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Beating the Odds and Grinding Toward Success

Wed, 08/01/2007 - 10:08am
Launching a technology-based business in a market with a high barrier to entry isn't a challenge for the faint of heart. Here's a success story that shows how vendor partnering made all the difference…
An estimated 70 to 80 percent of new businesses in the U.S. fail in the first year. Some are wide-eyed novices with more heart than head, but a fair portion of those who go under do so despite knowledge of their respective industries and products. When Greg Shemanski founded Custom Processing Services (CPS) in 2000, he knew the odds. He was part of the latter group, new entrepreneurs who are experienced and knowledgeable, but he was starting a capital-intensive custom tolling business and realized his chances for failure were high. Now, seven years later, the Reading, PA-based business is profitable and growing, the result not only of Shemanski's blood, sweat, and tears but also, according to him, his choice of strategic alliances.

CPS offers micronizing, ultra-fine grinding, blending, surface treating, heat treating, laboratory analysis, and custom packaging for materials such as chemical powders, polymers, pharmaceuticals/excipients, flame retardants, pigments, minerals, metals, and fillers. The company's laboratory analysis capabilities include extensive expertise in particle size analysis, including BET (Brunauer, Emmet, and Teller) theory specific surface area testing, light-scattering analysis, microscopy, and air-jet sieve testing.

Launching a technology-based business in a market with a high barrier to entry isn't a challenge everyone would take on, but toll processing is what Shemanski knew best. He learned the ropes at two of the larger processors in the country, working at times in design, management, sales, and administration. He acquired operational, installation, plant assembly, and administrative knowledge of air, jet, and fluid energy milling systems to develop processes that are used to micronize powders. During his startup, Shemanski researched equipment suppliers, investigating product lines, service capabilities, and support policies. He decided on grinding machines from Netzsch Fine Particle Technology LLC, a global manufacturer of grinding and dispersing equipment with U.S. headquarters in Exton, PA. He chose Netzsch products for their end-product reproducibility, economy, energy efficiency, and ease of maintenance. He also knew from experience that the company's technical support was considered by many to be among the best in the industry. Customers apparently agreed with the choice. Becky Shemanski, marketing director for CPS, says: "Our association with Netzsch and our use of their equipment gave us a measure of credibility that was very important for a startup company."

CPS began with a single machine, a Netzsch-Condux fluidized bed jet mill CGS 100, which was used primarily for micronizing industrial-grade waxes and PTFE. Shemanski banished the thought of failure from the start, labeling this first grinding area Station 3 and envisioning where he would set up Stations 1 and 2.

Shemanski remembers Werner Rummel, Netzsch engineering manager, smiling at what must have seemed an overly ambitious projection. However, over time, he became a believer, too. "At some point along the way, Werner told me that he was in awe of how far we had come in a short time."


Stainless mill from above
The close working relationship between CPS and Netzsch is considered rare. The two share information, research, and even customers. The result has been substantial growth for both firms. "Netzsch sends a lot of customers our way," says Shemanski. "When they encounter a prospect that needs processing services but can't immediately commit funds to the equipment, Netzsch will refer the company to us if they can. They also refer customers who need specific research and development or specialized testing." Also, "the alliance creates an important benefit for CPS customers who go on to buy their own grinding equipment. If they choose a Netzsch machine, their process controls are already set, because we've done that here. That preparation makes their installation practically seamless, so they can be up and running very quickly." It's one of the main reasons, says Shemanski, that he urges clients to give Netzsch serious consideration when they are ready to purchase their own equipment.
Expanded Facilities
CPS has expanded its operation to 10 grinding stations and 15 pieces of milling equipment that can be changed to accommodate specific jobs. Included in the mix are two Netzsch-Condux CGS fluidized bed jet mills, each with a capacity of 100 cubic feet. Shemanski proudly points out that "no competitor we know of has even one machine of this size and capacity. It allows us to offer large customers significant economies of scale." With such a variety of equipment, CPS can handle anything from small test quantities that can be measured in ounces to up to 250,000-pound batches. The majority of CPS's business is dry grinding, but the company continues to expand its wet grinding services. "We have a wet grinding trial station in place right now, with a Netzsch LMZ ZETA-10 small media mill," says Jeff Klinger, vice president of operations. "The plan is to fuel additional growth by expanding our service offerings in wet grinding, particularly in pharmaceuticals and other high-value materials. Netzsch has a wealth of equipment and expertise in that area, and we plan to draw on that just as we have done with dry grinding."

To accommodate the growth and to increase its capabilities, CPS purchased a second facility across the street from its headquarters building. The acquisition increased the company's square footage from 36,000 to 57,000. The space will house an expanded mineral grinding operation and test labs.

Vision and Reality
Before processing any materials for customers, CPS puts all its newly installed equipment through an exhaustive battery of tests. The process is both theoretical and practical, and it includes failure mode testing and effects analysis. Shemanski says the integrated systems have exceeded Netzsch's published specifications each time. Shemanski adds that the collaboration on process engineering has yielded some rather sophisticated results. CPS is now capable of controlling not only the size of the final product's particles but also their shape. This technology, known as product characterization, is one that Shemanski feels merits more investigation. "It strikes me that any manufacturing or production facility that is concerned about particle size should be equally concerned about particle shape. It's a technology that offers a wide array of benefits across a great number of applications."

According to Steve Miranda, manager of dry grinding for Netzsch-Condux, "the processor/equipment supplier relationship is not unique in this industry, but it's hard to imagine two companies cooperating at a higher level than Netzsch and CPS." The inter-company connection is even benefiting other Netzsch customers that are taking advantage of Netzsch's latest offering, Total Systems Solutions. The idea, developed in part from the company's experience with CPS, is to provide Netzsch customers with a turnkey solution to plant expansions or new plant construction. "Total Systems Solutions is a Netzsch package that, as the name implies, covers everything a company would need to get a grinding operation up and running," said Netzsch FPT Technical Director Harry Way. "We will work with the client from the beginning — right from designing the facility's floor plan — through installation and testing. And this service includes procuring any equipment, even if it's not Netzsch units, to meet the client's need and make the facility operational."

Additional information about Netzsch, a manufacturer of fine particle technology including wet and dry grinding mills and classifiers, is available at www.netzschusa.com.

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