As today's OEMs expect more from their paint in terms of performance, coverage and appearance, raw material suppliers to the paint and coatings industry face a lot of pressure from their customers. Paint products cover a wide spectrum of price points, performance levels and regulatory compliance limits, which place great demands on raw material suppliers to meet the needs of coatings formulators.
With its new multi-million dollar paint spray facility, Eastman Chemical Company, a Kingsport, TN-based supplier of additives and other raw materials for coatings is sending a clear message to the coatings industry-when it comes to addressing the myriad needs of its current and future customers, the company means business.
"The motivation behind this project was to put Eastman in a position to be a better supplier to the coatings industry," said Dirk DiSantis, Eastman's global marketing manager for coatings. "This facility allows us to better understand our customers' needs. Already we are receiving excellent feedback about Eastman's commitment to the coatings industry."
Rooted in R&D
From conception to completion, the paint spray facility took just 12-months to finish and began as an effort among Eastman's coatings additives team to build on its research and technical service capabilities and offer more precise product data for its customers in the automotive OEM market.
"Knowing what we wanted to achieve, but not knowing how exactly to get there was the greatest challenge we faced from the outset," said DiSantis. "We received great insight and encouragement from our customers and so many others within the broader coatings industry."
Eastman's development partner, Envirometric Process Controls, Inc. (EPC) also helped a great deal. As the system integrator of the robotic spray facility, EPC brought to the table its experience in the development of several automotive paint spray facilities nationwide. Other development partners involved in the project included Air Systems and ABB, a global engineering firm that manufactured the facility's robotics.
To OEMs an in-house paint spray facility serves the sole purpose of optimizing the paint application process. As a raw material supplier however, Eastman's facility is quite unique because it is setup primarily as a research tool.
The facility uses sophisticated robotics to operate in controlled environmental conditions, enhancing the development and testing of specialty coatings additives. Flexible, automated paint application equipment with temperature and humidity controls allows the facility to accurately simulate real-world environmental conditions.
"These new capabilities allow us to test our specialty additives, and other developmental materials, in an endless number of industrial settings and environments prior to a product's release," said Dave Allen, Eastman's technical director for coatings. "Enhanced controls allow us to meet the environmental and performance needs of our customers in advance and eliminate false starts in the lab, enabling us, and our customers, to bring more effective products to market faster."
One of the key missions of the facility is to reduce both environmental and spray event variability, which can be challenging for both coatings formulators and applicators. Accounting for these differences during formulation can help ensure that coatings developed in the lab perform properly in the real world. This also helps to save money and speed up the formulation process by reducing the level of trial and error.
"The facility can mimic a wide range of temperature and humidity controls-from 60-85°F and 60-85% RH," said Phil Smith, senior research associate, Eastman. "This ensures that Eastman's products can be applied and evaluated under the widest parameter of climate conditions possible. Suppliers generally optimize their products for the 70ºF and 70% RH environment typically favored for paint application."
Robotic applications were specifically chosen with these parameters in mind, since they simulate actual end use conditions and ensure a uniform spray pattern.
Eastman's paint spray facility can spray 1K and 2K waterborne and solventborne coatings.
Employing a system more sophisticated than most OEM paint plants, Eastman's paint spray facility includes a clean room lab, two spray booths consisting of both a robotic and manual application area, an air house, a staging lab, a support area and additional safety features.
The spray booths are designed with an extensive operating window to meet the needs of both large OEMs and smaller manufacturers.
A major part of the design process included the air house, which is based on a Childek system from Munters Corp. The system combines elements used for temperature and humidity control into one integrated system and includes cooling coils, evaporative media and moisture eliminators.
The system's robotic booth is equipped with a pedestal mounted six-axis robot interfaced with a PLC for control and improved data management, and the robot is fitted with rapidly interchangeable dual end devices including a bell, conventional gun and an HVLP gun. The Sames Multispray applicators from Sames Technologies enables conversion of a single robot-mounted applicator, using a wide range of spray technologies commonly found in the Class "A" finishing market. It permits changing of atomizers within minutes and is linked to an AllenBradley Controllogix PLC for sequencing and interlocks from Rockwell Automation, Inc. A PC is linked to the program setup for test reporting purposes, and computer software allows for the selection of different spray guns and spray parameters.
"Depending on the application, the equipment changes, giving this facility tremendous flexibility in terms of testing environment and conditions," said Smith.
Waterborne and solventborne coatings can be applied with either internal or external charge. The facility provides the capability to simulate most auotmotive OEM applications as well as many other industrial spray applied coatings.
Capabilities indclude a range of ASTM and OEM test methods for color and appearance, corrosion resistance, adhesion and weathering/durability. In addition, coatings are examined by a variety of spectroscopy, microscopy, thermal analysis, chromatography and rheology techniques.
Since opening in early 2007, Eastman's spray facility has improved its ability to measure the impact of additives on paint application properties. Over the long term, the facility will support additional projects targeting automotive, industrial and building and construction applications on substrates ranging from metal and plastic to wood.
"Previously, when we relied on data from outside testing facilities we couldn't make quick formulation changes on the fly," said Allen. "Now we can accomplish in one day what used to require three days of effort."
According to DiSantis, the benefit is two-fold. "Not only does this speed up the process, leading to faster innovation and helping to bring products to market faster, but it also allows us to take our innovation in a whole new direction.
"Improved appearance and durability are always concerns for coatings formulators," DiSantis continued. "But this facility now gives Eastman the ability to holistically measure and understand the impact of our materials on the coating application process. Having the ability to make coatings apply more efficiently and effectively can lower overall systems costs. This is the direction our customers are moving in and with the capabilities of this facility we are in a better position to serve their needs."