Product and Technology Development
"The world of adhesives is more exciting and versatile than many would think."
Dr Stefan Röber, Head of Product and Technolgy Development
At times, they have to bond heavy components for decades. At times, they are required to be removable without leaving any residue. Some are much thinner than a single hair. And some may serve as a shock absorber. If necessary, they should either conduct electricity or protect against it. Light and heat management are also part of their many tasks. Nowadays, adhesive tapes are multi-talented and often do their demanding work "in the dark". As diverse as their functions are, the development process behind them is just as fascinating. Dive into the wide world of adhesive technology at tesa.
A 125-year success story
As a multinational company, tesa has 125 years of experience in the development and manufacture of adhesives and in coating technology. It has always been an essential part of the company's philosophy to offer innovative products and services. Today, tesa generates more than 20% of its sales from adhesive tape solutions that are less than five years old. Innovations may arise on quite different levels: By developing in-house technologies, optimising processes, co-operating with external partners, or saving resources, such as energy and raw materials – and above all through an international network of highly qualified colleagues within the company.
Just take an adhesive agent, spread it on a carrier material such as foil, fabric, or paper – and add a cover sheet. Done! At first sight, producing an adhesive tape seems to be a quite simple task: However, many things that look easy to do actually require a lot of work – and plenty of expertise. This has already been made evident by the fact that the requirements for adhesive tapes can be extremely different: Some must sustain the highest demands such as cold, heat, rain, and UV radiation for decades when connecting facade elements or solar modules. In other tapes, the adhesive layer matrix must even take on additional functions such as absorbing shocks or conducting electricity. Currently, the thinnest double-sided adhesive tape manufactured by tesa for use in smartphones measures just three micrometres – That's sixteen times finer than a human hair! On the other hand, the thickest foamed tesa tapes, which are used in the construction industry, among others, measure more than 5,000 micrometres, i.e. five millimetres.
In the industry, tesa has always been recognised as a company that has proven expertise in adhesive and tape design. Above all, this includes know-how with regard to polymerisation, composition (compounding) and the modification of existing adhesive systems. These core competencies allow us to offer customers from various industries a broad product portfolio based on different technology platforms.
To develop and manufacture innovative adhesive tapes, you need a good mix of physics, chemistry, engineering – and creativity. Adhesives are generally based either on natural or synthetic rubber or on acrylates. While in the past, large quantities of organic solvents were used in the manufacturing process, today, these solvents can often either be recycled or – as with extruded adhesives – completely salvaged. That economises resources and protects our environment. In terms of technology development, the company strives to identify trends at an early stage and to convert them promptly into marketable products. For example, tesa produces optically clear adhesive films in its clean room unit at the plant in Hamburg, Germany for use in the displays of smartphones and navigation devices. The room's air in the production facility is 100 times cleaner than on a mountain peak, so there are virtually no dust particles on the highly transparent films. Another clean room is currently being built in the Suzhou plant in China.
Furthermore, there are exciting perspectives concerning 3D printing. So far, on an industrial scale, it has only been possible to coat carrier materials over the entire length with a layer of compound that has the same thickness at every point. But what happens when the components to be bonded feature a variety of heights, depths, corners, and edges? In the future, there will be customised tesa 3D adhesive solutions for this purpose. Our specialists are already working at full speed on this project ...
For many experts – for example, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Applied Materials Research (IFAM) – adhesive tapes are considered the joining technology of the future. Compared to other methods, such as welding, riveting and screwing, tapes offer a variety of advantages: For example, they don't damage the high-grade surfaces, but offer a gentle method of "marrying" materials with each other. The following rule applies: The greater the difference between the materials that need to be bonded, the better adhesive tapes perform. Furthermore, the "lightweights" take up little space – an important argument in sectors such as the automotive industry, where every gram counts in terms of e-mobility and range.
When it comes to optimising production processes, tesa uses a multi-track approach: On the one hand, the plants around the world work relentlessly to continuously improve their processes and systems. Their equipment is state of the art. Many high-performance manufacturing technologies are developed at tesa and used exclusively within the group. To ensure that things stay that way, tesa invests around five percent of its annual sales in product and technology development. At the Headquarters in Norderstedt near Hamburg, tesa features, among other facilities, a state-of-the-art technology centre where initial production trials can be performed and even produced in small series. The production corresponds to the high standards that suppliers to the automotive industry must meet (ISO/TS 16949).
On the other hand, one of tesa's core competencies is the use of innovative adhesive tape solutions to make customers' production processes more efficient. For example, the automation of hole covering on car bodies in co-operation with a robot manufacturer. Up to now, employees in the automotive industry had to manually cover up to 220 holes with plugs or adhesive die-cut parts.
Infrared spectroscopy, micro-computed tomography, scanning electron microscopy, rheology: Such terms and the related equipment in the seven-digit Euro range are probably more common at large university hospitals than in a company like tesa. However, to understand adhesives in detail, meet customer requirements or be able to drive innovations with completely new insights, a central analytics department with first-class experts, methods, and equipment is essential – and one of the success factors at tesa.
Ultimately, technology and product developers are theoretically capable of developing more than a million different adhesives – from slightly adhesive to non-removable, from soft foamed to "hard as a board" – by simply modifying a few parameters. Today, approximately 250 of them are used commercially on a larger scale. A current example from the analytical practice: While car buyers in Europe appreciate the typical synthetic scent of a new vehicle, this is an absolute no-go for the Chinese. There, new cars must give off a neutral scent: "Low Odour" is the name of the requirement from the Asian industry. A major challenge for manufacturers of chemical products that tesa is able to master thanks to its experts. By the way: The analytics team in Norderstedt was even able to solve a more than 2500-year-old mystery about the biblical "Tower of Babel".
A person sits in a laboratory in front of simmering substances and suddenly has a flash of inspiration – the initial spark for a sensational product. Or an experiment fails, but unexpectedly something ingenious emerges. This is what the working world of inventors looks like – at least in films. Even though this does happen over and again, it has little to do with the systematic control of modern innovation processes. How can we find "intelligent" approaches, initial ideas created within the company, collated, qualified, and further developed so that in the end a product emerges that is marketable and contributes significantly to our added value? To answer these complex questions, tesa operates innovation management systematically and successfully. Agile working methods and modern project management ensure that customers get exactly the solution they need even faster.
Moreover, tesa is increasingly relying on so-called open innovation platforms. These include "idea generators" and co-operation partners who, with their specific expertise, make a significant contribution to the fact that the possibilities of adhesive technology are almost unlimited also in the future.
More than 500 tesa employees in Germany, China, and the USA – including many chemists, physicists, and engineers from various fields – are driven by the necessity to convert ideas into new products and system solutions and to continuously improve existing products. Furthermore, there are ongoing projects with external co-operation partners and renowned universities from which numerous doctoral theses have already emerged. The increased use of new digital tools and cross-border work in agile teams ensures that the knowledge of experts is bundled in the development centres. The product range is growing steadily, which means that ever more future-oriented industries have the opportunity to use tesa adhesive applications for their own purposes.
At tesa, the focus is on our customers. Many companies make such a statement, but at the tesa group, customer proximity is actually more than just a slogan. In the Customer Solution Centres (CSC) in Germany, China, and the USA, business partners not only have the opportunity to test and experience new adhesive tapes "up close". Customers are actively involved, also in the further development of existing product ranges and in innovation processes. In direct contact at eye level, the tesa experts from application technology and their counterparts on the customer side can quickly find what demands the adhesive tape must meet. In some cases, there are even joint project teams with international key customers who work on the optimal solution – and often anticipate trends or set new standards. tesa recently set up a Joint Lab in South Korea. Working closely with colleagues from the tesa Electronics division and the CSC in China, the laboratory not only offers services to customers in the region, but also does pioneering work in the development of innovative functional adhesive tapes for business partners worldwide.
For decades, a bulging sample case of a selection of the assortment and various brochures has been a constant companion, especially for the sales force. Even today, it is of great value to be able to pick up adhesive tapes "live" and try them out. However, digital tools and services are in more demand than ever: To exchange and evaluate up-to-date information, for example measurement results from test procedures, over thousands of kilometres within product and technology development, as well as to provide customers all over the world with relevant figures, data, and facts as quickly as possible.
Already at an early stage, tesa had recognised the opportunities offered by 'Industry 4.0' and digitisation. The company relies on a harmonised and intelligent networking of systems and processes by taking advantage of the latest communication technology. The digital transformation makes it possible to recognise customer needs earlier, to accelerate innovations, to better utilise machines, to optimise the flow of goods and the entire supply chain, to act even more sustainably at all levels – and to involve customers more strongly and smarter in important processes, among other things. For example, the use of Virtual Reality (VR) Glasses in various areas is already ensuring an enhanced level of service. In the future, the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will play an important role at tesa in data analysis and the development of optimal product designs.
One simple fact cannot be denied: tesa is a chemical company – and it will always be one. This makes the tesa group all the more aware of its great responsibility to set particular message when it comes to sustainability. And by no means only because the topic is becoming ever-more important both to customers and to the general public. tesa has always made great efforts to use environmentally friendly production technologies to reduce the use of solvents, for example, and to steadily decrease the CO2 footprint through energy-saving measures. For example, between 2001 and 2019, the company was able to almost halve its CO2 emissions and solvents per ton of end product.
The value of the VOC emissions even decreased by 92%. The 'Sustainability Agenda' comprises three main areas: First, tesa wants to double the proportion of sustainable products by 2025. In this context, existing raw materials are to be replaced by renewable or recycled materials without affecting product properties. Second, in the future, tesa intends to purchase electricity exclusively from renewable sources. And third, the entire supply chain is to become even more sustainable. A supplier evaluation programme has been specially set up for this purpose. Further information on the topic of 'Sustainability' is available here.