On May 1, the Detroit Society for Coatings Technology hosted its annual FOCUS Conference in Troy, MI. This year’s theme was “Return On/Of Innovation.” The Return On Innovation aspect focused on what organizations get for the resources (time and money) they commit to innovation. In other words, is this more than just a trendy topic? The Return Of Innovation aspect questioned if companies are actually getting back to researching for real breakthroughs and developing innovative ideas, rather than just doing things to keep the company afloat.

The Keynote address was given by Jim deVries, Manager, Global Materials and Manufacturing Research, at Ford Motor Co. Jim spoke on innovation in the automotive industry, including future trends in vehicle lightweighting. Increasingly stringent automotive fuel economy regulations are leading to changes in the way vehicles are designed, made and used. Additionally, cars have gotten heavier over the last 10 years as manufacturers have added more materials to meet increasing safety regulations. He noted that Ford’s product development strategy has shifted from weight management to aggressive weight reduction, with a weight reduction goal of 250 to 750 pounds per vehicle.

Materials for weight reduction include advanced high-strength steels (7-10% weight savings potential), aluminum (40-50%), magnesium (50-60%) and carbon fiber/polymer composites (10-60%). However, most of these lightweight materials bring challenges associated with integrating them into current vehicle manufacturing processes as well as potentially higher costs.

There are also paint implications when lightweighting – particularly in the electrocoat bake temperatures, as well as corrosion protection systems. Current processes and systems may not provide ideal results with these newer materials. deVries concluded that there is much room for innovation in all areas of the automotive life cycle.

FOCUS also continued its tradition of holding a panel discussion with a variety of industry experts. This year, the panel consisted of Jim Charron, Vice President of Applications Development, Bayer MaterialScience; Eric Degenfelder, Vice President of Global Product Management, Axalta Coating Systems; Tim Dell, Vice President of Innovation, Eastman Chemical Co.; Dana Komin, Director of Global Automation Strategy & Execution, General Motors Co.; and Mike Pcolinski, Vice President of Innovation, BASF.

The panel discussed when to innovate. The overall consensus was that innovation can and should happen in all economic climates. We should be constantly aware of global trends and drivers – and not just those in our industry.

Another topic discussed was how we define or measure innovation. Is your product new and different – or just an incremental change to an existing product? Does it bring value? One interesting point that was mentioned is that innovation is not always about new technology. There are a lot of ways to modify existing technology to solve different problems.

 FOCUS is always a great event. Many thanks to the DSCT’s efforts in putting this conference together every year!