I attended my second Chinacoat exhibition in November at the Pazhou Center in Guangzhou in the southern China province of Guangdong. My first visit was in 2004 at the same venue. This visit astounded me for a number of reasons. First of all was the immensity of the event. I estimated a total of over 700 companies exhibiting across nearly seven acres of floor space. The exhibition organizers tallied an attendance in excess of 23,000. To put this in perspective, the Powder Coating 2006 show held in Indianapolis had a registered attendance of just over 3,500.

It’s been over 20 years since I have felt the same energy level at a coatings show. In the air was a palpable hunger for knowledge and opportunity. Pervasive also was an undeniably youthful energy. Inquisitive coatings professionals laden with bursting show bags were scurrying from booth to booth in a quest to absorb the latest technology or business prospect.

I had an opportunity to converse with some of the leaders in the coatings field. What I learned on this trip caused me to pause. I recognize the vibrancy of the growing China market. No one can deny that China has an economy that is accelerating and outpacing the growth of any Western country. What boggles my mind is their embracement of new technology. I think that we’re all aware that all the major coatings suppliers now have multiple manufacturing sites in China. The latest trend however is the construction of R&D facilities in the Far East. DuPont has recently commissioned both a refinish technology center and a coatings technology center in Shanghai. ICI, Plc, is establishing its China Technology Center in Songjiang (near Shanghai). It is slated to open in late 2007. PPG has built an Application Support Center in Suzhou. And Sigma-Kalon just opened an R&D center in Kunshan, China. The raw material suppliers are getting into the act as well. Rohm & Haas recently commissioned its $60 million R&D center in Zhangjiang Hi Tech Park in the Pudong New Area just outside of Shanghai. DSM not long ago established a resins research and technology center in Jiangyin, Jiangsu Province. Bayer Material Sciences has been operating a R&D center in Shanghai for the last couple of years.

The reasons for investing in R&D in China are fairly easy to discern. China does offer the world’s fastest growing market potential in the chemicals and coatings industry sectors. It is only natural to locate your technical effort close to your market. This way you can keep your finger on the pulse of local needs and react to market developments as they occur. An unspoken but obvious driver has to be the human resource part of the equation. The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania reports that Chinese workers holding Ph.D.’s make one twelfth the salary of their Western counterparts.1 That’s a huge incentive to conduct research far from your traditional headquarters.

So what was new besides the trend of relocating industrial activities to the Far East? Powder coating on wood appears to have gained momentum. No less than 10 lines are successfully applying powder to medium-density fiberboard. Part of the acceptance of this new technology is the fact that a coating process may not have existed prior to the installation of the powder line. In the more mature Western markets, finishing systems that have not yet fully depreciated are still in use, hence managers are not exploring capital equipment investments.

A conference entitled, “Powder Coatings: The Way Forward”, was held the day before the exhibition opened. Speakers from around the world presented fundamental powder technology papers in Mandarin and English to a room full of eager coatings professionals. A couple of papers are of note. Dr. Ha Pham of Dow Chemical USA presented a fascinating new development of imbedding elastomeric phases into powder-grade epoxy resins. The elastomeric phase significantly improves film toughness, especially in frigid conditions. This development is expected to greatly improve the performance of functional powder coatings used to coat gas and oil pipelines.

Mr. Heiko Juckel of BYK Chemie presented the interesting development of what he calls a “solid solvent” for powder coatings. He claims this material lowers the melt viscosity of a formulated powder without depressing the glass transition temperature. Examples of powders exhibiting improved flow and leveling were presented.

Twenty-five-minute presentations were made at the “New Product Corner” of the exhibition. Multi-national raw materials suppliers pitched their latest developments to a rapt group of formulators. Cognis introduced a new associative thickener for waterborne paints. BASF gave a presentation on odorless paint and Adeka talked about a “New Excellent Reactive Emulsifier”.

A total of 40 technical seminars were presented in concurrent sessions in specially built seminar theatres. Topics covered the gambit of coatings technology from extender pigments to additives to polyisocyanates to biocides and waterborne acrylics.

Finally, two workshops were held covering the topics of “Design of Formulations – Fundamental Principles” and “Optimization of Formulations”. Both were presented by Professor Long Lin, director of the Digital Print Centre and Department of Colour and Polymer Chemistry at the University of Leeds, UK.

All in all, this enormous event left me scratching my head. Is the Western world past its industrial and technological heyday? Will the majority of innovation in the coatings arena now emanate from the Far East? Political and economics pundits will argue back and forth as to what’s in store for ours and other dynamic industries. As for me, I see the world shrinking and the need to comprehend the trends and ramifications of China’s rise a paramount assignment for all of us.