The American Coatings Show and Conference takes place from April 7th to 10th in Atlanta. I shall be walking the halls of the exhibition on the hunt for exciting new technical innovations that progress the sustainable development of the coatings industry. If the Nuremburg exhibition of a year ago is anything to go by, innovations by the speciality chemical and coatings industries will focus on the use of renewable raw materials and the prospect of functionality enhancements for coating formulations.

However, I am picking up concerns about the rate of progress. There are those who believe that the coatings sector is relying too heavily on its upstream suppliers to create the next generation of formulations and that it should invest more in technical innovation to drive business growth.

At an ICIS Chemicals and Coatings conference in Holland a few months ago, Thomas Rings of AT Kearney reviewed the intensity of investment in R&D by the coatings industry  (2.1% of sales revenue) and compared this performance with that of the speciality chemical industry (3.5% of sales revenue). While recognising that this measure of R&D effectiveness is not necessarily ideal, there is a view shared by many that the majority of investment in R&D made by the coatings industry is being spent on defensive projects aimed at meeting existing regulations. In comparison, the specialty chemicals industry, while having to cope with its own burden of new regulations, appears to be devoting considerably more funds to the kind of innovative new materials development that would lead to improved product sustainability.

AT Kearney shares this blog’s view that innovation is key to future competitiveness and sustainable growth, and offers some critical questions that all coatings companies need to consider.

  • Are R&D expenditures at the right level to drive growth?
  • Are R&D efforts balanced between “defensive” and growth-oriented?
  • Are R&D efforts focused on product/market segments with sufficient scale?

R&D, like all other functions in a business, needs targets to work towards, and one of the challenges that are continually faced by both the specialty chemical and coatings industries is to fully understand what ‘good’ looks like. Better still, one needs to know how to measure ‘goodness’ because, as they say, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

There are a number of organisations around the world that are endeavouring to put some order into the measurement of sustainability. The most challenging ones are trying to come up with a consistent approach that looks at the whole life cycle from cradle to grave. It is this kind of approach that can best be used to make objective comparisons between products and systems, and hence provide a clear steer to R&D on the most sustainable ways forward.

The European Union has recognised this issue and is sponsoring a major programme of research to develop and validate a way of making objective comparisons between competing products and systems in terms of sustainability. Through its Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) project, it has developed its own LCA methodology which, it claims, is much tighter in terms of definitions than some, far less open to interpretation than many, simple enough to be exploited by companies big and small, and relevant to all industry sectors.

There will be a number of industry pilot studies within the PEF programme over the next three years, and the Decorative Sector of the coatings industry has been selected to be one of the first batch. The programme will be led by CEPE, the Europe-wide coatings industry association.

The call for an international ‘level playing field’ is often heard when it comes to new performance measures. The European Union is addressing this need by sharing its ideas, results and conclusions with agencies in the USA, Japan and China, amongst others. I understand that the American Coatings Association (ACA) is liaising with CEPE on the coatings pilot programme.

To whet your appetite, this may be the way forward that helps us answer, once and for all, some of the critical formulation questions for the coatings industry such as:

  • Was the industry right to switch from solvent-based to waterborne coatings in decorative applications?
  • Are powder coatings more sustainable than solvent or waterborne coatings as they are currently claimed? If so, in what applications?
  • Does reducing TiO2 content in paint formulations lead to an overall reduction in environmental impact across the whole life cycle?
  • Do the pigments in highly reflective coatings have a high environmental footprint in manufacture that negates the energy saving benefits they offer in construction applications?

In the meantime, I’ll carry on looking for those new ideas that expand the sustainable envelope in which the coatings Industry can formulate its products and, thereby, ease its path towards the target of becoming a totally sustainable industry.

 May see you in Atlanta!