It's an industry that's often overlooked, yet Germany is a global leader when it comes to the manufacture of glues and adhesives. With over 10,000 jobs, the industry has helped many Germans through sticky economic times.
"Pritt" glue sticks from Henkel are essential household items
Adhesives are an essential part of all industries these days. Whether in the automobile branch, the manufacture of household and electronic goods, the construction, textile or high-tech industry -- adhesives are what's keeping it all together.
A modern car depends on anywhere between 15 and 18 kilograms of adhesive to stop it falling apart; in a mobile phone alone, at least 10 different kinds of glues are needed.
The Düsseldorf-based association for the German adhesives industry, known as the IVK, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The IVK's director, Ansgar van Halteren, is proud to point out that Germany is now the global leader in the field of adhesive technology.
Germany exports 670 million euros ($807 million) worth of sticky stuff every year, with a sector-wide turnover of roughly 2.7 billion euros, or 10 percent of the global market. "That includes glues, sealants, plastic film, tape, and adhesives for the construction industry," van Halteren said.
By far, the biggest German adhesives manufacturer is Henkel, also based in Düsseldorf. In its consumer adhesives sector alone, Henkel registered a 20 percent increase in turnover last year to 1,7 billion euros.
But Henkel is a giant in an industrial sector largely made up of small to medium-sized firms.
Adhesives keep modern cars from literally falling apart
"Mid-size companies play an important role," van Halteren said. "In Germany, we have around 100 manufacturers of adhesive products. The typical profile is a small or medium-sized company with an average of 50 to 60 employees."
Such companies normally work together with large makers of machinery, for example, for the beverages industry where adhesives have to be custom-produced. When such machines are sold, the adhesives industry usually wins a contract to continue supplying that particular product.
"That's one of the keys to the success of the German adhesives industry," said van Halteren.
The car manufacturing industry goes through adhesives by the kilo when assembling a modern car. Even parts of the chassis are held together by adhesives. In comparison to welding, modern adhesives have better staying power, and at the same time protect the car's body from rust.
There's also a safety aspect that should not be underestimated, says van Halteren. The next generation of adhesives, so-called "crash-resistant" adhesives, contain tiny bits of plastic.
"If a car is then involved in a rear-end collision, for example, the impact of the crash can also be absorbed by the glue, so that the way a car is damaged by the crash is totally different than, say, 15 years ago. Adhesives can now actually contribute to the safety of the driver."
Flight and medical technology
The Airbus A380 can get off the ground thanks to adhesives
The new Airbus superjumbo, the A380, is perhaps the biggest advertisement for the modern adhesives industry. In building the massive jet, engineers were concerned with keeping it extremely light for its size -- something that was essential for getting it off the ground, and keeping its fuel consumption as low as possible. The creation of key parts of the plane from special fibreglass-reinforced plastic-aluminum material made this possible. The different components of this new material, of course, have to be stuck together with an adhesive.
Another example for the many uses of modern superglues is medical technology.
"For several years now, it's been standard for parts in hip replacement therapy to be put in place using adhesives," van Halteren said.
But the current highlight of the many applications of adhesives in the medical industry is undoubtedly the invention of so-called fibrin sealant, a surgical adhesive glue. The body's own natural fibrin -- clotting protein that helps in the healing of wounds -- has been used in the creation of an adhesive that can put body parts that can't be sewn back together again.
"In neurosurgery or microsurgery, for example, surgeons are reaching less for needle and thread, and more for adhesives," said van Halteren.
No wonder then, that among German adhesive industry insiders, the 21st century is referred to as the "Jahrhundert des Klebens," or roughly, the century of glue.