By Ram Ramnath, Vice President, Powder Coatings, Jotun
The Big Trends
What could be the biggest opportunities, for any business, in the world that we inhabit? At first glance, this might seem a very generalized question…but it is still worth asking! First, whatever your business, the potential to move it into a ‘cleaner and greener’ space is a top-of-the-mind issue for all stakeholders. Just a cursory look at the direction in which industries are moving - be it energy or transportation; building materials or home appliances – should be enough to convince even the most sceptical, that technologies for a cleaner and greener, lower-carbon-footprint world will be a key differentiator. Renewable energy is well on its way to replace fossil fuels; just as electric cars are well on their way to disrupt the internal combustion engine.
This clear trend is further strengthened, thanks to the rise of social media. The idea that everyone needs to do their bit to achieve a cleaner and greener world is at once noble as it is powerful, for what could be more important to ensure the survival of the human race? And this is the simple, yet powerful idea that is getting well entrenched in the popular imagination, thanks to social media. It is true that nobody can stop an idea whose time has come … but it needs the power of social media to spread the good word efficiently!
The ‘Green Champion’ of the Paints Industry
The paint industry is no exception to this trend. The environmental concerns from solvents and volatile organic content (VOC) in paints are well documented. Much R&D spending in this industry has been directed at finding friendlier alternatives. In this respect, powder coating is clearly the ‘green champion’ of the paints and coatings industry. With no solvents at all and almost no VOCs either, it is no surprise that powder coatings were swiftly adopted as the technology of choice for the factory-applied finishing on metal components for myriad industries. Sustained R&D efforts are helping to spread the use of powder coating beyond their ‘conventional’ applications, and it is fair to say that powder coatings stand on the threshold of exciting new breakthroughs – not only displacing the old technologies but also opening new frontiers by being able to coat thick steel components and even non-metal substrates.
It is an unfortunate fact that finishing technologies still exist that can by no means be called environment friendly. Chrome plating is a good example of a harmful finishing technology that deserves to be made obsolete, the sooner the better. The harmful effects on human health, including the carcinogenic consequences of chrome usage, are very well documented. Anodizing is another such finishing technology – indeed, a relic from a previous era. Not only does it need a full complement of not-so-friendly chemicals in multiple baths (in a typical anodizing plant), it also consumes an inordinate amount of water and electricity – surely, not the sort of technology that can lead us to a cleaner and greener future.
The point I’m trying to make is that R&D in powder coatings has advanced well in recent years to give the world credible alternatives to chrome plating and anodizing. We need to do more to make specifiers and designers aware of this and that they do their bit; and together we can nudge the world towards a safer, cleaner and healthier future that we can be proud of.
More recent developments in powder coating technology have also led to successful application on non-metal components such as Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) and wood substrates. This is an extremely significant milestone – signalling powder’s capability to replace millions of litres of solvent-based paints.
Given such spectacular developments, what then are the challenges for more rapid adoption of powder technologies?
The key challenge as I see it is that the industry needs to continue investing in high-quality R&D, technical and marketing resources to ‘close the circle’, in a manner of speaking, to remove several obstacles, both major and minor, that come in the way of successfully adopting powder in complex and challenging applications. It is also equally important to gain accurate insights of customers’ needs and complexities to ensure that powder coatings can smoothly take over. In many cases, user industries will need to invest to switch to powder coatings – for which powder coating manufacturers need to prepare a compelling case.
Commercially, we feel extremely challenged by the price versus cost dynamics of the industry. It is fair to say that the true ‘value’ of powder coatings has not always been well understood and, as an industry, we have not been good at communicating the true value of powder coating solutions. Another reason for this could be the fragmented nature of the industry. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that powder manufacturers are very vulnerable to rising raw material costs during commodity price upturns, as being witnessed currently. In the last 12 months or so, we have faced a tsunami of increasing raw material costs by nearly 25%. And it shows no sign of easing; in fact, there are indications of further increases in the coming months. There are many reasons for this, including a sharp rise in the prices of titanium dioxide following a wave of industry consolidation and upturn in the prices of feedstocks for polyester and epoxy resins. On the supply side, the closure of many chemical factories in China following stricter implementation of environmental norms has also contributed to the increase in our input costs.
It is important for us to increase our price levels to adjust to the new situation. Indeed, successful industries are those that deliver the true value of their solutions to customers, whilst also managing their profitability, especially in difficult times, to sustain investment to create the future. This is vital, to ensure that the powder coatings industry remains healthy and can deliver its potential towards building a cleaner and greener future for the paints and coatings industry.