• Insights

Published on April 13, 2021 by Jenny Maat

Last month, RheoCube’s Merit van der Lee and Dr. Ulf Stalmach of ORONTEC talked about attitudes to data sharing in the coatings industry. They chatted about the need to share information within organizations and along the entire value chain. 

In this follow-up discussion, Merit and Ulf discussed how coatings companies can start to build up that transparency. They looked at the kind of data that can be shared, the roadblocks that exist, and the potential wins for everyone in the sector. Read below for some very interesting insights on the coatings industry, where it is now, and how it can start to become more sustainable and data-driven.

Why would coatings companies share data with other organizations in their value chain?

As long as there is benefit from sharing that we would not otherwise get, it’s worth it. Rather than re-doing the same research individually, we could create a repository of data, from which we all benefit. Secondly, the quality of the results we get from using AI to run data increases with the number of data points available. By joining forces in this way, the entire value chain, wins with a solid base of valuable information.

In general, what kind of data can be shared?

In general, shared information should be good enough to help establish structure-property-relationships. When we can connect the chemical structure of raw materials to desired  properties in the end product, we start to see the knock-on effect of changing one thing at a time. That kind of practice is standard in pharma and plastics. Of course, regulation has driven that transparency, but it works and without hurting individual players in the industry. Think of the average SDS, we could share data on formulations, detailed enough so the properties of formulations make sense but anonymous enough not to reveal exact suppliers.

What are the quick wins?

Sustainability is one quick win. New legislation and customer needs will drive an assessment of the entire product life cycle. Data sharing will prevent duplication of effort and raw material providers can kick this off by sharing their data. Look at SDS data. It has to be processed anyway but at the moment, that’s rarely done digitally, if at all. Why not send that information in more usable format, even add some chemical data? It would show a lot of goodwill, even leadership in the sustainability sphere. It all starts with raw materials suppliers. They have the facilities to innovate, but fear that data exchange leaves them open. But really, when you look at the coatings industry in particular, the interchangeability of raw materials from different suppliers is very limited. In most cases, we are dealing with unique products, so there’s not really anything to hide.

How does it all work at the moment?

Right now if a company in the coatings industry has an issue with, for example, a formulation, the person in charge will get a proposal from the preferred supplier. That proposal however, is only good if the portfolio of that supplier matches the problem. If they offer a 60% solution, that becomes the best a coatings company can deliver – without the coatings company being aware of that value. They take it to be 100%. The main focus has to be the end customer. A simulation tool helps in discovering the optimal ingredients, so coatings companies can actively target the right mix of suppliers, and suppliers can position their own products better.

An ecosystem of shared information would make it clear who has the best ingredients or experience for different end products. Better still, if the right materials don’t exist yet, there’s a chance to innovate. We won’t get that information at such speed outside of the ecosystem. What’s worse is that we won’t explore the space of what’s not available yet. That’s a lost opportunity for all of us to future-proof our offerings.

What role do simulations play in all of this?

There’s an inherent connection between this ecosystem and simulations. Instead of working on many small islands, all of us could unite on one huge database of information, and extract data to feed into simulations. This lets us create smarter formulations and immediately see interactions between molecules. We get a fast way to visualize the outcome of changing different variables, both chemical and environmental, all on screen. That combination of robust data and powerful simulations can make a real difference. 

We can also start closing the loop by learning from failed formulations. A simulation lets you understand your ingredients properly. Maybe the shape of a particle was different to what was expected for example? There’s a lot to be gained from uniting simulation experts and the experimental community. It opens the door to data sharing on a different level.

How will a simulation tool help to keep pace with the market?

In a world of REACH certified compounds and banned lists, we will need to reformulate to prove a product’s safety to the customer – and fast. New formulations will require new raw material suppliers. At the same time we must control the cost of the end product and its environmental impact. Customer choice is another issue. Coatings companies will have to have the right product, in stock, anytime. So we have a perfect storm where manufacturing processes will change and a fast go-to-market is crucial. Doing all of this at the pace needed calls for an exponential growth in the number of people working in R&D. One year R&D cycles simply won’t be feasible. So, we need to work smarter and that’s where digital tools and automation come in. 

Are there any examples of where data sharing has worked?

This topic was raised recently at the 5th ECP. We considered the transistor, the basic building block of the IT industry. The entire value chain knows everything about it, yet everyone can make individual products, without the fear of shared knowledge. They can still differentiate – by not focusing on the transistor but what they can do with it. Another clear example is the creation of a COVID vaccine. Different parties developed a product within months instead of years – going parallel was faster.

A win-win situation is there for the taking, but there’s a fear of someone getting more share of the benefit. At the same time, when you ask people in the industry what the exact threat of sharing is, few are able to pin it down, let alone quantify it. Collaboration works. We can maintain alone, or thrive together and shared data is the key. With great knowledge comes great power. If we can remove the fear of sharing, we open a treasure trove of useful data. 

About Dr. Ulf Stalmach

Dr. Ulf Stalmach studied chemistry in Mainz, Germany, earning his Ph.D. in 1997. After a postdoctoral period in Groningen, NL, he started his coatings career in 2000, first in R&D, later setting up and implementing a controlling system for coating raw materials with an international Swiss holding. He joined ORONTEC GmbH & Co. KG in 2019, taking care of projects for process optimization and automation as well as digitalization in general in the Coatings Industry. Besides hosting the XING group “Smart Paint Factory”, Dr. Stalmach is the initiator of “Stammlack”, a virtual round table focusing on coating topics. He also moderates two round tables of the VCW, a subgroup of the German Chemical Society GDCh, actively promoting networking within the chemical community.

About RheoCube

RheoCube is a cloud-based simulation platform for complex fluids. It offers a digital, browser-based alternative to trial-and-error lab experimentation. This breakthrough solution was developed by the team at Electric Ant Lab (EAL), a VC-backed simulation software company located at Amsterdam Science Park. Founded by Dr. Eric Lorenz