Australia-based Imagine Intelligent Materials (Imagine IM) was launched back in 2014 by a divergent group of scientists, engineers and business leaders that recognized that the time was right for launching a business that made devices from graphene.
A couple of the keys to Imagine IM’s business strategy have been to control their own supply chain and to produce devices that really depended on graphene rather than just lending a marketing tag to a product that was not improved by graphene. To do this, they opened their graphene pilot plant in Geelong, Victoria, Australia in August 2016 with a capacity of up to 10 metric tonnes of graphene per year.
This plant will provide the material that the company will use to create smart materials for detecting stress, temperature and moisture. These smart materials can be offered as “drop-in” solutions for large-scale manufacturing processes.
As an example of this, Imagine IM has partnered with Geofabrics Australasia to develop a leak location system that employs “a conductive non-woven geotextile in between two non-conductive membranes to allow the detection of defects in the membrane.”
In a the Q&A provided below, we speak to Imagine IM’s CEO, Chris Gilbey, to find out more about the relationship between their graphene production and device manufacturing and learn about how he sees the nascent graphene industry shaping up over both the short- and long-term.
Q: You are involved in both the manufacturing of graphene—with a production capacity of 10 metric tonnes per year—and using graphene to make smart materials for sensing temperature, stress and moisture. I was wondering if you could breakdown your business with a bit more detail. Are you actually manufacturing devices for sensing, or are you producing master batches for other device manufacturers to make the devices?
Our view is that that graphene is not a product. It’s a means to make products. And you can't make the appropriate graphene unless and until you understand what the end product application is going to be, what the functionalization requirements are, what the plant and product requirements are, etc. We want to deliver solutions...and it happens that graphene turns out to be a highly efficient way to achieve some things as long as you understand what the rules of the supply chain are that you want to work in.
Q: Could you describe the graphene that your plant produces? What is the quality of the graphene and what applications is it suited for?
We make multilayered graphene in the plant we have built. But frankly it’s not about the graphene. It’s about the process of developing a masterbatch material. The quality is the wrong question to ask frankly. Quality with respect to what criteria? If you measure quality in terms of size of nanoplatelets and you make platelets that are 75 microns in size hypothetically and the application requires you to make graphene that that will fit into a 50-micron fiber then you have a mismatch. Quality at this point in the evolution of graphene applications is a largely misunderstood proposition in my view.
I believe that in any industry you always start with the customer need. Quality is less important than functionality and price. Rolls Royce might be a bench mark of quality in the automotive sector or perhaps they may be more correctly a benchmark of luxury. What then is quality? Back in the early days of GM the board of the company would have argued that they made quality autos. But Alfred Sloane and also Peter Drucker would perhaps have argued that they had incomplete information from the field and, as a result, made determinations that were entirely out of sync with reality!
What we focus on is developing fit-for-purpose graphene at the lowest possible price, and at a location that meets the supply chain objectives of customers. At this point in time, our focus is on developing appropriate levels of conductivity in materials—in particular industrial fibers and fabrics. Conductivity is a pre-requisite of delivering sensing.
Q: Is the idea that your 10 metric tonne production capacity will fulfill your own internal needs for master batches or device manufacturing? Or do you intend to sell some of that production to other companies?
No point in selling graphene to anyone. Not enough sustainable margin plus volume to make it into a business. Graphene as a feedstock material is in the early stages of being commoditized. More people will bring production on line, at lower prices, and many of the players will get into a race to the bottom on price. After all, there are already Taiwanese and Chinese companies boasting of >100 tonnes per year capacity. That is not the business we are in.
Q: Do you have a five-year plan on that production capacity? In other words, do you foresee that will be meeting your market needs in five years or will you have to increase capacity? What are your current operating rates?
Short answer is that if our vision was to only need to produce 10 tonnes per year in five years, we would have already died and gone to heaven. 10 tonnes will satisfy one product sku in Australia. We are in discussions currently to set up a plant in the US that will get us started in that market - just started!
The answer is in any event that you have to have distributed manufacturing that is close to your end use application in order to be part of mass manufacturing supply chains. I would anticipate market needs in tonnages greater than 100 tonnes for that one sku in a global scenario. At the end of the day, we want volume, volume, volume.
Q: How did you come to focus on the smart materials market? Was it something inherent in the graphene that you produced that lent itself to this application area? Or did you see an unmet need in the marketplace and then tailored your graphene for this use?
Actually the strategy is to reframe the concept of unmet needs and look at it through an economic lens. The intention is to become a disruptive player in mass manufacturing in the first instance and to be able to make smarter products at lower prices where we can positively impact the economics of products; i.e. there may be a need that is currently met, but if we can make a solution that radically changes the economics we get to win.
Q: As one of the early graphene manufacturers, what do you see lacking in today's graphene supply chain, i.e. lack of industry standards, poor understanding among users of graphene’s capabilities, etc.?
Simple answer: Certification. Industry standards are going be like legal structures for copyright. They will always trail the reality of disruptive technology. Why is Netflix such a powerhouse now? Because they figured that most people would prefer to purchase content legally than steal it, and the studios couldn't get their heads out of their backsides.
However, most manufacturers don't just want for there to be a QA process. They have to have it in order to be able to de-risk their businesses. At the center of our business is the concept and the reality of certification. It’s proprietary, just as the Dolby Labs certification process is, and the WL Gore certification process is. We have just started, funded in part by a federal government grant in Australia, a Graphene Supply Chain Certification and Research Facility at Swinburne University in Melbourne. This is the first of its kind worldwide and will enable us to look at the impact of the almost infinite permutations of changes to materials that take place in the nano-domain.
Q: What sort of movements and developments do you expect to see in the graphene marketplace over the next 5-10 years? Will applications become more narrow and defined or broader and dispersed? Will digital electronics become a reality or an afterthought? Any thoughts on the future?
All I can say to that is that I firmly believe that applications that utilize nanomaterials will be ubiquitous in 10 years. Equally, I think there will be a massive shake out in the marketplace. One company in the UK is rolling up a bunch of the early-stage graphene start-ups that couldn't get product to market. I think that the Gartner hype curve is playing itself out as one would anticipate and there will be a tremendous amount of consolidation over the next few years.
Companies like Samsung will be dominant in electronics applications as they pertain to consumer electronics (along with several Chinese companies). The bottom line for me is that the people who focus on selling graphene will be marginalized over the next ten years. Mass manufacturing is where the money will be. 3D printing will be a small business for quite a while yet. The big chemicals companies and the PE companies that have a focus on chemicals and advanced materials will remain the smartest guys in they room—meaning that BASF, DuPont, and similar will stand on the side lines and will pick off the little guys as they run into trouble. And somewhere in there a Google will emerge that redefines the whole sector...and a bunch of shareholders will make a lot on the way through and a bunch will lose out... And the Chinese may come through as the dominant country in the space... And hopefully we will find ourselves on the positive side of the ledger...
The bottom line is that anyone who thinks that they are going to make money out of graphene from applications that use only small amounts will find that their business models are unsustainable. Mainly because it is in no one's interest (who is a supplier) to sell small quantities of a material except with a giant margin and that doesn't incentivize you to develop scale....
I find this area of human enterprise to be utterly fascinating! And if you read for instance, what Danny Kahneman did, when he was asked to advise the Israeli army and air forces on how to identify future leaders and how his advice ran absolutely 180 degrees contrary to what was in place at the time, and the success of his research and approach, to me that is what is going to be needed conceptually to build an industry!