Jörg-M Willke steps on the gas
If you think that the gas industry is just about gas production, then think again. Jörg-M Willke, head of research and development at Linde Gas, uses gas to develop applications and customer solutions for use across all areas of industry.
The sight ofrows of gas cylinders greets visitors to Linde Gas AG at Unterschleissheim, near Munich in southeastern Germany. Cylinders of every hue from red to black to white are lined up in orderly rows, filled with every conceivable type of gas, ready to be shipped to their destination. Currently some 3.8 million Linde Gas cylinders are in circulation in 55 countries. But gas production is not the only thing happening here. Jörg-M Willke, head of research and development at Linde Gas, and his team use gas to help customers improve their processes in a range of market segments, including chemistry, metallurgy and glass, food and beverage, the manufacturing industry and pulp and paper.
Think of any area of your life, and you can bet that gas has been involved at some stage, whether it is the food you eat, the shoes you wear or the car you drive. Indeed, gas-related applications and products are prevalent across most sectors of industry. And Willke and his team are busy devising new ways to use gas to improve processes employed by customers.
“The gas industry is becoming more and more a solutions provider for our customers, not merely a gas producer,” says Willke. “R&D at Linde Gas is called market development. We see ourselves as a partner for developing technologies related to clients’ production processes. We examine aspects such as increasing capacity, reducing costs, improving quality and making a product more environmentally friendly.”
Nowadays more than 1.5 million customers worldwide, including SKF, use Linde Gas application technologies, hardware solutions and tailor-made services.
Willke took overas head of research and development at Linde Gas about three years ago. He joined Linde Gas 24 years ago and has witnessed the industry turn increasingly away from mere gas production.
“Gas production used to be a sellers’ market,” says Willke. “A hundred years ago, it was unique to be able to, for example, separate oxygen from air.”
All business segments of Linde Gas are growing worldwide. Expanding markets such as Eastern Europe and Asia and innovative applications of industrial gases are driving growth. “We are able to generate an industry growth rate that is 1.5 to two times that of industrial production growth,” says Willke.
The high demand for steel in China and Eastern Europe is fuelling particularly strong growth in the metallurgy and gas business. The need to produce lower sulphate content in fuel, meanwhile, is generating huge growth in the chemistry segment.
Linde’s Unterschleissheimresearch and development centre focuses on innovations in shielding gases, oxy-fuel and acetylene applications, laser processes, heat treatment, combustion, food and beverage, cryogenics and environmental protection processes. The centre has developed expertise in applications ranging from arc, flame and laser technologies to thermal spraying for the metal-processing industry. Gas applications from Linde help to implement sustainable solutions in different chemistry market segments, including petrochemistry, pharmaceuticals and rubber and plastic processing. Solutions for the food and beverage industry, meanwhile, extend from modified atmosphere packing through freezing and cooling to transport cooling and dry-ice applications.
“The basics for some of the techniques are sometimes hundreds of years old,” says Willke. “The parameters have developed dramatically, however. For example, welding of steel has shown an enormous increase in speed, i.e., performance, as well as the possibility to weld different materials nowadays.”
At the same time,Linde Gas ensures that it employs the latest equipment and technology, investing 15 to 20 percent of sales in growth and techniques developed over the past five years, he says.
It is the customer who ultimately decides what the next project will be. Some 80 percent of the centre’s research and development projects are started initially in response to existing customers’ problems or needs, such as lowering costs or improving quality, says Willke.
The remaining 20 percent of research and development projects are what Willke describes as “pleasant surprises.” “We work out something useful that nobody has asked for and sometimes enter new markets,” he says. “One example is the use of bio lime, a by-product from the pulp and paper industry, as a low-cost, green energy source.”
Willke is a quiet, reserved family man whose main passions out of work are cooking and eating good food. His favourite cuisine is Italian, born from the eight years he spent in Italy, working as managing director of Linde Gas Italia. For Willke, it is important to think out of the box. One of his roles is to work on innovation management.
“We are working in a virtual organization and are looking for radical innovation, such as the possibility of introducing green hydrogen in the future,” says Willke.