ICIS Innovation Awards 2012: Staying close brings results

19 October 2012 09:45  [Source: ICB]

Gregg Zank, senior vice president at US-based Dow Corning, says: "Innovation is very much at the core of the company and essential to our growth. As we are a business-to-business company, we have to use product innovation to make our customers successful."

Gregg ZAnk

"Energy really is a very pervasive theme with us and it's not by accident"

Gregg Zank
Senior vice president and chief technology officer, Dow Corning

That word "customer" crops up time and again when talking to Zank about the innovation efforts and strategy of silicon technology specialist Dow Corning. The company sets a high priority on customer intimacy in its approach to innovation, so it can learn what their problems are, what their needs are, and even how they are using Dow Corning's products in novel ways.

We also use close contact with our customers to sound out what they think about the broad areas we are targeting for longer-range research, adds Zank, who is also the company's chief technology officer.

"There has been an evolution in our thinking", he explains, "not a revolution." There is still a big emphasis and heavy investment in developing new and improved products and on better application of existing products, "and we are really aligning with our with our customers to learn what they want in this respect".

But, in part, the direction of its innovation is also driven by the big needs in society - such as solving the problems of energy, water, food and transport in a world with growing population and scarce resources. Dow Corning maps its innovation efforts against these so-called societal megatrends when developing new products. It also uses its customers, says Zank, to "validate" its thinking and assumptions, "testing them to make sure we are on the right track".

Zank says: "While we ourselves are interested in population growth, food and water and energy, to a great extent it is our customers that are the ones providing the actual products and services so we map and test what's happening on the megatrends with our customers, asking them what they see trending the most, and where they need help."

To do this, Dow Corning uses multiple customer touch points, including its research scientists, sales team and application service and development people, all of whom work at the customer interface.

This customer intimacy, says Zank, has helped accelerate the pace of innovation at the company. "It helps us make better decisions early on in projects. Customer feedback in our world is so valuable for us but it does mean the customer relationship has to be built on trust."

Today, notes Zank, Dow Corning is focusing more and more on energy as a broad theme in its innovation effort. This includes energy generation, transmission, use and conservation. "All are very important and we are working on a broad range of projects across these areas."

Zank points, for instance, to Dow Corning's developments in solid-state lighting technology, energy efficient buildings, wide band-gap silicon carbide semiconductor switches to improve energy transmission efficiencies, and also renewable energy generation.

"Energy really is a very pervasive theme with us and it's not by accident, says Zank. "There has been a lot of forethought going into the major trends and energy resonates with us very strongly. Many of our products [already] help customers save energy - by making their process lines run faster, or cutting the use of hot water in textile production, for instance."

Dow Corning has now established teams focused on clean and renewable energy, for instance, as well as energy generation and high-performance buildings. The US Department of Energy recently estimated that 40% of US energy demand is used in buildings. So it makes perfect sense for us, says Zank, "to put plenty of 'energy' into going after this market as a team we are really going out there to look at this and see what we can do."

That "customer" word comes in here again. In many of these areas, explains Zank, Dow Corning is working closely with downstream companies to develop new products using its silicon technologies.

In the area of high-power switches, for instance, Dow Corning produces the SiC semiconductor wafers - it is one of only a few companies that can make 6in diameter wafers - but then works closely with partners who are developing the diodes and circuitry for the finished products and systems. Zank believes the area has high potential but is being held back at the moment because of the lack of high quality SiC substrates.

The properties of SiC wafers and epitaxy offer the benefit of faster switching at higher power and increased energy efficiency, often eliminating the need for expensive cooling systems and enabling improved performance, says Dow Corning. Potential applications include: hybrid or electric vehicles, power control systems, high-frequency communications systems and power factor correction.

It's the same story in the lighting area, where there are plenty of opportunities but where Dow Corning knows it has to partner with the market leaders to develop new and innovative products using its technology. In the future, says Zank, solid-state lighting will enable lights to be built into ceilings and walls as part of the structural fabric of buildings, doing away with conventional light bulbs.

"Getting our materials into such developments early on with the people doing these developments is important, so we can create designs in a strong partnership."

Semi-conductor wafers Dow Corning

 Dow Corning

Dow Corning is only one of a handful of companies that can make large SiC semiconductor wafers

The list of innovations in the energy space just goes on. Dow Corning is continuing to work closely with the Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE) at the University of Cambridge's electrical engineering department, where it has researchers in the unit working with academics.

Work being undertaken here may help with more efficient light and optical data transmission, an important area given the huge amount of data now being generated and sent around the world as the use of smart phones and tablets increases rapidly. Zank notes that Dow Corning has the ability in silicon-based materials to enable the move away from metal-based to optical technology and thus reduce energy requirements in data processing.

Dow Corning has seen several innovations accelerate recently towards commercial introduction. One that has taken a little while, but is now attracting interest, is the use of its materials in vacuum insulation panels (VIPs) for use in high-performance, energy efficient buildings.

These are new, high-efficiency insulation, slender-profiled panels that feature five to 10 times lower thermal conductivity than conventional insulation materials. Since VIP maintains over 90% of its thermal efficiency for greater than 25 years, this technology provides new design possibilities for zero-energy buildings and high thermal performance in "slim wall" construction such as internal partitioning.

Customers are now assessing the panels and have asked Dow Corning to take the developments further. The panels can be used as an integral part of the walls of the building but are also finding uses in some unexpected applications, says Zank.


One customer is using the VIPs inside opaque black spandrel integrated glass units (IGUs) on a building, as it needed a higher insulation value and liked the look and feel of the VIPs, even though the panels are not visible when sandwiched between two glass layers.

A second is the development of solid-state lighting that can emit light of different textures and tones. These developments originated with Dow Corning's silicon-based materials for lenses on light-emitting diodes.

The company is now working with customers to maximise light output from solid-state devices and to develop lights that emit different wavelengths - helping ambience and the effect on people. Light with a blue hue is said to be more soothing and calming and better for studying and productivity.

Such developments are customer-driven, but science-enabled, says Zank, which is why it's important to maintain customer intimacy and work closely with customers throughout the innovation process.

By: John Baker
+44 20 8652 3214

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