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Amorim Cork Research, facing the ongoing challenge to innovate

Research & Development and Innovation (R&D+I) is a strategic pillar in the leadership of Corticeira Amorim in its various segments of activity. The company, which is completely focused on improving quality, strengthens knowledge which prioritises the optimisation of processes and technologies and the development of new products and businesses.

What first began with a laboratory, specialised in the development of new products and processes, has reached such a scale that R&D+I currently involves a financial investment of 7.5 million Euros/year and a lot more in state-of-the art technology and exclusive production processes. The challenge to differentiate by quality has led to the discovery of new and unexpected applications for cork and a portfolio that is unparalleled in the sector.

In this field - and in addition to the R&D+ I competences underpinned in all its Business Units - Amorim has a decisive comprehensive and autonomous structure, Amorim Cork Research, which promotes the development of R&D activities.

This business unit of Corticeira Amorim focuses on researching new applications for cork and its components, and increasing processes, with the purpose of achieving excellence in the quality and in the full range of solutions that the company delivers to the market.

It is through Amorim Cork Research that some of the most challenging and unpredictable cork researches are made, being thus responsible for the improvement and enlargement of the cork application field.

The commitment to R&D+I has led to new patents being filed related to processes and products, and Amorim Cork Research is the central structure in which the main guidelines of the research and development activities are defined. Under this business unit, the intellectual property rights of Corticeira Amorim are also protected.


Raw Materials, where it all begins

Although it is not a forest owner, Corticeira Amorim is dedicated to the discovery, assessment and implementation of the best practices related to the cork oak forest. Through the R&D department of the Raw Materials BU, it develops studies on the cultivation of cork oaks to the various cork harvests, as well as the control of pests and diseases associated with this tree.

With the goal of contributing to the vitality of the cork oak forest and of ensuring the quality of by-products, it fosters a strict collaboration with internal and external research teams, among which are acclaimed universities and institutes linked to agriculture and forestry.

An example is a joint project with the Department of Biology of the University of Aveiro to simulate the growth of cork oaks in environments contaminated with 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), the main cause of the so-called «cork taint» in the wine. The goal is to assess the absorption/accumulation of this compound in the cork.

As the largest producer and supplier of cork stoppers worldwide, Corticeira Amorim considers research and the improvement of processes to eradicate unpleasant flavours associated with the cork stopper to be of the utmost importance.

The company has been dedicated to researching the development of TCA and creating solutions for its elimination for decades. As a result, it was one of the first players in the sector to successfully apply preventive processes against the contamination of cork by this compound - which starts from a better selection and storage of the planks to the investment of millions of Euros in exclusive, completely innovative state-of-the-art technology.

In this context, Corticeira Amorim holds various patents for preventive and corrective processes, such as the CONVEX, ROSA and INOS cleaning systems, which are constantly evolving and have revolutionised the treatment methods of the cork for stoppers. Thanks to the implementation of preventive and corrective measures, resulting from intensive R&D+I, today, releasable TCA levels in Corticeira Amorim cork stoppers are undetectable.

Cork Stoppers: A passion for wine

Product innovation, the improvement of the quality of the cork stoppers and the increase in knowledge on the interaction of the cork stopper with wine have been the focus of attention of the R&D+I department of the Cork Stoppers BU. Research and development provide a better understanding of the properties of cork and its effectiveness as a closure for wines. It also generates more innovation.

Some of the most recent projects include, for example:

  • the study on the contribution of the cork stopper to the counterfeiting of premium wines;
  • the study of new quality criteria in natural cork stoppers, which aims to find, through the internal imaging of cork stoppers, a clear understanding of their performance in the bottle;
  • the optimisation of new types of stoppers;
  • the development of a new washing system for natural cork stoppers with significant improvements in terms of visual quality.

All the research work is carried out in parallel with the strict ongoing control of the quality of the cork stoppers produced. Around sixteen thousand samples with a high degree of accuracy pass through the Amorim laboratories every month - a number which is higher than any other company in the sector, in any part of the world. To do so, Corticeira Amorim has eleven high precision machines which carry out the quality control of the cork stoppers on a molecular level, and the use of a detailed analysis system by GC - Gas Chromatography. As a result of its speed and degree of reliability, the GC system is extensively used in medicine, pharmacology, the environment and even by the world's best police forces.

In the specific case of the Cork Stoppers BU, in addition to informing whether the batches analysed are problematic or not, this highly efficient equipment gauges the quantity of TCA present, when this is the case. This means that it is a tool which allows the TCA to be managed as well as gauged, which is of significant added value in terms of the sensory quality assurance of the cork stoppers. The results are excellent in minimising the compounds which cause the wine to have strange aromas and in terms of client satisfaction.

Floor and Wall Coverings: Leadership in innovation

In the case of Amorim Revestimentos (Floor & Wall Coverings Business Unit), the significant investment in R&D has resulted in new technological solutions and in a recognized pioneer attitude in terms of the development of collections and renewed looks.

One of the most surprising novelties is the Wicanders Artcomfort collection, which revolutionises the traditional concept of cork flooring. This new solution is the result of exclusive state-of-the-art digital printing technology, which replicates colours, nuances, grains and textures onto the cork surface with a high level of detail which until now had seemed impossible to achieve. As a result of this innovation, it is now possible to replicate any type of design onto the cork, or even to create customised solutions.

In the context of the application systems for cork flooring, the solutions developed are equally distinguishing. One of the most recent examples is the Fastconnect system, which is very easy to install and unrestricted in terms of the underlay. The tiles are interconnected by overlapping, ensuring the same acoustic performance and characteristics of glue-down flooring. A unique solution in the market.

The focus of R&D in this business unit is also geared towards identifying processes which shall enable cork flooring to be recommended for heavy foot traffic areas, whether by the ongoing development of new varnishes, through the incorporation of other materials or the combination of natural products.

Composite Cork: a universal reference

Technological research and the ongoing investment in innovation have made the Composite Cork BU a success story, when it comes to increasing the possibilities of cork. The strategy to combine Research & Development to highly qualified engineering processes has given rise to new products and new applications for cork-based composite materials.

Part of the effort in R&D is applied to the challenge to technologically reinforce cork's natural characteristics, through maximising the use of natural raw materials and/or produced from biomass. New resins and manufacturing technologies for such products and solutions are also developed, which are completely distinctive.

The challenge to innovate in the Composite Cork BU has enabled cooperation programmes to be developed with universities, partnerships, and projects in a consortium. A noteworthy example is the AEROFAST project, in the context of which this BU developed a new material for the thermal shields of spacecraft with a view to a future unmanned mission to Mars.

The project was managed by EADS/Astrium and had strict requirements in regard to the thermal protection of cork. The Cork Composites BU's task was to study and develop a cork-based protection system which was innovative and resistant, as well as new resins and high heat resistant surface treatments. The project's success is the guarantee of the continuity of the use of cork in space missions in the 21st century, as shown by the recent successes in the launch of the Delta IV rocket, one of the most advanced by Boeing, and Vega, the most recent rocket by the ESA - European Space Agency, which both feature Corticeira Amorim materials.

In land transport, the work on important innovation projects has been remarkable, examples of which include Inspiro, the new surface metro by Siemens, and EcoTrain, the eco-efficient train. Within the sphere of future transport, examples to note are the intervention in concepts such as the IBUS, ISEAT and Life projects – the latter the winner of the international «Crystal Cabin Awards 2012».

In the construction sector, this BU conducted the Wallinblock research project, an innovative modular structure, based on agglomerated cork. This solution aims to build walls without concrete pillars, by using pioneering structural technology and the incorporation of cork and other natural materials. Also in this sector, another solution – CORKwall – enabled the Cork Composites BU to win the Tektónica Innovation Award, the recognition of the possibilities for the rehabilitation of facades, combining insulation functions and final finish in the same product.

The investment in R&D+I enables solutions with cork to be increasingly wide-ranging and surprising. In sport, for example, new systems with cork granulate on synthetic grass pitches contribute to making artificial grass more identical to natural grass, thus increasing its performance. In high level equestrian competition, inserted into the horseshoes, it reduces the impact from jumps and increases performance. This also happens in surfboards and other water sports.

Insulation Cork: innovation on behalf of the environment

The Research & Development of the Insulation BU has led to important advances in the quality plan and new applications for its main product - expanded cork agglomerate which was used in the construction of the Portuguese Pavilions in Hanover and Shanghai, for example. The R&D+I work is based on the challenge to create environment-friendly products, manufactured industrially without using additives, with lower energy consumption.

As a result, expanded cork agglomerate was recently recognised as one of the most innovative products for sustainable construction and included in the BuildingGreen Top-10 Products for 2013.

Whether in the context of eco-efficient projects or in traditional construction, the commitment to R&D+I leads to distinguishing solutions which pave the way for the application of cork in all types of construction projects. Today, expanded cork agglomerate is a product with possibilities that range from supporting beams to thermal and acoustic insulation, from the more traditional to the specialised - such as acoustic insulation against aircraft or percussive noise.

From the range of activities of the R&D of this Business Unit, the research with a view to the evolution of the product MDFachada must be highlighted, which was developed as a finish for exterior walls. This solution enables all the natural characteristics of expanded cork agglomerate to be enjoyed, including its natural appearance. The most recent innovation under way is the possibility to present various design options for this product, it being likely that the trend shall be towards innovative formats.

Recent attention has been focused on some of the most pioneering and exciting projects, such as the use of expanded cork agglomerate in the development of pieces of furniture for the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion.