Issue Date: June 2, 2008
Tidying Up Paint
THE ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN has taken its toll on U.S. paint makers. With fewer cars and trucks being built and fewer new buildings under construction, the number of gallons of paint sold in 2007 didn't budge from the year before. And that's not all. Paint makers are also plagued with high raw material costs, increasing energy prices, and ever more stringent environmental regulations.
Those problems are enough to make paint companies wince. Government statistics show that the 900 or so U.S. paint makers sold $20.1 billion worth of paints last year, up 4% from 2006 but almost flat when inflation is taken into account. Paint makers also shipped roughly the same number of gallons in 2007—1.3 billion—as they did in 2006. Operating margins in the first quarter of this year for paint makers such as Valspar and PPG Industries are down from the year-earlier period. Raw material suppliers from the chemical industry say that they sympathize and that they can ease some of the suffering.
Producers of resins, surfactants, dispersants, and preservatives say they've developed new materials, often with "green" chemistry, to meet government regulations. They can also provide formulations expertise and marketing help. And although these chemical companies can't stem energy and raw material price increases, they say they can offset some of the sting with ingredients that enhance performance and productivity.
The 20 largest paint makers, including PPG, DuPont, and AkzoNobel, control more than 80% of the paint market and have their own formulations know-how. While the 880 smaller paint makers have their own expertise, proficiency working with new materials often rests with the big raw material suppliers, according to Phil G. Phillips, managing director of Chemark Consulting Group. Only in recent years are these smaller paint firms learning to accept help from their suppliers.
A number of those suppliers, such as Dow Chemical, BASF, Air Products & Chemicals, and Rohm and Haas, always listened to the needs of the formulators. But now they have started to develop paint materials by also going around the formulators to end users and then coming back to them with improved formulated coating suggestions that use their product. "Formulators used to get mad," Phillips says, but now the formulators and material suppliers benefit by sharing their knowledge.
Many paint makers have been so stressed just reformulating their products to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are precursors of atmospheric smog, that they can miss the opportunity to design-in paint performance improvements, Phillips says. Meeting the price points their customers expect to pay has also been a major concern, he says.
Large retailers such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart have a great deal of influence on the prices consumers pay for architectural paint, the largest segment of the paint market, points out George Hamilton, president of Dow's $2.5 billion-per-year coating solutions business. Formulators need "to meet both cost and performance demands with chemistry-enabled solutions," he says.
DOW LAUNCHED the coating solutions business in January to coordinate paint-related research, marketing, and sales that were dispersed throughout the company. Hamilton says the unit has a number of research projects under way to help paint makers.
Chris Miller, Dow's director of research for architectural coatings, says the company has projects in "superhydrophobic" coatings that shed water and dirt. It is looking into self-cleaning surface finishes that could, for instance, harness the catalytic abilities of titanium dioxide to break down dirt under exposure to ultraviolet light.
Dow has also adopted high-throughput techniques typical of pharmaceutical research to rapidly evaluate new coatings formulations for customers, says Wendy Hoenig, vice president of R&D for Dow's coatings business. The equipment, developed through an agreement between Dow and high-throughput experimentation specialist Symyx, "decreases our product development time," she says.
Dow is not the only paint material supplier turning to specialized equipment to develop customer formulations. Last year, in a partnership with robotics maker Robert Bosch, BASF started up a high-throughput unit specifically designed for testing coatings.
Depending on the complexity of the coating, the unit can formulate, apply, cure, and test from start to finish anywhere from 20 to 100 coating samples, in a 24-hour period entirely without human intervention, says Nick Gruber, BASF resins innovation manager. Installed at his lab in Ludwigshafen, Germany, the machine covers an area about the size of a decent-sized yacht.
According to Gruber, some kinks had to be worked out to efficiently operate the sophisticated machine, which is only a prototype at this point. Some formulations, for instance, have a shorter application and cure window than others. Operators had to learn how to schedule tests so they could progress through formulation and curing stages without interruptions that could compromise test results and data reproducibility.
The machine won't replace the skilled technician who can tailor-make a customer formula, Gruber says. But it has shown itself capable of supporting classical lab experimentation.
LIKE DOW AND BASF, Celanese also closely monitors the needs of its customers. "Formulators are up against lower VOC limits, compatibility problems, and a host of functional requirements," says Craig Mitchell, marketing manager for Celanese's emulsion polymers.
The firm is bringing out a new line of vinyl acetate ethylene emulsions under the EcoVAE name that will allow paint makers to produce low- or no-VOC paints with low odor, good scrub resistance, and good substrate adhesion. In addition, paint makers that use the new emulsion can sport "green" labels from organizations such as GreenSeal that certify the environmental friendliness of a coating.
Celanese also has its eye on better performing polymers. Last year, the company introduced hybrid emulsion technology, dubbed the Celvolit Nanotechnology platform, built on silicon dioxide and an acrylic polymer. Mitchell says the two ingredients link chemically to "provide a homogenous nano-scaled distribution throughout the film," with improved exterior weatherability and dirt pickup resistance.
Polymer maker Reichhold Industries says it, too, understands its customers' needs. After nearly three years of work, it recently brought out the Beckosol AQ line of soybean-oil-based latex alkyd emulsions, which can be used to meet even the strict California limit of 50 g of VOCs per L for interior coatings. In fact, says Tony Rende, business management director, the firm expects to extend what it refers to as zero-VOC technology to other alkyd and oil-modified urethane resin systems it sells to customers.
Paint makers can formulate a high-gloss, water clean-up paint with less than 15 g of VOCs per L, Rende points out. What makes this alkyd latex possible, he says, is a bit of manufacturing finesse and a surfactant system that yields a stable alkyd latex emulsion with VOC content of only 2 g per L.
Coatings additives maker Air Products has also been working to relieve the VOC headaches of paint makers. Laurie Marshall, performance solutions marketing manager for the firm, says paint makers are even scrutinizing the relatively small quantities of additives they use. A recently introduced low-VOC coalescing surfactant, EnviroGem 360, can replace high-VOC coalescing solvents, she says. Two new epoxy curing agents, Anquamine 721 and 731, contain no VOCs and make possible zero-VOC concrete primers and paints.
Meanwhile, for polyurethane coatings ingredients specialist Baxenden Chemicals of Lancashire, England, a technology pioneered in the 1970s for its energy-savings potential is back in vogue again.
The Chemtura-owned business originally developed dimethyl pyrazole (DMP)-based isocyanate blocking technology for oven-cured polyurethane coatings on continuous metal coils. Using DMP allows the isocyanate component to cross-link at 40 °C lower than with traditional methyl ethyl ketoxime blockers, says John Simpson, the firm's group commercial manager. But almost as soon as it became a commercial reality more than 35 years ago, energy prices dropped. Baxenden resorted to selling DMP as a productivity-enhancing ingredient but now is touting its cost-saving potential again.
A FEW SMALL COMPANIES have developed novel performance-enhancing ingredients with a green pedigree to help coatings companies looking for a marketing edge. Hybrid Plastics, based in Hattiesburg, Miss., can supply paint makers with an additive it identifies as polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane (POSS), a water-soluble molecule with the characteristics of a nanoparticle. Company President Joe Lichtenhan developed POSS in an Air Force lab and licensed it in 1998 to start Hybrid Plastics. POSS, he says, can be used to create nonporous coatings that are scratch resistant and hydrophobic. It can even be formulated into an ice-resistant coating for aircraft.
More than five years ago, another small firm, Austin, Texas-based Reactive Surfaces, developed an enzyme additive for paints that is capable of rendering organophosphorus chemical warfare agents inert. More recently, CEO Ulf C. Becker says, the firm developed a safe natural peptide-based biocide. Called ProteCoat, Becker says it will be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency by the end of 2009 for use as both an in-can and dry paint preservative.
Paint makers are a beleaguered lot these days, what with high energy and raw material costs, slower sales, and sagging profits. But with a toolbox of environmentally compliant resins, novel additives, and performance-enhancing raw materials from their chemical industry partners, they can tidy up their act and position themselves for better times ahead.
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