In a war zone, vehicles of any kind from cars to tanks are huge moving targets. Considerable investments are made in protecting them from gunfire. The protection material market is currently dominated by aluminium oxide, silicon carbide and boron carbide. A new Finnish hard metal developed by VTT and Exote is now joining their ranks.
– We have been developing this new hard metal and its production method at VTT since the mid-1990s. In 2003, we established Exote Oy to produce and sell this metal-ceramic composite and sold the patent to the new company, says team leader Tomi Lindroos from VTT, describing the origins of the project.
The company was named after the new hard metal, also known as exote.
– Our initial goal was to create a new hard metal for industrial use. The primus motor in this process was Pekka Lintula, at the time a Senior Scientist at VTT. He is a gun enthusiast, and it was his idea to test whether exote was bulletproof. When he discovered that the material actually stopped bullets, he outlined a new range of applications, says Osmo Mäenpää from Exote Oy.
Indeed, at the moment exote is being principally developed for ballistic protection, i.e. bulletproofing.
Established in 2003, Exote Oy is a completely privately owned limited liability company. It has some two dozen shareholders, almost all of them Finnish. The company occupies 600 square metres of production and office space in Raasepori and has a firing range built to Defence Forces standards.
The material properties of exote stem from its unique production process co-developed by VTT and Exote Oy.
– How it is controlled and applied is known only to Exote Oy, says Mäenpää.
As always with industrial innovations, considerable interest has been shown by various parties trying to find out the composition of the new material. Mäenpää explains that while it is possible through analysis to find out its composition at the atomic level, it is nevertheless not possible to copy it without knowing the production method.
Almost exclusively for export
When a fledgling company launches a new product on an international market, it helps to be able to have development partners as references.
– VTT is an establishment known and respected abroad. In the USA, local universities are often engaged by enterprises in product development, so in that sense our collaboration with the Tampere University of Technology looks good on our CV, says Mäenpää.
The admission of Exote Oy to Technology Programme 2010 of the Finnish Defence Forces earned the company a considerable amount of goodwill on the military market. The Defence Forces made a substantial financial investment in the further development of exote.
– The Defence Forces wish to help the Finnish SME sector develop products with export potential. It is useful for them for Finland to have R&D and production in this sector. Because the Finnish market is not large enough to sustain a profitable business in this sector, we need exports, says Mäenpää, explaining the reasoning behind the partnership.
The company already has a finished commercial ballistic protection product that has been on the market for a few years. Virtually all exote sales go abroad. The principal market is the USA, which accounts for half of the military materiel market of the entire world. Exote has also been sold to Australia, South Africa and many European countries.
Exporting a product involving bulletproofing requires an export licence.
– The licence is granted by the Defence Forces if the Ministry for Foreign Affairs endorses it. A licence will not be granted for exports to countries that are currently at war, says Mäenpää.
Exote no longer needs to be promoted in the vehicle protection industry.
– People in the sector all around the world are already familiar with our product. It is such a good product that word gets around by the grapevine. This is an excellent achievement for a small Finnish company, says Mäenpää.
However, even though the market is large and the product is good, possibly even the best there is, it is not easy for a newcomer to capture market share.
– There are three older products out there that people are used to using, and their producers have networks of contacts already in place. Meticulous and patient efforts are required to gain a foothold on the market.
Mäenpää notes that the sales price of exote is competitive, being on a par with that of silicon carbide.
Skipping a step
The sales process in the ballistics market has four steps. Producers of protection materials, including Exote, sell their products to the next step, the manufacturers of protection equipment. These manufacturers use the material to make protection panels, which they then sell to vehicle manufacturers. The completed bulletproof vehicles are then bought by the defence forces of various countries from the vehicle manufacturer.
Enterprises that produce protection equipment often aim to buy up enterprises that produce protection materials. Exote, however, has a bargaining point that will enable it to achieve success as an independent company.
– Exote panels can be attached directly to a vehicle, unlike ceramic panels. This means that we can also sell them directly to vehicle manufacturers. This represents an obvious competitive advantage, because without a separate mounting panel the vehicle will weigh less.
Exote has a better weight-to-efficiency ratio than steel: its specific gravity is lower than that of steel, but it is harder, more durable and more effective than steel.
– To simplify, we might say that a 7 mm thickness of exote plate is equivalent to about 20 mm of steel armour.
The next step for Exote is to become a supplier of bulletproofing for major vehicle projects.
– We are also interested in civilian vehicles – anything where our product might be useful.
Bulletproof vests are also a possible area of development. Exote plate is light but can stop an armour-piercing bullet, which would make it very good for personal protection.
The industrial research is still continuing.
– We are now looking at applications where a traditional hard metal could be replaced with exote, says Lindroos.
One reason for the demand for replacing the currently most commonly used type of hard metal is the decreasing availability of one of its components, tungsten.
– Tungsten comes mainly from China. Supply cannot meet demand, and in the EU it is on the list of critical raw materials. It is estimated that its availability will continue to decline, which translates into opportunities for us, explains Mäenpää.
At the moment, VTT and the Tampere University of Technology continue to test the hardness, tensile strength and durability of the material. This will help determine the applications for which the material is suitable and explore the properties required for industrial use. There are plans to use exote for manufacturing crusher blades and cutters, components requiring abrasion resistance and tools for demanding products.
– In industrial applications, it may take years to finish a commercial product. This is a long-term process pursued by VTT, industrial enterprises and ourselves, and it is impossible to set a completion date, Mäenpää points out.
Clear division of duties in product development
VTT is closely involved in the development of exote.
– The division of duties is clear. VTT has expertise in materials technology and science, so they focus on those things. We are in charge of developing the method and process, or production and sales, says Osmo Mäenpää, noting also that the collaboration is close and fruitful.
Tomi Lindroos reports that VTT has contributed and continues to contribute to the development of material properties.
– We study the characteristics of material mixes. In recent years, we have also been developing our materials technology consultation service. We use systematic analysis to determine which compositions are worth testing.
Developing exote has been a long road. The production process has been perfected over decades, and the material itself is still being tweaked as required for its various applications.
– Getting anywhere can sometimes take a really long time, much longer than we initially thought. But all parties feel that developing this product and its production method has been worth it. We want to be part of bringing this product to a wider market, says Lindroos.
Development efforts at VTT have paid off in significant, measurable ways. The properties of the material have improved hugely: its tensile strength, for instance, has been increased by 60%. There are several versions of exote, each of which has been comprehensively tested not only in Finland but also in many other European countries and in the USA. Marketing efforts are mainly concentrated in the defence industry, specifically in vehicle protection. There are several exote projects in progress in this area. Mäenpää notes that the core area of exote applications may be found at level 3 and up in NATO standard STANAG 4569.