Gauging the future

| April 1, 2017

NDC Technologies is energized by the challenge of new tobacco products.

By George Gay

As combustible tobacco cigarettes start to make way for less risky products that require new or modified manufacturing materials, it would seem reasonable to assume that some of the traditional suppliers to the tobacco manufacturing industry must be wondering what tomorrow holds for them. But last month, when Tobacco Reporter caught up with the global marketing director of NDC Technologies, Ian Benson, he appeared primed for a demanding but interesting future for his company’s on-line measuring instrumentation. The traditional tobacco industry is still a strong and important part of NDC’s business, he said, and while the consumption of combustible products is declining slightly, it isn’t going to disappear in a hurry. The industry is still innovating, and it has a huge installed base of on-line infrared gauges that will need to be replaced at some time in the future.

At the same time, the reduced-risk products that are on the market and that are coming onto the market provide further opportunities. The manufacture of some of these products, including heat-not-burn devices, is interesting for NDC, Benson said, because the measurement requirements it generates go beyond the on-line moisture and total-volatiles measurements for which NDC’s instrumentation is best-known within the tobacco industry, and it draws on the capabilities of the group’s other three businesses, such as those to do with the measurement of thickness, mass per unit area, line speed and length. These are capabilities that NDC has in its portfolio and that it could use to help manufacturers that wanted to move in new directions. “I think we’re going to see more demanding and interesting measurement requirements from the industry in the future,” Benson said.

The fact that the traditional tobacco industry still has considerable mileage in it was illustrated in February when NDC received from China orders for infrared gauges worth about $1 million. This was business won following on-site performance tests against competitive instrumentation, Benson said, and it indicated that NDC was still attracting significant business based on the requirements of the combustible-products manufacturing industry.

The end of last year saw NDC score a considerable success, too, in another on-site trial, this time at the premises of a major Western tobacco manufacturer that NDC had not supplied previously. On this occasion, its TM710eV total-volatiles, infrared-filter gauge, which was launched at the beginning of last year, was chosen in preference to a diode-array full-spectrum infrared gauge and another filter-based gauge in a direct competitive trial in which the suppliers were not allowed into the factory to tweak their instruments.

The full gamut

Ian Benson

The difference between using a full-spectrum gauge and a filter gauge can be confusing to those not familiar with such technology, in part because both systems examine the full spectrum of infrared radiation at some point in the development process. In the case of the former, the full-spectrum gauge is mounted on-line, and the huge amount of raw data collected is subjected to a complex mathematical data reduction technique that identifies the infrared regions or wavelengths that correspond to the principle variance in respect of, say, total volatiles within the tobacco being measured—those parts of the spectrum that must be “observed” to measure the total volatiles.

In the case of NDC’s filter gauge, samples of the tobacco to be measured on-line are firstly run through full-spectrum infrared spectrometers in the company’s laboratory to identify the fingerprint of the total volatiles in the spectrum—to identify what are the regions or wavelengths of the infrared spectrum that correspond to changes taking place in the total-volatiles content of the tobacco. That fingerprint will be found in only four to six discrete regions, and those are translated into optical filters that are included in the on-line gauge.

“We are used to supplying production people who want a solution, so we’ve done that mathematical processing of the full-spectrum information in our laboratory and put the dedicated solution into our analyzer,” said Benson. “We are using the same modeling techniques as the full-spectrum—diode array—people, but we choose to give the customers a solution that is more process-suitable.

“What I mean by that is that tobacco manufacturers want fast measurements and they want measurements that are not affected by lighting, by ambient humidity and by changes in temperatures in the factory, and using our technology with filters, that can be achieved. NDC has been on-line since day one, which was back in 1970.”

For Benson, on-line is the key word. The problem with some full-spectrum systems was that they required the manufacturer to have a PC in the factory. “This is not really a practical solution,” he said. “You can go into factories where people have been using our instruments for 10 to 15 years and they still look in great condition; they have handled the environment. But I don’t think you can say that about a PC.”

NDC developed its TM710eV total-volatiles gauge in cooperation with major tobacco manufacturers, said Benson, and, since its launch, the uptake of it had been strong. Several international players were using it, obtaining good results and seeing the advantage of measuring total volatiles instead of just moisture.

And it is not only cigarette manufacturers that are taking to the new gauge. A major manufacturer of oral tobacco products has also taken the TM710eV on board. Oral-product tobaccos have higher moisture levels than those of cigarette tobaccos, and the company had previously not been successful in finding an instrument to make the measurements it required. “But we have managed to make very successful measurements,” said Benson. “We have a good reputation for measuring total volatiles in these generally higher-moisture oral products.”

Again, the language, this time used in respect of moisture and total volatiles, can be confusing. Total volatiles take in anything that dries off in laboratory oven tests, which are performed in a factory to provide highly accurate reference data. The tobacco sample is weighed, heated to 100 degrees Celsius for three or 16 hours, depending on the preferred method, and then weighed again. Whatever has been driven off might be called moisture, but the correct term is total volatiles or oven volatiles. A large part of the total volatiles comprises moisture, but another part comprises humectants, casings, flavors, sugars, etc.

Well-positioned

And new-type products introduce other components into the equation. “The thing that has been interesting for us has been the development of heat-not-burn products, which we have been involved in,” said Benson. “We have data that proves we can measure moisture, nicotine, sugars and glycerol, the key components that need to be measured in respect of heat-not-burn tobaccos.”

And while a heat-not-burn tobacco factory might not require the number of gauges found in sophisticated traditional-cigarette plants, it requires a range of different measurements. “That plays well into NDC’s wide range of capabilities,” said Benson. “For instance, we are heavily into the packaging industry; so we have instrumentation to measure mass per unit area and geometric thickness, or caliper, as we would call it—all on-line. We are able to do a range of different measurements for that application; so if the industry continues to go that way, NDC is well-placed to offer the additional measurements that companies are going to need to control the processes involved.”

Not all the measurements that NDC can make have tobacco industry applications at present, but they are there if needed in the future. For instance, NDC has been involved in measuring the thickness and coating weight of the active ingredients of transdermal patches used as nicotine-replacement therapies. And, through its cable and tube business, the company can measure the length of materials and the speed at which they are moving if they are being produced in a web-based process. This is a noncontact method called laser Doppler velocimetry.

Apart from its tobacco, food and bulk business, and its cable and tube business, NDC has, as is mentioned above, a business serving the packaging industry in the fields of extrusion and converting processes and a business serving the metals industry measuring the thickness and flatness of steel or aluminum coils and strips.

 

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