Like other sectors, the chemical industry has to continually assess its business model and take the latest technical advances into account. At Performance Materials, our business extends well beyond the production of chemicals and our customers are increasingly seeking holistic solutions, not just products.
The only constant is change
A company’s business model is never carved in stone, even if it sometimes seems that way. The economic, social and technological environments are always changing. If companies want to achieve long-term success, they need to constantly reinvent themselves. Take automotive manufacturers, for example. In the course of the digital transformation and growing environmental awareness, they increasingly see themselves as mobility service providers. They’re now not only selling cars, but also providing car sharing and mobility apps, and developing self-driving taxis.
The chemical industry is in a similar state of flux. In the past, business was relatively straightforward for chemical companies: produce chemicals in line with market demand and sell them. Things are no longer that simple today. At Merck KGaA Darmstadt, Germany, we stopped seeing ourselves solely as a chemical and pharmaceutical firm long ago. We are a science and technology company – and a provider of solutions for our customers.
The electronics and computer industries are excellent examples of this new approach. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G and the Internet of Things require microchips that are ever more powerful without growing in size. This development has led to exponential increases in the complexity of installed components and manufacturing processes. While around 1,000 process steps were needed to produce a microchip ten years ago, that number is now over 2,000. A similar development can be seen in the display industry, where the issue is not packing in as many transistors as possible, but rather fitting as many pixels as possible into the smallest given space in order to continually increase the resolution.
Innovation across the entire value chain
We can take control of increasing complexity by distributing it more widely across the entire value chain. For the Performance Materials business of Merck KGaA Darmstadt, Germany, this means tailoring solutions to customers, who can then integrate them seamlessly into their manufacturing processes. We are now seeing the development of modern chip architectures in the nanometer range. Due to the extreme sensitivity of such intricate structures, chip manufacturing only has minimal error tolerance, and process parameters must be meticulously adhered to. This is only possible with the right chemistry. We supply high-purity materials that are used in semiconductor manufacturing to develop these structures, as well as process chemicals that make it possible to clean components between the individual process stages.
However, being a solution provider means supporting not only customers’ manufacturing processes but also product optimization and development. This is where expertise in research and analysis comes into play. We’ve bolstered our application-oriented materials research by acquiring Intermolecular last year. Intermolecular uses the latest data analysis and AI technology to measure the effects that even the smallest changes have on a material’s properties. Customers can use unique, combinatorial simulation tools to directly test a range of material combinations and process parameters for their specific applications in advance. This means they do not have to conduct their own lengthy and expensive testing. In return, we understand how we can best leverage our materials.
It is therefore crucial to understand the customer’s manufacturing processes and to integrate our materials precisely into these processes. This knowledge allows us to develop solutions beyond the materials themselves. For instance, as the sensitivity of materials increases, logistics becomes a critical link in the value chain. At Performance Materials, we provide fully automated data analysis systems for our transport containers, which enable precision monitoring of different parameters, such as the degree of dryness or the rate of helium leakage. The Delivery Systems & Services unit, recently created following the acquisition of Versum Materials, will focus on developing and operating delivery systems for semiconductor manufacturers, among other things.
A matter of effective coordination
Merely offering materials expertise is no longer enough. Therefore, at Performance Materials, we also offer customized delivery solutions, provide on-site support during the installation of production facilities, and optimize customer manufacturing processes. Some new applications and processes are only possible thanks to our solutions. This certainly leads to greater complexity for us, because manufacturing, delivering, processing and optimizing materials and processes must be closely coordinated. At the same time, it also creates room for us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. The company that best understands customer needs and can orchestrate the best holistic solutions with its own products and services will have a competitive edge.