It may just be “nothing,” but this “nothing” really packs a punch! Without vacuum, many everyday things would be impossible — whether spectacles, smartphones, medicines or foodstuffs with a long shelf life. Pfeiffer Vacuum has been synonymous for high-quality vacuum technology for over 125 years. And it is not just the technology itself that makes the company stand out, but above all its feeling for the different challenges faced by particular industries.
It would be too easy to simply label Pfeiffer Vacuum just one of the leading companies in vacuum technology. A closer look reveals master engineers in terms of innovation, who are characterized particularly by the ability to adapt to the requirements of the customers and to develop bespoke solutions for them. In the process, the vacuum specialists from Asslar in Hesse/Germany keep developing new technologies required alongside the actual vacuum generation: from vacuum measurement to leak detection and analysis systems.
But back to the beginnings: Founded in 1890 by Arthur Pfeiffer, by the end of the 1920s the company had already established itself as a leading company in the field of vacuum technology, in part thanks to its oil/air pump. In 1929, the company founder already presented more than 50 different types of pumps for pharmaceutical and chemical applications at a trade fair in Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad as it was known at the time. In 1958, the world of vacuum technology was revolutionized by the turbomolecular pump, which was invented by Willi Becker. It became established simply under the generic name “turbopump” and can be regarded as one of the most significant inventions in this field of research. In 1966, the first helium leak detector designed and developed in-house, the ASM4, was patented. The market launch of this product represented a further milestone. Today, Pfeiffer Vacuum is one of the leading suppliers of leak detection technology.
The Wide-ranging Requirements of the Process Industry
The company is at home in many industries with very different requirement profiles. But the process industry — and the associated process engineering requirements — is a rapidly growing market that accounts for around 20 % of the group’s turnover and is worth some 130 million Euro. Outlining the course of action, Wolfgang Bremer, Head of the Product Group Industrial Vacuum at Pfeiffer Vacuum, explains: “It is our goal to establish ourselves more strongly in this industry.” An industry that — particularly on account of its peculiarities — is not always the easiest from a technical point of view. In contrast to the semiconductor industry, which is also an important target market, the demands of the process industry, in which most of the players fall into the category of small/medium-sized companies, can vary tremendously. “A lot of issues need to be solved on an individual basis here,” explains Bremer.
Major Differences from One Industry to the Next
There is no doubt that all industries have different demands in terms of vacuum technology. Or, to put it bluntly: While the semiconductor industry exploits everything that is technically possible, metallurgy demands tried-and-tested and robust off-the-shelf products. One example is the use of steel degassing to produce high-quality steel alloys. Vacuum technology is required here to extract hydrogen and nitrogen from the steel and to accurately adjust its carbon content in the process. Bremer grins: “I don’t think I will be doing the industry a disservice to say it is dirty work.” On top of this, batch sizes of up to 100 tons are the order of the day in this sector.
The pharmaceutical industry contrasts sharply with this. When it comes to freeze drying applications for vaccines, antibiotics and other medicines, it is not just that the smaller batch sizes are worlds away in terms of dimensions. The concept of “dirty” doesn’t work here either — a sterile production environment is absolutely crucial. For this reason, the pharmaceutical industry often uses dry-compressing screw vacuum pumps (‘Heptadry’ series) in combination with Roots pumps (‘Oktaline’ series).
In addition, when it comes to pharmaceutical applications, the vacuum experts don't just look at the pumps, they also have an eye on the overall process. This includes monitoring of pressure and gas composition, as well as the checking and management of potential by-products. Pfeiffer Vacuum offers special accessories for this, e.g. for in-situ, in-process cleaning of pumps, emphasizes Bremer.
There are major differences even within applications. One example is freeze drying, where Bremer describes the challenges thus: “In the field of freeze drying alone we need to use different technologies for each product — i.e. depending on whether we are looking at coffee, fruit or medicines.” For example, because of the low investment costs, rotary vane pumps are used predominantly in the drying of fruits. This type of pump has been used here successfully for decades. By contrast, dry-compressing screw pumps are used to freeze-dry coffee. Rotary vane pumps are less well suited here, because the tannic acid that comes out of the coffee would attack the oil. In both processes, the production lines also use additional Roots pumps (‘Oktaline’) to improve the pump-down time and the level of vacuum that can be attained. One of the strengths of Pfeiffer Vacuum is its ability to finely tailor processes and technologies to individual products.
Despite all the differences, the various applications do all have something in common, as Bremer’s colleague Daniel Kuchenbecker, Market Management Industry, comments with a smile: “Barely any user in the process sector actually wants to be using vacuum,” because — after all — vacuum is a cost factor. “So, the users are all the more grateful to receive the perfect vacuum technology for their processes and, in particular, efficient and cost-effective solutions.”
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