Heraeus Holding GmbH is an engineering group based in Hanau, Germany. Its core areas of business are precious metals, special metals, dental materials, medical technology, quartz glass, sensors and specialised light sources. The company was founded in 1851 and is one of the biggest family businesses in Germany measured by turnover.
- 1 History
- 2 Corporate structure
- 3 Sold, restructured and disinvested businesses
- 4 Speciality products
- 5 Customers
- 6 External links
- 7 References
1851 – 1895
In 1851, at the age of 24, the pharmacist and chemist Wilhelm Carl Heraeus took over his father’s ‘Einhorn Apothecary’ in Hanau. The business had been in the ownership of the Heraeus family since 1660, acting as an official court apothecary to local counts. Wilhelm Carl Heraeus began laying the foundations for a global family business, which has now been headquartered in Hanau, east of Frankfurt, for more than 150 years. At the time, Hanau was a town of goldsmiths. Since the end of the 18th century, platinum had been processed in the town for the production of jewellery. Goldsmiths had extreme difficulty processing platinum due to its toughness and high melting point of 1770 degrees Celsius. Until a melting process was discovered, platinum could only be processed by using complex forging processes using the white-hot metal. Having studied chemistry and pharmacy, Wilhelm Carl Heraeus understood the problems faced by goldsmiths. After a series of experiments, he first succeeded in melting platinum in large volumes and producing pure metal in 1856, using his own specially developed oxyhydrogen blowpipe. It was already known at the time that platinum could be melted using oxyhydrogen, a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gas – but until then, only small quantities had been melted in a laboratory. With his gas blowpipe, Heraeus could produce enough oxyhydrogen and a large enough flame front to melt several kilograms of platinum-containing materials. This pioneering achievement enabled Heraeus to found the ‘W.C. Heraeus First German Platinum Smelters’, supplying a variety of customers such as goldsmith workshops and jewellery factories throughout the world, as well as dental manufacturers, chemistry laboratories and other branches of industry. In 1857, W.C. Heraeus succeeded in producing around 30 kilograms of pure platinum. By 1896, he was melting and processing more than 1000 kilograms of pure platinum.
1896 – 1927
Further experimentation in the platinum smelters’ laboratories resulted in a variety of inventions and revolutionary new production processes. These included the production of pharmaceutical iron compounds, chemically pure hydrofluoric acid, rubidium and caesium. Most production at this time still involved platinum, which was used in more and more applications due to its chemical and physical properties. As it is also highly resistant to acids and heat, platinum was also used to make instruments such as scientific tools, crucibles and vessels used in chemistry and physics. As early as the 19th century, platinum had already been used in locking pins to hold false teeth in place. Platinum was also used to make filaments in light bulbs and non-corrosive electrical contacts in telephones. As the company continued to expand, it needed new premises – so in 1896, the W.C. Heraeus Platinum Smelting Factory was established just outside Hanau, employing 40 people. Two years later, Wilhelm and Heinrich Heraeus, the two sons of the company founder, took over as managers. They were responsible for pushing ahead with research and development, and bringing on board a former school friend, the physicist and chemist Richard Küch. Küch, who became a director in 1909, had many contacts in the world of science and continued to carry out fundamental research, resulting in further growth in the company. Among his achievements were the development of a process to melt rock crystal at around 2000 °C to produce quartz glass. The quartz glass produced by the company was almost entirely free of defects and was of outstanding purity. It is still used in medicine today and is a highly sought-after material in manufacturing on account of its translucence and resistance to heat and acids. With the advent of ceramic colours, more and more platinum was needed for production processes and Heraeus started supplying products to the electrochemical and plastics industries. By the beginning of the 20th century, a major platinum processing boom was underway, caused by demand in the chemicals industry for large volumes of platinum thermocouples and platinum-rhodium catalysts needed to produce nitric acid.
1927 – 1945
The third generation of the family took over the business in 1927, under Wilhelm Heinrich Heraeus and his cousin Reinhard Heraeus, who remained at the helm of the business for nearly 40 years. During this time, Heraeus tapped into a variety of new material discoveries. For example, they started producing the first dental alloys. This approach took the company from strength to strength and broadened its product portfolio. One of the most significant technical innovations of the 1920s is credited to Heraeus: the melting of metals under vacuum. For a short time, Heraeus set up an independent division dedicated to this technology, ‘Heraeus Vacuum Smelting’, which registered 84 German patents in 10 years. The company also suffered setbacks during this time. The First World War and hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic resulted in the collapse of the precious metal market in Russia and massive swings in the price of platinum. As a result, Heraeus began focussing its research activities on recycling techniques and started to look for suitable ersatz materials and substances to replace precious metals. Despite the turbulent times in Germany, the business continued to grow. By 1939 it employed around 1000 people, with annual sales of around 20 million Reichsmarks. With the outbreak of the Second World War, many workers were drafted into military service. The company shifted its production to electrical contacts with low densities of precious metals, catalysts, and rhodium reflectors for anti-aircraft searchlights. Allied bombing raids in 1944 and 1945 resulted in the near-total destruction of the town of Hanau as well as Heraeus production facilities.
1945 – 1983
During German reconstruction, the company turned its attention back to its established products and expanding new production facilities. The first steps towards expanding internationally and entering foreign markets had already been laid at the beginning of the 20th century by the company’s founder. The company re-established its network of contacts after the Second World War, allowing it to gain new customers in the American market for quartz glass for optical applications. Beginning in 1958, the company founded its first sales subsidiaries in France and Italy, followed by full subsidiaries and international holdings as of 1972. The company subsequently set up new quartz glass factories in Japan and the United States, followed by manufacturing facilities in South Korea and the Philippines to produce contact wires (wire bonding) made of pure gold for use in semiconductor components. In 1970, Helmut Gruber, a respected physicist in the field of metallurgy, took over as head director, with company-wide responsibility for the technical department. Gruber pushed ahead with operations in the fields of quartz glass, precious metal chemistry and special metals. He also set up even more subsidiaries outside Germany. Sales outside Germany first outstripped domestics sales in 1979.
From 1983 until 2000, the company – by now in its fourth generation – was headed up by Jürgen Heraeus, the son of Reinhard Heraeus and a company director since 1970. Under his management, the business grew into a global group of companies. To pave the way for this expansion, the company was fundamentally reorganised and modern management structures introduced. Following the founding of Heraeus Holding GmbH in 1985, the company underwent an intense period of decentralisation in 1990. Under the umbrella of the management holding, the group’s core activities of precious metals, dental materials, quartz glass, sensors and medical technology were reorganised into five decentralised, independent management divisions. Simultaneously, the company expanded in Asia. Heraeus also entered strategically important markets, such as through the acquisition of Electro-Nite. As the company grew, sales and operating profits reflected its standing as an international group. By 2001, sales outside Germany first broke the 74% mark. To exploit synergies throughout the group, Heraeus refocused its activities on core business, resulting in the setting up of Heraeus Noblelight as an independent business in 2001. The Heraeus Med part of the company was sold in 2002, as were the group’s shares in Kendro Laboratory Products. At the same time, W. C. Heraeus intensified its involvement in industrial precious metals by expanding its activities in the field of thin film materials. The company’s wire bonding operations in China were also expanded, and the company entered into a joint venture in South Africa which soon evolved into a fully-fledged subsidiary. Heraeus also expanded its activities in medical technology with the acquisition of the Swiss company Metalor Medical Division.
Heraeus Precious Metals
Heraeus Precious Metals is specialised in the processing of gold and silver as well as platinum group metals for use in industrial components needed by the automotive, semiconductor, electronics and medical industries. The company is a supplier of industrial precious metals.
Heraeus Materials Technology
The Heraeus Materials Technology area of the business produces high-tech products such as gold, silver and platinum group metals. It also produces metals with high melting points and refractory base metals used in fields such as medical technology, environmental technology, the power industry, transport and telecommunications.
Heraeus Medical produces bone cements and biocompatible materials used in orthopaedics and trauma surgery. Its core product, PALACOS, is considered the standard bone cement product used in orthopaedics.
Heraeus Dental produces medical systems for maintaining and restoring human teeth, plus prosthodontic equipment. The company’s portfolio encompasses a wide variety of products used in dental laboratories and dental practices.
Heraeus Quarzglas has a wealth of experience in processing quartz glass. It owns 13 production sites in Europe, Asia and North America specialised in the manufacture of natural quartz glass for the optics, chemical and semiconductor industries. It also produces synthetic quartz glass for components used to make microchips and for optical fibres used in the telecommunications industry.
Heraeus Noblelight is an international producer of specialised light sources and systems. As well as developing, producing and marketing infrared and ultraviolet light emitters, it manufactures infrared and ultraviolet LEDs for use in industrial production, environmental protection, medicine, cosmetics, research and analytical measurement.
Sold, restructured and disinvested businesses
The precious metals division of the company always generated the most sales for Heraeus. When the price of gold, silver and platinum rose sharply in the 1930s, Heraeus also turned to platinum group metals such as palladium, rhodium and ruthenium. The development of the precious metal strowger switch and high-speed contact opened the market to Heraeus in 1950 to sell large volumes of contact rivets and springs. This laid the foundations for the company to enter markets such as telecommunications, microelectronics and computing. W. C. Heraeus was split up in 2010 to form Heraeus Precious Metals and Heraeus Materials Technology.
The particularly hard nature of the dental material Alba (an alloy of gold, silver and palladium) allowed Heraeus to supply dental technology as early as the 1930s. In the years that followed, Heraeus developed a variety of gold and ceramic bonding alloys. Heraeus Kulzer was split up in 2009 to form Heraeus Dental and Heraeus Medical.
Heraeus Vacuum Smelting
The process of smelting metals in a vacuum is based on early development work carried out by Heraeus. The first vacuum furnaces came into use before the First World War. They were used to make alloys in the total absence of air. The first vacuum induction furnace was developed in 1917. Heraeus Vacuum Smelting started operations as an independent company in 1923, producing a variety of base metal alloys for use in electrics. The company owned 84 German patents between 1923 and 1933, resulting in 101 foreign registrations. Due to the increasingly high cost of investment and the different nature of this area of the business compared to the rest of the company, Heraeus sold its Vacuum Smelting business to Siemens (now SMS-MEVAC) in 1933. The Ruhrstahl-Heraeus process for vacuum degassing of steel was also a Heraeus innovation.
Heraeus began to continuously expand its product portfolio starting at the turn of the 20th century, moving into areas such as the production of optical instruments, infrared emitters and laboratory equipment. It produced plates, prisms and corrective lenses for the optical industry (under the names Homosil and Ultrasil) plus opaque quartz glass under the name Rotosil. In the late 1960s, Heraeus also produced ultra-pure isotropic/homogeneous quartz glass for space exploration. This special optical quartz glass was used in retroreflectors set up on the moon during the Apollo landings. These were used to measure the exact distance between the earth and the moon and are still in use today. Heraeus also developed a new process for making high-quality synthetic quartz glass from silicon tetrachloride. In the late 1960s, this opened up a completely new market for the company: quartz fibre technology for the optical transmission of data in the telecommunications industry, followed by product developments in the field of optical fibres in 1972. In 1986, the first synthetic waveguide tubes were developed, and in 1992, production of synthetic quartz glass began in Bitterfeld. Heraeus has established itself as a supplier of devices and optical components for the semiconductor industry.
In 1904, Richard Küch discovered that evaporated quicksilver (mercury) in a quartz tube acted as an intense light source when stimulated with electricity. In light of this discovery, Heraeus joined forces with AEG and founded a quartz lamp company, culminating in the development of the ‘Original Hanau Synthetic Sunlamp’ which flooded onto the German market as early as the 1930s. By the 1950s, the tanning lamp had become a popular consumer electronics item. After buying out AEG in 1973, a number of newly developed products were added to the range. Heraeus Noblelight now supplies infrared and ultraviolet emitters as well as UV-LEDs to a variety of industries, for use in automotive production, printing, plastics and semiconductors, analytical instruments, laser and environmental technology in solariums, and water and air treatment.
Heraeus first started producing thermocouples and thermometers with platinum and platinum alloy wires under the directorship of Richard Küch. The technology still forms the basis of Heraeus temperature measurement technology today. By the mid-1960s, analysis technology was added to the product portfolio. After the takeover of the Belgian Electro-Nite Group in 1987, immersion thermocouples and gas probes were added to Heraeus’s array of measurement technology for use in the steel and aluminium industry. In 1997, the company founded Heraeus Sensor-Nite, specialised in temperature sensors needed in platinum thin-film technology for use in automotive construction, electronics and household appliances.
- Hermann Simon mentioned this company in his correspondent Book as an example of a "Hidden Champion" (Simon, Hermann: Hidden Champions of the 21st Century : Success Strategies of unknown World Market Leaders. London: Springer, 2009.- ISBN 978-0-387-98147-5. P. 96f.)