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Univar Solutions' newest Solution Center, centrally located in Germany, is a flagship innovation center for the Continent, ideally suited and generously sized to serve key markets across Europe, from beauty and personal care to home and industrial cleaning, from coatings, adhesives, sealants, and elastomers (CASE) applications to pharmaceuticals and much more. With PhD scientists, chemical engineers, and technicians at the ready backed by our impressive team of technical, commercial, and environmental experts, Essen is the newest innovation center in our hub-and-spoke model of sustainable innovation.
Leading the team in Essen is Silke Langer, who applies a broad-based mix of technical and commercial expertise to help customers create specialty ingredient solutions across beauty, personal care, and complementary markets. Now she counts opening and leading the newest global Solution Center as one of her proudest professional accomplishments. Let’s learn more about the facility Langer calls a "great creativity factory."
We started from scratch and built the center into an existing building in our German headquarters, now 700 sq m (more than 7,500 sq ft) of state-of-the art lab and testing equipment that facilitates new and improved formulations across multiple industries served.
Silke Langer brings more than two decades of technical expertise in personal care and related markets to help companies roll out new products, improve existing ones, and capitalize on new trends to stay ahead of the competition. A chemical engineer with strong project leadership skills across applications, her commercial and marketing experience makes her the ideal problem-solver and showcaser of solutions.
Standing up the Essen Solution Center must have been an enormous undertaking. What is it like walking through the doors each day knowing this flagship innovation center has become a reality?
Of all the projects I've worked on during my career, this is my favorite. The facility is bright, modern, and contemporary. It's like a startup within our company, with an environment so appealing that you want to foster new ideas and create new things. I’m proud the moment I walk through the door. It gives me a lot of enthusiasm and energy to build the team, work on projects, hold training, and invite customers and partners into our Solution Center to show them our labs, our equipment, and what we can do with them here.
The Essen Solution Center represents a significant investment in time, money, resources, and people to create the flagship innovation center in Europe – bringing together the best minds, tools, and equipment. Now that investment is paying off in each new solution. It's a unique experience for all of us who get to come here every day. I am quite energized about it.
The Solution Center in Essen boasts an impressive list of capabilities and equipment. Tell us more.
We have a spectrophotometer that allows us to test cleaning performance in laundry and other household and industrial cleaning products. A texture analyzer produces test data to back performance claims in shampoos, conditioners, and related personal care and cosmetic applications. We also have a pilot plant to help companies scale up to the production line, allowing them to move more quickly from the new or improved formulation to production.
The Essen Solution Center is built for growth, with plenty of room to host customers, supplier-partners, and visitors for training seminars, demos, and innovation sessions. We've already hosted hundreds of visitors since opening, and everyone has been quite impressed!
Univar Solutions is a place where people matter. How do you see that core value brought to life each day in the Essen Solution Center?
As bright and inspiring as our new labs and equipment are, the real stars of our Solution Centers are our people. Besides our wide-ranging technical expertise, what I enjoy most as the Essen tech leader is our multicultural team, representing different nationalities, backgrounds, and experiences. The people here are incredibly inspiring, and we have so much to learn from each other.
As we use these ingredients, materials, and products – testing their attributes and performance in real time – we get energized by the face-to-face, everyday discussions and discourse with so many talented and creative minds.
The learnings transcend our results and enhance our outcomes, bringing tremendous value to what we do here.
So, it's really the face-to-face and live interactions that make the Solutions Centers work?
Exactly! In our Solution Centers we are engineers, chemists, and technicians, but we are also consultants. We consult with our suppliers and their development teams to showcase materials and ingredients. We consult with our customers to understand their needs and business drivers from every angle. We consult with our colleagues within Univar Solutions to bring the right talent and experience to each new challenge. And we collaborate on every level to bring the best solutions forward.
As we work with supplier ingredients and specialty chemicals, we provide key learnings to both the suppliers and the customers using the material. The learnings go both ways, and this collaboration creates a rich, fertile environment where people and their ideas matter.
Your teams have hit the ground running since opening last March. Can you talk about any project standouts?
We love to talk about our work here. Many of our first project engagements supported beauty and personal care as well as home and industrial cleaning challenges. We do a lot of performance and efficiency testing of the products we develop, working with both suppliers and customers to improve ingredients and support product development with performance data customers need to benchmark their products and support the proof of concept.
Here's a great example that spans industries and applications: We worked with a leading wax supplier to help bring to market a vegan substitute that can replace beeswax in personal care, food, and related industrial applications. Beeswax is widely used in personal care, cosmetics, and numerous industrial products where natural origin and ability to provide emulsion, moisture, texture, and other performance factors have long made it a top choice for formulators. But with more consumers leaning into vegan trends and manufacturers seeking to optimize security and sustainability in their supply chains, product makers are increasingly seeking a viable vegan wax substitute. Our testing and analysis helped the wax supplier put key performance data behind the 100% plant-based material, verifying attributes like pH, stability, viscosity, and crystallization. Today this vegan wax substitute can be used in an array of products, from cosmetics, lotions and conditioners to food wraps and candles.
And that's just the first step. Helping the wax supplier bring a more robust material to market opens new opportunities for product makers to gain a competitive edge. Now we can show companies across markets and applications how to use this hero ingredient in their own completely new products or improved formulations. The possibilities are exciting!
European markets are known to be sustainability forward, not just embracing but setting trends and acting as early adopters for new features and products. Against this dynamic backdrop, how do you keep sustainability moving forward for your suppliers and customers?
It's hard to overestimate the impact of sustainability on our work here in Essen, or the many ways we are bringing more sustainable solutions to market.
The message comes straight from our customers: We must develop products that are fully sustainable – cradle to grave – with the circular economy in mind. It's a mandatory ask because sustainability targets must be met.
The main concern from our customers is to have sustainable products that are naturally sourced. Today's products cannot contain any critical products like microplastics, which can pass through water filtration systems to pollute groundwater and oceans and harm marine life.
We just developed an ecofriendly, concentrated hand dishwash formulation that is as successful for its weight reduction as its efficacy. Consumer needs around sustainability surpass the formulation and must consider processing, packaging, transportation, and storage factors. Increasingly we work on concentrates that reduce water use and weight along the entire supply chain. Companies simply don’t want to ship water from point A to point B, and this trend is picking up speed across industries and markets.
The vegan wax project is another good example, since it deals with an ingredient people already think of as natural but takes sustainability to the next level by allowing formulators to make cruelty-free claims with a plant-based alternative. Formulators are looking for new and better ways to deliver sustainability performance while still delivering unique and trendy methods and products people want to try. This especially resonates in cosmetics and personal care, where store shelves are filled with products offering an array of sustainability claims, from bio-based ingredients to biodegradability and recycled packaging.
Can you tell us about a trendy product or method we might see because of your work in Essen?
Here's a fun example from the cosmetics arena, where it's hard not to notice the increased focus on eyelash and eyebrow products. In cosmetics applications like hair gels, hair sprays, and now brow styling products, synthetic polymers are widely used and highly valued for their excellent hold and processing attributes, but cosmetics manufacturers are seeking to reduce synthetic polymer levels in favor of more natural offerings to improve their products’ sustainability profiles. To that end, we developed a more sustainable brow styling product by combining a new, corn-based styling polymer called MaizeCare™ Clarity from Dow and xanthan gum, a natural thickener from Cargill. While the performance experience is slightly different, we achieved a great result with a natural system, giving product makers an excellent jumping-off point to capitalize on more sustainable brow products and cosmetic applications.
The ability to scale a formulation from the lab to the manufacturing line is so important. Tell us more about your pilot plant and its capabilities.
Yes, this critical aspect of product development and manufacturing is often underestimated. That's why we added a brand-new asset here in the Essen Solution Center called a pilot plant, which supports transferring lab sizes into production sizes up to 10 liters, a sweet spot for many applications across the global industries we serve.
It's quite a differentiator in the market that we can help customers scale up to manufacturing scale with this intermediate step, allowing companies to move into production faster and more easily. With this equipment we can help even small manufacturers cut development time by creating the formulation in the beaker and then mimicking the manufacturing size, helping to identify and mitigate technical and processing issues. It's just another way we offer end-to-end project services, from concept and development to application testing, launch, and distribution.