Sourcing ink and coatings raw materials from Asia is no longer a novel concept. Everybody is doing it either through their own presence in those regions or through alternative distribution channels. Even those who believe that they are not sourcing from Asia yet… probably are, since many “manufacturers” have closed production and have changed their business model to be distributors of Asian-made products.
While previously Asia was a source for only low-cost materials, many players in this region have evolved as innovative, technology-focused companies that provide products with technical advantages at competitive prices. The pigments and additives category, for one, has seen explosive growth in Asia, primarily with production in India and China.
Aakash Chemicals has been working in the industry for over 28 years, and this is by far the most exciting time to be involved in production, as new products and technologies are being introduced in Asia at the fastest rate in the last three decades. The development and availability of new additives has also helped ink and coatings manufacturers improve their own product performance.
New Additive Technologies
While large pigment producers from India and China are now household names in Europe, North America and South America, there has not been much recognition for Asian additive producers. Due to the technology and infrastructure required, Asian sources have not been strong in the additive field in the past. This has also changed rapidly. Companies in India, China, Japan and Korea have made large investments in production and R&D capabilities and are introducing new additive products to the market. Some technologies are old and were generally used for internal consumption, but new capacities have made them available for export.
More importantly, there are now hundreds of new ink and coatings additives that are equal or better in quality than what is currently offered by the European and American producers. In fact, these additives are being produced in fully automated, ISO-certified facilities in Asia that control product variation to comply within Six Sigma parameters. In many cases, these production facilities are more sophisticated than their Western competitors. They also operate with only 20% of the employees that are required by the same capacity facility in Europe (due to automation). Some of the products that have been introduced include emulsifiers and wetting agents, antisettling agents, defoamers, dispersing aids (including hyperdispersants), viscosity modifiers, lubricants, and biocides. Further, all products are available in multiple grades, depending on the ink or coating system that they are intended for. The interesting point about these various product lines is that Asian producers have invested in years of research to invent products that perform better than incumbent products. This is a very non-traditional approach and defies the stereotype that Asian producers have always been “copycats.”
Ink and coatings producers find that additive selection is difficult, especially with the large variety of products available in the market. However, special projects can also be outsourced to Asia, where in-house ink and coatings labs will review customer systems and make recommendations on what additives can help improve performance. Many multinationals have worked with Aakash Chemicals and others to help identify which additives can resolve production difficulties.
Asian dispersing aids are available in higher concentrations so that a lower dosage can be used in ink and coatings formulas, helping to manage costs. Further, these dispersing aids help reduce processing time, thereby increasing throughput for ink and coatings manufacturers. Finally, Asian producers are becoming more socially responsible, which is supported by new biocides that are also environmentally friendly.
Innovation in Pigment Production
Labor and structural cost advantages have clearly helped the Indian and Chinese pigment producers offer their products at low prices over the last several years. While these cost advantages will continue, the main factor that will enable sustained low costs is larger-scale production. Manufacturers are increasing capacity, even for commodity pigments. The large manufacturers are getting larger, either through joint ventures with Western companies or through their own investments to grow capacity based on increased demand. State-of-the-art laboratories and R&D centers have also been added with the capacity expansions. An interesting trend is that producers are creating “flexible” capacity, which will allow them to make specialized products in smaller batches tailored for specific customer systems. These capabilities have made this an excellent time for product innovation.
Aakash Chemicals has used its own R&D centers in the United States and joined forces with Asian manufacturers to help bring these new products to market. These new pigment products have been developed using non-traditional additives as surface treatments. The objective has been to help resolve major issues for ink and coatings manufacturers including flocculation, controlling viscosity and optimizing dispersion. As R&D efforts and additive innovation continue, pigment performance will continue to improve. If you think your inks and coatings look good now, you may just be surprised at how much better they can get.