• Insights

Published on December 1, 2020 by Jenny Maat

Background

RheoCube’s Merit van der Lee and ORONTEC’s Dr. Ulf Stalmach connected for a video call on the coatings industry. Both sat down for an informal chat about coatings and another very hot topic — digital transformation. They looked at the current industry standards, the impact of digital in the coming decade, and the potential that lies within the value chain.

Merit heads up the Scientific Team at RheoCube and Ulf is the Coating Companies Catalyst to Digital Transformation at ORONTEC GmbH & Co. KG. In this in-depth interview, Merit poses a few questions to Ulf, on chemical R&D, how things currently work in coatings, and the best way forward might be for the industry?

Read below for some great insights on the current state of play, where the coatings industry needs to go, and how it might get there. 

When it comes to chemical R&D, how is testing done in the coatings industry?

That in itself is a key R&D topic, and one that impacts on product development in the industry. A more scientific approach is needed for testing, because results are often very subjective. Take test methods for adhesion — cuts are made on a surface, tape is applied and then pulled off to assess damage to the surface, with a score being given. Conduct the same test three times, even with the same person, and you’ll get different results. These legacy techniques have been the norm for generations, but we should aim for more uniformity. Standard practices would deliver scientifically generated results, and a set of useful measurement points. 

We have fluctuations in the measurement methods (and sometimes the raw materials). So, it’s not surprising that there’s often a huge variation in batches of mixtures used in final products. With market changes shaking up every other industry — at least along the value chain of a product — it’s time to see how we can be more scientific about this.

What’s the status quo, how do companies in the coatings industry currently organize their R&D processes?

Currently, R&D learnings and data are spread amongst various departments in different companies. If we want to deliver for the end customer however, we need to share information throughout the industry. That’s the key to continuous improvement. 

A siloed approach

There’s a siloed approach at the moment. Experimentation is generally carried out in the R&D department, which exists as a separate entity in the organization. That reduces the connection to clients, production or other departments with insights on the customer’s needs. Even more importantly, data is often not shared organization-wide.

Even within the R&D department, data is held in individual spreadsheets, documents, or even people’s heads. If people had the right data, and the tools to visualize it, innovation could move much faster.

What’s needed is an end-to-end view of the product and its value to the customer. Erase the siloed approach and go process. Share and work in an agile way to solve problems together. 

-Dr. Ulf Stalmach

The need to share

Companies in the sector also rely heavily on information provided by raw materials suppliers — data sheets and the like, but that information can be lacking in detail. Suppliers might want to shield their product’s ingredients from competing suppliers. Coatings manufacturers may also be loath to share data on the end product. What if a supplier reveals it to a competing coatings company?

Imagine if there was more transparency along the supply chain. Researchers in coatings companies would get a deeper understanding of materials used in the final product. Suppliers would know what’s needed to make a better end product. Both parties could drive continuous improvement. Such a joint customer focus is the key to the future.

How can simulation software help?

Simulations offer huge capacity to break down the silos and reduce the number of testing cycles. They do so by deepening the understanding of how different scientific parameters interact in a material. Researchers can use simulations to understand, ask the right questions, come up with hypotheses, and verify. They help to interpret results, and show where to tweak parameters to get a mixture to work. Trial-and-error is not totally done away with, but it’s given direction and made more effective. 

If multiple teams can access and manipulate data, they can drive product innovation. People should be given the right information and be empowered to use it. A cloud-based simulation solution can help as a place to store the knowledge collected over multiple experiments. It provides a shared repository for the many learnings that reside in the researcher’s heads.

A central point of knowledge also reduces duplication of effort. If scientists can access information online, or connect to a person with the knowledge they need, there may be no need to re-do a test that’s been done before. For a given experiment they can see exactly the ingredients used before, or how a sample was prepared. Shared experiences reduce the workload for everyone.

A faster, more scientific approach

Simulations provide a more robust, scientific way of measuring things. We can combine data on materials and visualize the results. Phenomena in a formulation are seen on screen, in graph, or video format. Even non-modeling experts can see interactions at minute levels. Parameters are tweaked on screen instead of doing more physical experiments. That’s a game changer in today’s fast-moving markets.

Increased efficiency and sustainability

If R&D personnel have fixed starting points for measuring phenomena, they can spot deviations earlier and eradicate literally thousands of unnecessary lab tests. Imagine being able to see a deviation in a batch, and remove samples that exhibit a particular phenomena. Testing then only continues on the viable options, so the number of testing cycles drops dramatically. Aside from the obvious savings in lab personnel time and costly lab supplies, we can ramp up continuous improvement for the final product.

Could you describe some of the relevant physics that experimental scientists interact with for coatings?

Stability of dispersion is a good example. I measure a mixture at one point, and it’s stable. Measuring again 10 days later, it’s unstable. It transpires that base acidity is the issue. I know that, but I don’t know why. Metrics on how the chemicals interact are missing. Working like this means the chemistry behind raw materials used in products will be quite foggy. 

If we dig out those answers however, we get a base of valuable learnings and helpful data, which can be tracked over time. 

In addition, raw materials suppliers can be reluctant to divulge the chemistry behind their products, so it’s harder to build a clear picture. Even if they were to share that information, there’s a lack of understanding amongst buyers on the right questions to ask. So we are left with complex systems and limited understanding of interactions or other events that happen within them. Mixtures are created and there can be all sorts of acid based, ionic and particle shape interactions going on, yet we don’t grapple with all that valuable information. The magic phrase here is ‘transparency of data’ — this is the key. 

How can the industry overcome the barriers to digitizing R&D?

At the moment, testing is all very physical, where prototypes and finished products are used. Questions are left unanswered on experiments that went wrong. Why do certain deviations occur? Why does a particular batch exhibit certain phenomena? Why do certain interactions occur? Seeking the answers to these questions will drive innovation and continuous improvement in ways we have never seen before. 

To get there we need to look at the factors I already mentioned. Firstly, we can break down the silos between departments, companies and the value chain. Increased transparency can help coatings companies and their suppliers. Sharing data is the way forward, alongside giving people the freedom to use smart, digital tools. With a new breed of digital savvy scientists coming on stream, I believe it’s already underway. 

Every player in the coatings industry should ask themselves a question — do we wait for this or get ready now and start learning to use digital to our advantage? It’s my hope that they all jump on the bandwagon sooner rather than later. It may be painful, but the coatings industry can prevail, if it starts to act now.