outside of the box, there is actually a great deal to learn. In modern internal combustion engines, oil has many roles to play: oils lubricate moving parts, reduce resistance due to friction and carry heat away from the valves and other components. It’s only logical that air bubbles would cause problems here. If bubbles form, this will not only impair the lubricating action and reduce cooling power, but can even lead to cavitation or self-ignition in extreme cases. As a result, when sports car engines are tested on a dynamometer, it is not just the oil flow that is interesting, but also the potential formation of gas bubbles.
Milestones from 70 Years of Fluidics Competence: How Bürkert Became a Global Player in Valve Technology:
Which is exactly the same as in the preparation of baby food, where pureed food is enriched with valuable edible oils to make them even more healthy and easy to digest. And here again, air bubbles are not welcome. Time for a measuring device that seems to be capable of everything: the Flowave from fluidics specialist Bürkert from Ingelfingen, Germany. This flowmeter, which requires no installed parts in the tube, can be used among other things to detect bubbles in the medium — the manufacturer already knew this much from projects in the auto industry. But would the device also be suitable for baby food production? The experts thought “why not?” — and applied the know-how acquired in the design of the engine dynamometer to the application of the baby food manufacturer. With no components installed in the tube, without any bubbles and without any problems they also managed to keep baby food production flowing safely and reliably.
Whether pureed food, or oil, water or chemicals — it is all about flow processes. Everywhere there are media flows that need to be controlled, both in open-loop and closed-loop setups. The components conducting this concerted production are valves, flowmeters and fittings. Large industrial plants contain hundreds and, in some cases, even thousands of such actuators. In addition there are drives, connections and the necessary measurement and control technology. This is precisely the world of Bürkert: For over 70 years, the company has been developing components and systems for measuring and controlling liquids and gases.
From valve manifolds to flow measurements, from solenoid valves to Industry 4.0 environments, the Bürkert portfolio contains solutions for almost every fluidics challenge, as Heribert Rohrbeck emphasized, who has been at the helm of the fluidics specialists as CEO since 2005. Rohrbeck sees the company as more than just a classic valve manufacturer. “We take care of flow rates” — or, as the Bürkert claim goes, “We make ideas flow”.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
Bürkert is convinced that getting ideas to flow takes a lot more than just the right valve. “For me, alongside the technology, the key is to take an interest in our counterparts and in the customer’s problem,” explains Frank Hils, Managing Director of the Bürkert sales companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. “Only if we can approach challenges with this attitude can we deploy our technologies in a way that really meets the needs of our customers.” And doing this can sometimes mean taking a slightly unusual approach — doing things in a different way and allowing ideas to really flow.
“Christian Bürkert was a restless spirit,” is how Rohrbeck characterizes the company founder. Without the restless inventor’s unbridled desire for new ideas, the unrivaled success story that saw a global player in valve technology emerge from a hobby cellar in Hohenlohe in Baden-Württemberg would have been inconceivable. Bürkert already hatched his first innovations in 1946. Poultry was in great demand in the immediate post-war period — particularly among the US occupying troops in Germany. An incubator was needed, but the only available one was broken. In his parents’ cellar, Christian Bürkert built a bimetallic temperature controller from the wreckage of a crashed aircraft, and based on the huge demand he was able to start manufacturing incubators and heating panels. But this was by no means the end of his ambitions. Wherever he saw a gap in the market, Bürkert searched for solutions.
Valve Technology Milestones in Series
In the mid-1950s, Bürkert managed to break into large-scale business with solenoid valves for washing machines. But the aggressive price battles for white goods also put the young entrepreneur under pressure. So it was fortuitous that Bürkert got his hands on an electric toothbrush during a trip to the USA. Excited by the idea of being able to rinse them under running water, the developers worked on developing a corresponding sleeve for their solenoid valves. The reward for all their hard work: In the 1960s, the plastic-coated epoxy coil set new standards in terms of output, durability and size. With his correspondingly equipped valves, Bürkert managed the leap into the industrial sector. The company’s departure from the consumer market transformed Bürkert into a specialist who focused on high-value products and tricky challenges. In the years after, the drive toward globalization ran at full speed in Ingelfingen. In France, where there was initially some resistance to allowing German companies to enter the market after the war, Bürkert set up a manufacturing facility in Alsace with assistance from the French government. The company also managed to land a number of important major clients in the UK, leading Bürkert to establish local subsidiaries.
Valves from Kochertal for the world: Although this was enough to start a success story, it was not enough for the restless developers, who kept continuing their efforts. In the 1990s, Bürkert landed a big coup by expanding its portfolio to process valves, sensors and mass flow controllers, which transformed the company into a complete full-service provider for fluidics solutions. They also added components and systems for process automation. Moreover, during this time the company developed small media-separated solenoid valves for life science applications that helped to unlock new fields of activities in dental practices and hospitals.
Focusing on Solutions: Fluid Control is More than Just Valves
The economic crisis in 2008/2009 was only a brief setback for the company, as Rohrbeck reports: “We tried to continue to be present for our customers even without any business — and that is something that really paid back in the years that followed. We came back with full strength and already grew by more than 30 % in 2010,” explains Rohrbeck. The “Service” business area is also directly based at the customer, offering bespoke service packages that are carefully tailored to the requirements of the users. For example the use of preventive maintenance to maximize service life is at the heart of the all-round service “BürkertPlus.” But the fluid experts’ offering also includes commissioning, eliminating faults, and plant modernizations — all the way up to parameterization, training, analysis, and optimization.
To Managing Director Hils, a combination of customer understanding on the one side and maximum transparency on the other is particularly important in this context, so that users have the ability to precisely calculate resources and accurately plan their production. The bottom line is higher availability, longer production times and higher output, and Hils is certain that “if the customer profits from our service then we have done a good job.” This is how Hils summarizes the credo of the service team.
Actuator technology, electronics and pneumatics all under one roof: By focusing on fluidics systems as a whole while still paying attention to the individual components, Bürkert has been able to position itself as a comprehensive system supplier. The physical counterpart to this strategy can be found in the company’s valve island, which combine valves, drives and closed-loop control elements in a single modular building block. Here, entire valve groups can be actuated via a shared bus line.
Hils emphasizes that this individual combination of different components in a unit also offers unrivaled flexibility: After all, no two systems are identical — certainly not in fine chemistry, where highly-specialized products, small batch sizes and frequent product changes are the order of the day. For example at one manufacturer in Baden-Württemberg, who alongside silicone additives also develops new and specialist products. During a plant expansion, the experts from Bürkert were involved in the planning from the start. However, when the specialists realized that the space available for the new plant was very tight, they proposed a new idea: Would it not be possible to improve the space arrangements by bundling the devices together? Development and production of the control cabinets take place in close cooperation with the engineers at the Atex-certified factory of Bürkert. The result: two XXL housings with a three-row layout, each containing three valve unit systems including the matching intrinsically safe distributed I/O systems. The compact solution benefits not only planning and assembly, but also the employees during operation.
Keeping More than Just the Media Flowing
Services, modular valve units or automation technology: Bürkert has so much more to offer than “just” solenoid valves. But in the new millennium, the fluidics specialist faces more and more new challenges. Systems need to be networked for integrated operation as part of complex manufacturing processes, and of course they need to be easy to control and monitor. In short, data needs to flow as well. In 2014 Bürkert opened the door to the Industry 4.0 era with the Efficient Device Integration Platform (EDIP). This intelligent device platform connects individual field devices via the Bürkert büS protocol (based on the established CANopen standard), significantly reducing the outlay for communication, software and hardware. The specialists claim that, since EDIP is compatible with industry standards like Profinet, Profibus, Ethernet/IP or Modbus TCP, devices that have been networked in this way can be integrated very easily into existing processes. There is also no need for a master, as the subscribers are automatically addressed — which makes it easier not only to get started in the brave new world of Industry 4.0, but also make the retrospective integration of additional devices a breeze.
One year later, Bürkert caught the “perfect wave”: If ultrapure and sensitive media are filled, it is imperative that foreign substances and impurities are never allowed to enter the fluid flow. However, typical flowmeters have measuring elements in the tube where dead spaces can form. So how do you carry out measurements without needing to get inside the tube?
The answer is with waves — surface waves, to be more specific. These structure-borne sound waves spread out over a surface without penetrating very far into the material. The Flowave flow meter takes advantage of the different propagation speeds of the waves in flowing media. It measures the differences between the propagation times at the outside of the tube to draw conclusions about the medium flowing in the tube. And not only that: The Rayleigh angle at which the sound waves are released into the fluid differs for every propagation velocity. In this way, together with the measured propagation time differences, the properties of the signal and the observation whether the waves pass through the medium just once or several times allows a type of “acoustic fingerprint” to be generated for the medium. Alongside the flow velocity, it is also possible to determine the density and temperature or to tell different media apart from each other.
The Perfect Wave for Flow Measurement
A new approach to fluid measurements: Rohrbeck is certain that the adaptation of a physical concept like acoustic surface waves in an entirely new context would have definitely pleased Christian Bürkert as well — after all, the motto of the company founder, who died in 1971, was “we start where others stop.” As the CEO of Bürkert emphasizes, it takes courage to have the drive to do things differently — but he is not talking about reckless daring, instead a prudent approach paired with understanding of technology and insight into the requirements of the customer industries. A bold, systematic approach so to speak. Since 2007, this has had a special face at Bürkert: the Systemhaus innovation hub. Close to the company headquarters in Ingelfingen/Germany, the company has set up a “home for ideas.” The glass-fronted “hybrid” building structure offers open and communicative office, laboratory and production workplaces. In this way, the entire development process — from the idea to the final manufacturing stage — can be completed under a single roof, a space in which ideas are allowed to flow. However, anyone who believes that the company has simply created a smart and trendy flagship incubator here would be wrong. In fact, the Systemhaus deals with urgent customer problems that cannot be solved with catalog parts alone. The fluid experts use their full application know-how to offer customers everything from consulting and development services to production and servicing, including coordinated components and tailor-made system solutions.
From the original problem to the draft design and on to working out all the details, the Bürkert specialists work hand in hand to find an accurate product definition and specification for the required system solution. The customer is not excluded from this process, but is instead involved in every phase of the project. If the boundary conditions are right, first prototypes or functional models can be ready within 24 hours. In the process, Bürkert also takes care of the necessary tests and certification processes so that production can be rolled out immediately, without delays — either locally in Ingelfingen or at one of the other Bürkert production factories in Gerabronn, Öhringen, Criesbach (Germany) or Triembach-au-Val (France).
A Flow of Ideas: Five Strong Centres of Fluid Solutions
Not in Asia, Eastern Europe or overseas: In fact, over 100,000 Bürkert product variants are actually produced in Germany and France. Rohrbeck stresses that this has nothing to do with flag-waving, but that it is instead all about proximity to research and development and the desire to develop key competences in-house and keep them there. However, in order to demonstrate a presence in key customer markets, other Systemhaus innovation hubs are available in Germany, the USA and China to assist local projects directly. “We speak the language of our customers,” adds Rohrbeck proudly. And he means it both literally and figuratively — after all, every market and every industry is different.
As a result, colleagues in the main factories also benefit from the creative heads in the “ideas workshop”: It is not uncommon for concepts developed in a Systemhaus to find their way into series production. In this way, a custom, made-to-order idea can end up as the catalog part of the future, as the Bürkert CEO explains. For example in one application where hardly anyone would immediately think of top class valves: dentist's chairs.
A Valve Idea Ahead
Modern dentist's chairs have long evolved into complex high-tech systems — and dentists and patients rightly rely on the fact that the technology installed in them works safely, reliably and hygienically. Bürkert has refined the “water block” for KaVo Dental and developed it into an outright hygiene center. It takes care of water treatment and sterilization, just as it supplies water to the treatment unit with different qualities, pressures and flow rates. Bürkert also supplies the perfect solution for compressed air in the form of the air block, which combines pressure controllers, filters and condensate separators in a single module.
Summarizing the mission of the fluidics pioneers, CEO Rohrbeck adds that the company aims to provide solutions for every fluidics challenge, including those that some users will not even have on their radar yet. Or simply to “allow ideas to flow,” from the first draft design to finished components for over 300 customer industries. There's no such thing as impossible — provided you have the courage to think differently and go with the right flow.