The Vast Potential of Industrial Metal Knitting
This series aims to shed light on lesser-known, yet groundbreaking technological advancements in the industrial sector. In each interview, we delve into a specific company’s contributions to reshaping the industrial landscape.
Today, we’re sitting down with Alfred Buck, CEO of Buck Enterprises – Bondorf Germany / Stuttgart region.
Please tell us about your company and what you do.
We are a German-based company specializing in industrial knitting. We have been knitting industrial innovation for over 60 years across countless industries and do so using various fibers including stainless steel, fiberglass, carbon fiber, and basalt fibers. We can literally knit with almost any fiber and for a great variety of applications.
What a fascinating concept one does not usually expect to find in an industrial setting. I’m sure we’ll dive deeper into the applications of your products later, but can you give me a few examples of where or how your products are applied?
Sure! You’d be surprised how many solutions we have knitted up for our customers over the last few decades. Our knitted “fabrics” can be used as seals, damping elements, filters, and even protective covers that can protect just about anything from cobots to the environment in the form of tree covers. Applications and possibilities are endless for us as we not only develop the solutions, but we also develop the machines needed to create those solutions in-house!
How did your company get its start and how did it transition to knitting for industrial applications?
The company was founded by my father in 1958. He started the company with a focus on overhauling carpet knitting machines. The company entered the automotive industry a few years later, where we created air filtration and eventually damping elements for our first automotive customer. The transition from manual to automated manufacturing happened rapidly thereafter, as demand for our unique approach to damping elements grew fast, and our expertise in that sector now spans over 60 years!
Could you please provide some insight into how your company’s journey has evolved to its current state and how your approach to problem-solving has shifted over time?
Sure! After 60+ years of research and experience, it’s safe to say that our company does not only specialize in knitting – the secret to our success is that we develop and build custom knitting machines, specific to each solution and product we create, as well as the machines needed to further develop the product for end use. That means we build our own systems from start to finish: The customer comes to us with a problem, and we help the customer solve that problem by creating prototype parts, and then building the machines to develop the tool or solution. We develop each product together with the customer and then deliver it. Essentially, our core strength is having added value in-house, from mechanical engineering to the product. I should add that we don’t sell any machines, only the products.
While knitting serves as the foundation of our products, knitting itself is not our “know-how”. It’s what we make of it! Our true strength lies in the ingenious applications we’ve unlocked from knitted materials which offer more flexibility and versatility to address a myriad of needs including damping elements, filters, seals, bearing materials, protection from the elements, heat insulation, and even cut protection.
We have mastered the use of various materials including metal, glass fibers, and ceramic fibers which can offer exceptional cushioning and insulation, depending on the composition. For example, glass fiber knits exhibit impressive insulating capabilities, while metal knits deliver unparalleled cushioning.
Knitting with steel wire and other fibers sounds complicated. Could you delve deeper into the innovative aspects of your knitting process?
Yes, we have innovated a unique knitting technique that enables us to craft stitches without tension, defying the conventional constraints of thread tension. This innovation has positioned us as pioneers capable of knitting carbon fibers without the typical filament breakage challenges.
I bring up the example of carbon fibers because they are often used in orthopedics but find a new dimension within our knitted fabric. We were able to revolutionize their use in orthopedics because fiber knits prove exceptionally adaptable and easily conform to the contours of the human body while offering superb stability.
Your expansion into new markets beyond the automotive sector is quite intriguing. Could you share more about how the versatility of your knitted mesh has fueled this diversification along with international expansion to the US?
We’ve gained significant recognition within Germany’s automotive industry over the years, and our increased demand from various markets is driving our aim to diversify. The versatility of our knitted wire mesh solutions has become evident, and our reputation for quality among our German clientele continues to lead to unique opportunities for us.
There is a unique story behind our company’s start in the US; our expansion to the US started in 1993 when we were a small company with less than 20 employees in Bondorf, Germany. We were approached with a unique opportunity to partner with an existing automotive customer in the US. This partnership arose from the customer’s need for higher quality supply and led us to establish our presence in the US three years later, in 1996. Our foothold in South Carolina, USA has solidified over the years thanks to the extended support of that customer (and now others), while our continued joint commitment has paved the way for a long-term supply contract which is a very gratifying affirmation of our expertise!
Could you please provide some insights into your current strategic focus?
Well, as we recognize the expansive potential of our product’s applications, venturing into new markets becomes a natural progression, catalyzed by growing global demand for our knitted wire mesh solutions.
Currently, the reins of leadership are transitioning to the third generation within our company, building upon the foundation set by the first and second generations. Looking ahead, this younger generation is deeply committed to enhancing automation. This strategic shift will not only help reduce our production costs but will result in process optimization and improved quality.
On your website, I came across some very interesting applications for environmental protection and sustainability. What are some recent examples of your environmentally conscious innovations that have been well-received, and how do they align with your commitment to both sustainability and cutting-edge technology?
Our company’s journey is deeply intertwined with environmental consciousness and technological innovation. In recent years, we’ve placed a strong emphasis on environmental concerns, which have spurred some fascinating applications for our technology.
For example, we are seeing a noticeable environmental shift in Europe and the world. Germany, along with many other countries, is moving toward increased plastic bans. We were able to create a solution for the critical issue of microplastics affecting German forests through conventional tree protection covers. We engineered a sustainable alternative to conventional plastic covers by blending cotton and eco-friendly, biodegradable plastic which is completely free from petroleum-based components. This solution not only combats environmental damage but also caters to the needs of forest communities, like protecting trees from deer, etc. And while there are other alternatives out there made of various materials, ours are easy to install, weigh up to 50% less in some cases, and the mesh design incorporates a perforated structure that permits airflow, and light, and avoids heat build-up from the sun. Beyond forests, our innovations are also useful in vineyards.
So, as you can see, while our strategic focus is always on innovation, sustainable automation, and environmental sustainability are woven into our mission.
It’s remarkable how many applications your product innovations have. What are some other applications for your products that we haven’t discussed yet?
Well, we have sold about 60,000 prototype samples this year, which is a high number when it comes to prototypes, and now we need to focus on bolstering our capacity by building the machines needed to keep up with the demand.
Here are a few unique examples we are working on:
We are collaborating with colleges and universities on the development of some new ceramic brake disks made of carbon fiber mesh.
Another niche product we are working on is protective covers for cobots! Cobots, which are typically used on manufacturing floors and job sites, are often subject to abrasive particles like dust, dirt, or even paint particles getting caught in their joints. While protective covers already exist, they are built to cover the entire cobot and are quite expensive to replace at 250 – 300 Euros per cover. We have created a new solution where we can replace only the parts that need replacing, like the joint covers for example. We use eco-friendly materials like PLA for these covers, and more importantly, our flexible mesh won’t impede the mobility and movement of the cobot. As you can imagine, impeding movement can often result in the stand-still of the robot which translates into costly downtime, so this is an important factor also. Fire resistance is another important factor. The materials we use are fire-resistant and while sparks may leave marks, they don’t burn. Our double-layered mash acts as an effective filter as well.
Our next target project is cushioned horseshoes, believe it or not! We are working on innovating horseshoes made of wire mesh as a dampening element that can be used as therapy for arthritis.
We’re also working on new developments for concrete! One example is the use of knitted basalt instead of conventional steel reinforcements which can rust.
Another big topic here in Germany, and worldwide for that matter, is fire protection!
We are now using basalt mesh for facades. As our cities grow, so do green areas within our cities. Polyester is being replaced by more sustainable products, and our knitted mesh is not only fire resistant, but it also allows trees to take root and is breathable.
Cut protection is another project we’re tackling! We are currently working with a university to develop a mixed, cut-proof material we can knit into protection from cuts from chainsaws for example. We already have a “Category 1” protective solution that did not exist before, which includes inserts for shoes, and jackets. So, when a chainsaw slips out of someone’s hand, for example, that person is now protected.
It’s safe to say that your innovations transcend many industries and uses. Are there any other ideas you have but have not tackled yet?
Yes, there is another idea we have, and we are currently looking for a development partner for it! We believe that our product is ideal for use in bicycle and ski helmets as well as other types of personal protective clothes – safety shoes, protection clothes for fire-fighters, wood workers who work with chain saws!
As you now see, there is no end to how our innovation can be used, and accepting new challenges has become our “normal”. Literally, every product we make is a custom, specialized solution. We develop our product together with our customers, then test it extensively before we start manufacturing it. And all of it is done in-house, within an economically manageable framework, while ensuring the highest quality.
We welcome new ideas and requests – the more challenging, the better!
We at BUCK are continually evolving our knitting solutions. We are regarded as a reliable partner of internationally active customers from various industries. From automotive engineering to medical technology to environmental solutions, the number has constantly been growing in the past decades, and we have taken a wide range of innovative products, application ideas, and patents from prototype to series production.
We have achieved this in an unusually short time. Our strength is the rapid, unique development of pragmatic solutions with Technical Knitting Products, with a broad range of materials, for small to large batches.