Milestone Separation Technology Specialists for Demanding Challenges: When It Comes to the Fundamental Process of Separation, Gea Leaves Nothing to Chance
An ancient tree, hundreds of years old, is an impressive sight with the wide, far-reaching branches of its huge crown. Even more impressive would be the root network — if we could only see it. This is a perfect analogy for the Gea Group, which has grown from around 250 companies. Many of these have a long history of their own, and even under the umbrella of the parent corporation they still develop with their own impetus and momentum. Today, the complementary skill sets and expertise in the field of thermal separation technology are bundled at Gea Wiegand, while Gea Westfalia Separator covers the area of mechanical separation technology.
If you were wondering when Gea was founded, the clue is in the acronym that makes up its name. Engineer Otto Happel senior founded the Gesellschaft für Entstaubungsanlagen (Corporation for Dedusting Systems) in Herne/Germany in 1920, where he developed heat exchangers as well as air filtration plants. Gea grew further in the 1980s and 1990s, not least thanks to the acquisition of several companies for mechanical and thermal separation technology, which still form important pillars of Gea’s business.
But anyone who digs a little deeper — and can still remember the name “mg technologies” under which the company traded for a while — will find roots that reach even further back. The letters MG stand for “Metallgesellschaft” (metal company), a company founded in 1881 with its headquarters in Frankfurt on the Main set up for raw materials trading and mining. In the subsequent decades, the industries that came together in “Metallgesellschaft” became steadily more diverse, including chemistry with Dynamit Nobel and plant engineering with Lurgi. In 1990 the group generated revenue of 3.1 billion euros with some 31,700 employees. However, this was followed by difficult times. Loss-making futures transactions resulted more or less in the collapse of the company in 1993, which was followed by painful restructuring. While on the one hand hundreds of subsidiaries were sold off, on the other hand “Metallgesellschaft” also strengthened itself with strategic acquisitions. One of these was the purchase of a majority stake in Gea in 1999. Having divested itself of its activities in the raw materials sector in the meantime, the year after the company was renamed as “mg technologies”.
Two of the Group's Main Roots Combine to Form a Single System Supplier
In 2005 finally, ”mg technologies” and the now-100 percent subsidiary Gea were merged to form the Gea Group, which has since then operated as a system supplier for numerous industries: from food and farm technology — ranging from milk to processed end products — through beverages, pharmaceuticals and bodycare products up to chemicals. Today, Gea also supplies the refrigeration technology for ice stadiums and skating rinks, and provides climate control systems in trains and buses.
Impressive: despite the ups and downs experienced by the two segments of the business, which were grouped together in 2005 to form the Gea Group, the names of many of the companies that were merged into them were preserved. In terms of separation, this applied e.g. to Westfalia Separator, the company founded in 1893 on the invention of a hand-operated milk centrifuge. It has been part of Gea since 1994 and still forms a vital pillar today for mechanical separation technology. The Danish company Niro, which was also acquired in the 1990s, still stands for Gea's expertise and skills in spray drying.
Core Competencies in Thermal Separation
The development of Wiegand Karlsruhe, which joined Gea in 1984, also proves that many subsidiaries were able to concentrate on their core competencies under the umbrella of Gea and steadily expand their expertise in the branch of technology they represented. The history of what is now Gea Wiegand began with a patent that was granted in 1908. Wilhelm Wiegand had invented a multi-stage circulation evaporator, which concentrated tanning liquor for leather processing in a very energy-saving manner.
In 2004 Gea expanded its range of thermal separation technology through the acquisition of Messo in Duisburg. The process engineering company, which was originally founded in 1953 by the engineers Dr. Theo Messing and Fred Sowen, brought in its skills and expertise in the area of crystallization. Messo thus supplemented the crystallization portfolio of the company Kestner, which had already been part of Gea since 1998 and is today located in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines near Paris. Its founder invented the rising film evaporator in 1899.
Within these companies — which are today combined in the Chemical Technologies business unit — many important process engineering methods that are frequently used in the chemical industry have been further developed and refined: for example falling film evaporators or forced circulation evaporators, rectification and distillation column systems, as well as various continuous crystallizers including draft tube baffle crystallizers (DTB) and forced circulation crystallizers.
Process Engineering Solutions Are Tailor-made at Gea
To always choose the best solution for a given application — this is the approach that has defined the company and its employees throughout its past, right up to the present day. The foundations for this were already laid in the 1950s with the foundation of in-house research and development centers. With the aid of the laboratory and testing facilities established here, the perfect solution for almost any challenge relating to evaporation, distillation, crystallization and drying technology could be found. The best-suited method is chosen depending on the viscosity, required concentration and crystal size, the product sensitivity, performance requirements or simply the available space. Trials in different pilot plants are now supplemented with sophisticated software simulations that build on the decades of experience of the developers at Gea.
Protecting the Climate Through Energy Optimization
Thermal separation methods are very energy intensive. For this reason, one of the areas developments have always focused on is increased energy efficiency. As was already seen on the multi-stage Wiegand circulation evaporator from 1908, where a principle of clever thermal circuits contributed to primary energy savings. The process of vapor-recompression, where the evaporated quantities of water are compressed and returned to the evaporation plant for heating, further reduces the use of expensive fresh steam. This is also applied in distillation and crystallization.
Multiple usage of energy is worthwhile in areas of industry where liquids need to be concentrated and crystallized in processes involving the evaporation of large quantities of water. This is e.g. the case in starch factories, where in some cases water is evaporated at a rate in excess of 100 ° t/h. The potential for saving energy is correspondingly large. Numerous further industries are also benefiting — from the chemical industry to milk processing and the production of instant coffee. Distillation plants for the production of whiskey also use a patented method with mechanical vapor-recompression. A positive side effect: if the energy consumption of these plants sinks, this also means that their CO2 footprint improves. Still today, optimizing energy consumption remains an important task for the design of every new system featuring thermal separation technology.
Farewell to Large-scale Plant ´Construction
In terms of organization, the restructuring that took place in 2010 represented a drastic change. By this point, the group had divested itself of large areas, for example large-scale plant construction (Lurgi, Lentjes, Zimmer) and the chemicals business. It was time to reposition the remaining business, which was completely focused on machine construction and process solutions. This resulted in the creation of five segments, including Gea Mechanical Equipment with separators and decanters and Gea Process Engineering with drying, concentration and crystallization, which focused on chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and food. Together with the segments Gea Farm Technologies, Gea Refrigeration Technologies, and Gea Heat Exchangers (which Gea divested itself of in 2014), these represented the focal points of the numerous companies in the group.
The portfolio was further streamlined in the following years, which were shaped by a range of divestments and acquisitions. And by the obvious desire to bring together the numerous companies under the umbrella of Gea into a group with a uniform structure. “OneGEA” was the slogan with which the group pushed the organizational merger in 2015 — with a joint website designed to make it easier for all customers to access information and find their way around, as well as providing a standardized point of contact. Now, the existing business was bundled into just two business units — Equipment and Solutions. In retrospect, however, the organization of the customer-oriented sales and service activities in national and regional areas, which were combined into one national organization, had far-reaching positive implications.
Close Proximity to All Customers as “OneGEA”
“OneGEA” also meant that sub-brands such as Wiegand, Tuchenhagen, Niro and Westfalia moved further into the background. Dr. Christopher Braun, CEO at Gea Wiegand since 2001, remembers, “In fact, the main brands and sub-brands continued to coexist, particularly in the engineering-focused world of the chemical industry.” Nonetheless, at the same time many customers welcomed the harmonized appearance. “Some were fed up with dealing with contacts from three different Gea companies in a single project. A common complaint was: why is your setup so complicated?”
And today the three letters “GEA” are still center stage. On the website, anyone who is interested can find information about products or applications without encountering any legal entities like Gea Westfalia Separator or Gea Wiegand in the process. “OneGEA” — this still applies.
Focusing on Technology into the 2020s
It would almost be possible to miss the fact that the group has just undergone another round of reorganization. At the start of 2020, five technology-focused divisions were launched, each with up to six business units. These are certainly reminiscent of the pre-2015 segments — back to the company’s roots as it were. And today the units for separation can still be found in various organizations. While mechanical separation technology and therefore Gea Westfalia Separator is part of the division Separation & Flow Technologies, Gea Wiegand with its thermal separation technology is assigned to the Chemical Technologies business unit in the Liquid & Powder Technologies division.
Braun is evidently happy with the new structure, “It follows the legal business units. This can be better mapped with key performance indicators than the functional structure of “OneGEA”. The responsibilities are now also much clearer.” Every division is managed by a three-person team, which bears the responsibility for commercial results. For the area of Chemical Technologies, which — among other things — offers technologies for future markets such as lithium production or production using renewable raw materials, this should be beneficial. The ability to respond more flexibly and more quickly to the new requirements of such niche markets opens up growth potential.
And for the customer? Not much will change, believes Braun. In the technology-oriented structure, the offerings for separation technology are clearly separated in the many different application areas. The technologies cover a huge range — from exhaust gas cleaning through cross flow membrane filtration to centrifuges. And most of the solutions are not available as an off-the-shelf product. When it comes to thermal separation through distillation/rectification, evaporation, and crystallization for example, or drying with spray driers, fluidized bed driers, or freeze driers among others, customers need a great deal of advice. As a rule, extensive trials at one of the test centers are essential. “For the design process, our smaller national companies generally get help from the experts at the technology centers,” says the CEO.
Service Combined with Industry Know-how
Braun also underlines the huge importance of the service offering. “Because we have a global setup, this makes us a reliable partner here for many of our customers, in particular for the component suppliers among the Gea units.” However, he sees things slightly differently in the Chemical Technologies business unit and therefore in the field of thermal separation technology. The tailor-made products include rotating equipment, i.e. pumps or valves, from third-party manufacturers. The evaporator itself displays almost no wear. “The service we offer extends particularly to the expansion or energy optimization of older plants,” explains Braun.
He believes that this is another interesting business area, but he also sees it as a very cyclic sector — and one that often depends on regional legislation.
Braun explains, “Our emission control activities for example always benefit when emission regulations are tightened up. Ultimately, nobody wants to pay for cleaner air. However, when their hand is forced by legal constraints, the cement or steel industry for example will invest in electrostatic precipitators from Gea Bischoff. Or the chemical industry will invest in gas scrubbers from Gea-Wiegand, which absorb harmful gases.” And this business is another area with intensive consultation requirements and the outcome are solutions that are appropriate for the customer and the task at hand.
In the process, the engineers in particular keep learning new things. If a customer approaches the test center with his initial product and certain ideas about the process sequence, trials are carried out in the laboratory and technical center to determine whether and under what boundary conditions the customer’s concepts can be implemented. “But a one-to-one implementation is not always possible,” reports Braun. In particular, difficulties are often encountered with crystallization processes in which superimposed chemical reactions impede the process sequence. “Nonetheless, we can often propose a tailor-made alternative to the customer, perhaps involving an adjustment to the crystal size or the proposed purity of the end product. Then it is up to the customer to weigh up whether this variant still fits in with his business plan.”
Future Challenges in Lithium Recycling
With lithium, deviations in the mineral composition from one mine to another are common. Despite this, the end product needs to be pure lithium carbonate or lithium hydroxide. So, plants in Australia and South America will never offer identical conditions. The challenge is to adapt the necessary evaporation, crystallization, and drying technologies for every new project and fine-tune them for maximum energy efficiency. Braun believes that even more flexibility will be required in future in the development of recycling processes for batteries. Optimizing energy consumption will also be incredibly important in the process. “Despite — or actually because of — all these challenges, I see us as an important player in the future in these areas,” says Braun. “After all, one of our particular strong points is the ability to coordinate these processes. And we keep learning, with every new design.”
But, in a sophisticated technology sector like thermal separation technology, he also knows, “Innovation is not something you can force. Instead, constant improvements and adaptations to new marginal conditions for us represent a potential of innovation.”
But for the user, these can make all the difference. For example with a new generation of separator for pharmaceutical applications, the Gea Flexchange Separator. With this system, the drums on the integrated direct drive can be swapped out without the need for extensive structural changes. One example of innovations in thermal separation technology are spray drier absorbers (SDA) for cost-efficient flue gas purification in power stations and waste incineration plants.
Expertise in Sparing Use of Resources
There will continue to be demand for further innovation in the form of adapting and developing existing technologies. Gea’s slogan is “Engineering for a better world” — and this is something that is required particularly in processes that need to be developed for the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. When it comes to the recovery of recyclable substances from wastewater and exhaust air and the progress being made in efforts to keep water and air clean, Gea technology also plays an important role — particularly mechanical and thermal separation technology. Flexibility, engineering competence and a diverse portfolio of the kind offered by Gea are the basis from which the challenges of future markets can be met.