Freeman Technology focusses on powder characterization and how it can be used in process and product development. What are the typical industries you work with?
Powders are utilized across a broad range of industries, and we work closely with customers to understand their individual powder handling challenges. This can range from pharmaceuticals, foods and powder coatings, to those processing ceramics and metal powders. It is estimated that up to 80% of manufactured products are handled in powder form at some point, extending powder processing capability is a major goal for the industry as it works to improve manufacturing efficiency.
While traditionally we have working with the well-established pharmaceutical sector, we are seeing rapid growth in additive manufacturing (or 3D printing). Here there is a growing appreciation of the need to optimize powder properties in order to exploit the full potential of this pioneering technology.
Do you see similarities in the problems your customers are trying to solve, or do they vary between industries?
The majority of our customers come to us with similar challenges, irrespective of the industry in which they work. An overriding challenge is ensuring that powders perform consistently, whether as a finished product or during processing.
The fundamental mechanics that dictate this are consistent regardless of the specific application. However, the exact nature of the problems industry face can vary considerably. To provide context to this, the filling is a common operation across all industries, however, fill weights and tolerances vary widely.
For example, the pharmaceutical industry often requires milligram doses to be filled accurately and at high speed, in order to meet stringent criteria and high throughput. By contrast, bulk chemical and mineral industries may process powders into 1-ton containers, employing a much longer filling process and without regulatory pressures.
The factors that influence filling efficiency will depend on the type of equipment being used.
Some systems are purely gravity-driven, whilst others rely on force-feeding. In many applications, such as tablet manufacture on a rotary press, the powder fills the dies through a combination of gravity and force-fed flow.
The influence of each of the two mechanisms will depend on the geometry of the feed frame, the flow rate through the press and the characteristics of the powder. It is easy to see, with wide variation in each of these variables that this is a complex process and remains challenging to model from knowledge of a limited number of particle properties and process parameters.
At large scale, such as filling of bags or bulk containers, the process might be volumetric filling or one based on mass. In both cases, it is typical that augers or rotary valves directly attached to the bottom of the feed hopper are employed. In this configuration, the factors that control filling efficiency may be different to those in tablet manufacture, however, efficiency across all scales and in all processes will depend on the compatibility of the material properties with the conditions imposed in the processing environment.
Does the challenge of working with powders differ from working with liquids or gases?
There are fundamental reasons why powders represent a greater challenge that liquids or gases. The understanding of how the properties of a liquid or gas influence behaviour within a process is well established. In contrast, the rheology of powders is a relatively ‘new’ concept as they typically exhibit more complex behaviour.
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