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Sealing the market


Its parent enterprise, Saint-Gobain, is of French origin and looks back on a history of more than 300 years. “It started making mirrors for the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles,” states the product manager. “After that, the company gradually changed its activities and applications. Our location in Kontich, Belgium, is a part of the enterprise’s special polymers division and specializes in high-performance materials. In Kontich, we solely concentrate on the development and manufacturing of seals for most demanding applications.”

At the present time, the Belgian branch employs a highly skilled team of 180 people. “Worldwide, Saint-Gobain Seals has 700 employees and maintains 14 production sites across Europe, in the USA and in Asia,” says Mr. Vanthienen.

As an integral part of the global giant Saint-Gobain, the Performance Plastics division contributes approximately 2.5 per cent of the 40 billion euros revenue that the group makes overall, equaling a turnover of around one billion euros.

To meet the customers’ specific needs and challenges, Saint-Gobain Seals in Belgium offers a broad portfolio of products and materials including OmniSeal® spring-energized seals, OmniLip™ PTFE rotary shaft seals, OmniFlex™ fluoroelastomer seals, OmniShield® EMI / RFI shielding solutions, Rulon® fluoropolymer compounds, Meldin® 7000 thermoset polyimide materials and Meldin® HT thermoplastic materials.

“Our OmniSeal® line is our most important product group,” explains the product manager. “These are spring-energized seals, consisting of a polymer seal with a metal spring. It seals off whatever is needed in the applications of our clients. A simple rubber seal is a much cheaper alternative but it is not suitable for the demanding conditions our customers deal with. Mechanical seals, on the other hand, are a much more expensive solution. Our spring-energized products are perfectly situated in between these two extremes.”

At its production site in Kontich, Saint-Gobain Seals is able to manufacture polymer components and seals with diameters from 3 to 3,000 mm. In this regard, the business utilizes different production lines, in particular for the larger sizes.

“We make polymer cylinders, so-called billets, slice them up into jackets and install springs in the jackets,” states Mr. Vanthienen. “Our products are made-to-order, which requires development skills and product expertise. Due to many years of experience and close cooperation with customers, we have become a market leader in the oil and gas segment in terms of high-performance seals.”

Basically, Saint-Gobain Seals finds its key markets in four different sectors. “Apart from the oil and gas industry, our solutions find application in the aerospace, life sciences and automotive segment,” says the product manager. “The oil and gas sector has emerged as one of the more important markets for our Belgium site. Here, we experience highest growth rates because companies have to look out for new sources of oil and gas in far deeper areas. This fact is combined with more extreme temperatures and highly demanding conditions. Therefore, specific materials are needed that we are able to supply.”

In order to meet these challenging requirements, Saint-Gobain Seals makes use of an extensive R&D department. “We have several R&D programs to be able to react on future needs,” explains Mr. Vanthienen. “These can be related to pressure exceeding 20,000 psi or, in terms of liquid gas transportation, temperatures between -196 and 300 degrees Celsius.” Apart from its own capabilities, Saint-Gobain Seals’ R&D team relies on communication with other group divisions. “Whenever additional expertise is needed, we seek contact with colleagues from the group,” states the product manager.

“Furthermore, there is structural exchange by means of worldwide meetings for engineering and R&D staff as well as contact with end users in our key markets.” Despite the group’s worldwide presence, their Belgian seat mainly focuses on European markets.

“We are represented all over Europe and find many clients in historically grown markets,” says Mr. Vanthienen. “Still, we like taking part in a strong international growth. High-tech equipment is important for Europe and requires specific knowledge. In order to survive, European companies need to look out for niche markets and keep their production local.”

Although Saint-Gobain Seals maintains a stable leading market position, the company faces capable competitors.

“These are both local and worldwide players,” explains the product manager. “Our advantage is found in the provision of worldwide service and our strong investment in the area of R&D. Caused by increasingly stringent conditions in the oil and gas industry, a core market, we expect changes that will increase our turnover in the short term. We are amongst the top 100 most innovative companies, and rightly so: About 45% of our sales consist of newly developed products.”

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