From farm animal to fashion product
LANXESS is training two young people to become qualified leather manufacturers and tanning technologists
This August hundreds of thousands of young people in Germany left school and embarked on their careers. 140 of them have now begun vocational training at the specialty chemicals company LANXESS. They include Felix Wengenroth and Nils Zegelski, who have opted to learn a trade that has a long tradition, but has now drifted somewhat out of the public eye. 21-year-old Wengenroth reports that many of his friends have expressed surprise that the career he has chosen still exists and asked, “Is it not smelly? And is it not toxic?”
Wengenroth is training to become a tanner, or, as it is now known, a “leather manufacturing and tanning technology specialist.” Tanners process animal skins into leather for use in the shoe and clothing, furniture and automotive industries, for example. “Tanners need to be creative and good with their hands. Animal skins are a material just like wood. It is a technical profession that requires a knowledge of chemistry, machinery and also biology – for example, tanners need to know about the composition of the connective tissue,” explains Dr. Dietrich Tegtmeyer, head of Innovation in LANXESS’s Leather business unit.
Leather in his genes
Tanning trainees are few and far between in Germany. Each year, around 20 young people begin the three-year apprenticeship, for which a good junior high school leaving certificate is required. The central vocational college for all trainees is in Reutlingen, where instruction is given in blocks of several weeks at a time. “I postponed my studies in order to become a tanner,” says Felix Wengenroth, who was born into a tanning family. “Both my grandfather and my father are tanners, so leather has always been a part of my life.” What attracted 20-year-old Nils Zegelski to tanning was its uniqueness. “I want to learn a trade that is a bit out of the ordinary. After all, there is something very special about turning a waste product into a premium product such as suede for luxurious handbags.”
A waste product? Yes, that’s right. The hides come from the food industry. No cow is killed just for its hide. The meat is processed in meat markets and the raw hides are sent to tanneries. “Native German cows have better-quality hides than Indian zebu cattle, for example. As a rule they have fewer insect bites and other injuries,” remarks Tegtmeyer. Industrial standards for leather production in Germany and Europe are very high. Modern leather production is a high-tech operation that bears little relation to the general perception of the industry.
From hide to leather
The process from the animal skin to the finished leather can be divided roughly into two major stages – the tanning and the finishing. A fresh animal skin is still covered in hairs. Leather is not. The first step, therefore, is to remove the hairs gently and biologically. The actual tannage is carried out with modern auxiliaries such as chrome and metal salts. Tanning materials and tanning auxiliaries link together the many loose collagen fibers in the hide and in this way transform the perishable starting material into a non-putrefying, water-resistant, elastic and supple end product.
However, the tannage is by no means the end of the process. The second stage is the finishing, which consists of a series of individual operations designed to improve the appearance and quality of the leather and make it into the material that we all know – and not just from fashion magazines. During the finishing process, base coats and lacquer coats are applied and the leather is stretched to make it elastic and supple. It is also buffed to remove surface defects. However, the most important step in the eyes of many finishers is the application of special coatings that lie on the leather like a second skin. These coatings are designed to impart luster, color and a pleasant feel and in some cases make the leather downright indestructible. Other coatings even out pinholes and scars caused by insect bites or barbed wire.
At its Leverkusen site, LANXESS has a research and development pilot plant in which some 60 people are employed. It includes a small-scale tannery where all the different stages of the manufacturing process, from the salted raw cattle hide to the finished leather, can be carried out just like in a full-scale tannery. LANXESS supplies its customers with a wide range of leather chemicals from tanning salts to finishing agents. These products are tested in the pilot plant and customers can see for themselves how the chemicals are used under normal service conditions and whether they meet their requirements. Customers can also ask LANXESS for help with solving leather problems. LANXESS’s experts collaborate closely with fashion designers in Italy, for example, and the appropriate products are then developed in the pilot plant in line with the latest trends.
Tanning traineeships at LANXESS
Wengenroth and Zegelski are trained at LANXESS by leather technologist Kai Burger, who himself completed his vocational training at the specialty chemicals company. He is supported by Susanne Döppert from Product Development.
LANXESS offers two traineeships for tanners every year. Anyone interested in applying to start in 2016 can find out more by going to www.career.lanxess.com.