Rad-Cure & UV Coatings

By Mike Agosta | August 10, 2005

Rad-cure coatings makers are finding that in a slow economy, it's even harder to convince customers to invest in more expensive technology - even if it will save them money in the long run.

Growth in most industries has been hard to come by the past year. The coatings industry hasn't been immune to the effects of a down economy hindered by fears of war, terrorism and general uncertainty about the world around us. As coatings makers and their customers have struggled to break even in many cases, major capital investment isn't an idea many are willing to entertain. This reluctance has slowed the growth of one of the industry's most promising technologies-radiation-cure coatings.

"UV and electron beam coatings technology have a wide application to many industries, with growth depending on the health as well as innovation and productivity trends in that particular industry," said Gary Cohen, executive director, RadTech North America, the association for the advancement of ultraviolet and electron beam (UV & EB) technology.

DynaSeal, BASF's dual-cure sealer coating, is the first UV coating to be used in the Class A (exterior) automotive market.
Unfortunately for makers of UV coatings, many industries aren't doing well enough to support significant growth in UV. "Market growth has been stunted past year due to a lack of capital investment," said Don Hart, technical sales manager, R&D Coatings. "If don't have the necessary equipment right now you're reluctant to invest the money."

Peter Frese, a chemist for the strategic research group of DuPont Performance Chemicals, agreed, stating that, "In times where the economy goes down, the initial investments are sometimes a hurdle."

That sentiment was echoed by T.J. Lepkowski, product marketing manager at BASF. His company has been working to spread the use of UV in the automotive industry. "One of roadblocks we've hit is that there is a lot of thermal curing equipment, which requires no need for capital investment. "UV lamps are expensive and not often found in plants. It costs money to put in lights, and in a down economy there's less desire to spend that sort of money. We'll probably see more growth as people consider UV during upgrades."

The fact that so many companies aren't willing to invest in UV coatings technology is interesting, because according to many of the industry insiders Coatings World spoke with, embracing the benefits of UV coatings can benefit the bottom line.

"It's true that using UV/EB coatings means that a facility is using a state-of-the-art system that is completely different from traditional processes and thus, costs money to implement," said Mr. Cohen. However, he stressed that UV offers an array of benefits that other methods of coatings can't match. RadTech calls this superiority "e5." "This corresponds to the fact that UV and EB are efficient, enabling, economical, energy savings and environmentally friendly. Beyond this, users say they switched to UV to cut down on waste, save floor space, obtain a better finish, and the list seems to go on," Mr. Cohen added.

Though not so ubiquitous as standard waterborne or solventborne coatings, UV is making its mark. The cabinet industry and the hardwood flooring industry utilize UV for almost 90% of their coatings needs, estimated Mr. Hart of R&D Coatings, which makes UV and EB coatings for the wood, metal and plastics industries. Companies such as BASF and DuPont are now making inroads into the automotive market as well.

It's the Cost That Counts
Even with the list of uses and potential uses growing longer by the day, a number of potential customers still tend to focus solely price. Because using UV coatings means using an entirely different system for curing, new production lines involving the UV or EB curing apparatus must be installed in manufacturing plants, costing $200,000 or more. However, the price of this equipment has dropped considerably over the past few years, and signs indicate that this is expected to continue. "Relative costs really should not be a concern as the cost of equipment has dropped significantly in the past couple years and the operational costs for UV/EB are typically lower than with other systems," said Mr. Cohen. "We need to look at the overall costs in terms of the amount of materials used, waste, speed, and other efficiency gains by shifting to UV/EB. This process involves a fundamental shift from the need to operate huge ovens and potentially install costly control devices to setting up a compact UV or EB unit and rapidly moving substrates through the process."

Mr. Lepkowski said that though initial costs for UV may seem more expensive, the cost benefits of UV coatings come from other areas. "If you want to look at it from cost standpoint," he said, "pound for pound it's more expensive. But by looking at a total cost standpoint, at productivity and quality costs, you can see some of the unique benefits UV can provide-shorter cure times meaning a smaller footprint in the factory and thus, lower real estate costs."

R&D Coatings is also promoting another benefit of this technology. Because UV coatings cure only when exposed to UV light, unused portions can be reclaimed and reused. Using this knowledge, R&D Coatings performed a cost analysis with conventional spray products, which found that UV is cheaper per square foot.

Cost savings continue to be found when further examining the UV coating process. Most coatings manufacturers agreed that the major force behind UV coatings technology's growth is speed. UV allows coatings to be cured with a speed and ease not seen in any other type of coating technology. The result is increased production.

"I would say the major driver has been the speed of processing," said Mr. Lepkowski. "UV can cure a coating in seconds, compared to maybe a half hour bake time in a thermal oven."

Mr. Cohen agreed that the speed benefits of UV are a great asset. "The real driver for UV and EB is the speed, and from that the associated productivity and cost savings," he said.

In addition to the increased speed possible with UV, the quality of the end product is often increased as well. "The rad-cure concept works with a different chemistry than other coatings types that allows us to cure at room temperature, as opposed to the higher temperatures necessary for bake ovens," said Dieter Engel, vice president of global technology, DuPont Performance Coatings. "Because we can cure UV at room temperature, we are able to show performance advantages because temperatures that would in the past lead to negative quality impacts are no longer necessary."

Mr. Lepkowski said that DynaSeal, BASF's dual-cure sealer coat for sheet molded composite (SMC), has reduced quality and defect problems on bumpers for Ford F150 trucks by 70%. With DynaSeal, a thinner coat is needed on the substrate, meaning a savings in the amount of coating material used per finished piece. The sealer essentially eliminates outgassing on a quality substrate.

The wood coatings market also has seen strong quality enhancement as a result of UV. "Durability as far as scratch-, chemical- and water-resistance is a driving factor," said Mr. Hart of R&D Coatings. According to Mr. Hart, there are now specs for stain and chemical resistance that simply didn't exist before UV coatings.

This level of quality, he hopes, will help save the U.S. wood furniture market from an onslaught of cheaper furniture flooding the markets from Asia. Currently, he said, the U.S. market is seeing yearly increases in imports from Far Eastern furniture makers in the range of 100%. "We are seeing such heavy competition from the Far East. In the U.S., they are trying to use durability to get back in the game," Mr. Hart said.

And It's Eco-Friendly Too
Surprising as it sounds, making a product faster and making it better isn't enough in today's world. In the coatings industry, as in all industries, environmental impact plays a role in every decision made. Much like waterborne and powder coatings, UV coatings are very environmentally sound, which remains a strong selling point.

"We have seen interest from companies and industries seeking 'eco-efficient' processing opportunities, such as the automotive and aerospace markets," said Mr. Cohen. "One very important thing to recognize is that this technology offers nearly a complete package of environmental benefits. UV/EB offers near zero VOC and HAP emissions. In addition, other processes that involve a bake cycle or pollution control equipment may emit harmful compounds such as CO2. With UV and EB there are no greenhouse gases emitted."

A recent report by the San Joaquin Valley, CA Air Pollution Control District concluded that UV/EB processes are more cost effective than add-on pollution control devices. According to Mr. Cohen, for a certain application, the "cost effectiveness of a UV/EB system is $1,050 per ton of VOC reduced. In contrast, the cost effectiveness of an incinerator system was $2,900 per ton of VOC reduced."

Mr. Engel believes that UV/EB's environmental benefits will continue to gain in importance as world regulations tighten. "This technology will grow as environmental regulations become more stringent," he said. "We are seeing lamps today that we couldn't even conceive of years ago. This technology will only improve in efficiency."

What's in Store?
Despite the many benefits of UV coatings, most industry insiders are expecting slow growth this year. "This will probably be a small growth year for us," said Mr. Lepkowski. But coatings makers sense that this technology will continue to grow, and will continue to become a larger portion of many coatings makers' businesses.

"As costs have come down and more and more suppliers enter the industry, excitement about UV and EB technology is accelerating," said Mr. Cohen.

DuPont continues to lay the groundwork for what the company believes will be a major shift to UV curing in the coming years. "UV curing is considered a growing market in the future," said Dr. Frese. "And DuPont Performance Coatings is investing in this innovative technology in all its business units." (UV applications DuPont is exploring include automotive OEM, refinish, powder coatings, industrial coatings and ink jet coatings, according to Dr. Frese.)

According to Mr. Hart, despite looming economic uncertainty, companies are planning to make the leap into UV coatings. "We're starting to see more people interested in capital investment now," he said. "We're seeing an increase in people looking to invest in equipment. I think people are starting to budget to spend money again. It's almost like there's a pent up demand to improve process that's been held back by the slow economy."

Mr. Engel sees many similarities between UV coatings and many of the other technologies that came before. He believes that UV coatings will make the transition from a high-performing, but expensive alternative coating method to a mainstream means of coating products.

"Look at the early days of waterborne coatings," Mr. Engel said. The threat of stainless steel and related investment blocked the environmental advantages of that coating system. Here we've prepared the industry with the functional oligomers of UV, and now it's all about what's more cost competitive. The price will come down as the technology advances."

R&D Coatings, which makes UV and EB coatings for the wood, metal and plastics industries, performed a cost analysis comparing UV coatings to conventional spray products and found that UV is cheaper per square foot, a finding that differs from the perception of many customers that UV is more expensive.

BASF and DuPont Hope for More Inroads for UV in
Automotive Market
Coatings makers know it is difficult to gain acceptance for a new product, even if that product offers something that existing products cannot. In the case of rad-cure and UV coatings, this challenge is doubly difficult because manufacturers also have to prove to their customers that these coatings are worth the significant capital investment necessary in switching to the technology.

According to T.J. Lepkowski, product marketing manager for coatings, BASF has seen growing demand in the automotive OEM market for its DynaSeal clear coat for sheet molded composite materials. The company is hoping that this success will pave the way for future rad-cure and UV products in the automotive market. "We are developing UV clear coats for automobiles," he said. "We want to get automakers more comfortable with UV technology so they'll want to use these new products."

DuPont is also hoping for more acceptance of UV in the automotive industry. The company has launched a new product for the curing of three-dimensional parts. Robotics are used to rotate lamps and parts, ensuring that all surfaces of a 3D object (aren't all objects 3d?) are covered and cured effectively. The new coating uses a combination of UV and thermal curing. DuPont hopes this leads to broader acceptance. "The effective curing of 3D objects is one of the major issues that needs to be addressed if UV curing is to be used more extensively in the automotive sector," said Peter Frese, a chemist with the strategic research group at DuPont Performance Coatings.

Also new from DuPont is a UV quick filler for refinish applications. Offering accelerated spot repair within 20 seconds, this solvent-free system boasts no flash-off time, is easy to handle and is sold with the necessary UV curing equipment, according to Dr. Frese.