In response to the needs of customers, coatings are becoming more complex with multipurpose functional properties, whose technologies have first to be discovered and then developed.
Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI) are seen as opportunities for providing platforms for innovations.
Looming over the coatings and other sectors is the threat of global warming, rapidly diminishing biodiversity and other environmental dangers which will have to be combatted with technological advances.
Also, the portfolios of a growing number of coatings companies, especially the larger ones, contain specialty, niche products which yield high margins but which require the support of extensive research and development.
However, even big international companies do not have the research power, particularly in terms of highly qualified staff and internal expertise, to generate their own innovations.
They have had to resort to what has become to be known as open innovation – looking outside the company for ideas through means like constant literature searches, attendance at conferences and seminars, networking and collaborating closely on the development of new products with customers and suppliers.
Now the conventional ways of conducting open innovations are becoming less effective.
New methods have had to be found for making contacts with sources of inventiveness and using them to forge long-term ties.
‘’The world is moving so fast you have to introduce new schemes for working with start-ups and other small companies and with academia,’’ said Klass Kruithof, chief technology officer at AkzoNobel, market leader in European coatings, whose portfolio covers both decorative and industrial coatings for segments like automobiles and aerospace.
AkzoNobel has staged a global competition among start-ups, academic research units and similar entities. The winners have been awarded collaboration agreements with AkzoNobel on the development and/or commercialization of their innovations.
‘’These types of competitions have been used in the pharmaceuticals sector as a means for building links with start-ups, especially in biotechnology,’’ said Kruithof.
AkzoNobel’s competition, called Paint the Future, attracted 160 participants from around the world – including 40 percent from Europe, 24 percent from North America and six percent from China.
Each had to submit an innovative solution covering one of five themes – smart applications, circular solutions, predictable performance and life science infusion like the use of enzymes.
At the final stages of the competition, 21 solutions were shortlisted.
These included technologies for reuse of ingredients and pigments as circular solutions, benign biocides as a life science infusion, self-cleaning and air purification as enhanced functionalities and with predictable performance imaging analysis and detection.
AkzoNobel sees the five winners, selected from the shortlist who received their Paint the Future awards at an event in Amsterdam in mid-May, as the basis for an innovation ecosystem.
The winners – all start-ups – were SAS Nanotechnologies of U.S.-based specialist in smart anti-corrosion coatings; QLayers of the Netherlands, a developer of automated printheads for coating large surfaces; Interface Polymers, a UK producer of di-block polymers providing anti-fogging properties to coatings on packaging and other surfaces; Apellix of the U.S., a developer of automated drones for spray painting; and Alucha Recycling Technologies, a Dutch supplier of a solution for turning waste into bio-oils and minerals.
SAS Nanotechnologies and Apellix were offered joint development agreements with AkzoNobel for the improvement and commercialization of their products.
QLayers and Interface Polymers, whose solutions were ready for market launch, were presented with business deals under which AkzoNobel will help with the commercialization of their products. Alucha was granted a supply agreement for its solution.
For these small companies, the main benefits of the awards included the support of a leading global coatings producer and opportunities for using the award for further expansion of their businesses.
‘’It gives us a chance to carry on the development work we are doing,’’ said Tim Clayfield, application development director at Interface Polymers. ‘’We want to go out now and get more funding with the power of this agreement behind us.’’
The scheme has coincided with an expansion of AkzoNobel’s international R&D operations.
Paint the Future has raised the collaborative efforts of its research to new levels.
Among its more radical recent innovations has been the introduction of a coating based on ultra-violet light emitting diodes for the prevention of fouling of ships hulls. This is derived from a technology of Royal Philips of the Netherlands, a specialist in UV-LED lighting and electronics.
The company is already among the biggest spenders worldwide in coatings research with R&D expenditure of €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) over the last five years, while it employs 3,000 research scientists.
Amongst its international research operations, it opened in Shanghai in 2016 a new €6.5 million technology center whose marine and protective development lab was extended last year.
Also in 2016, a $10 million R&D center was opened in Strongsville, Ohio, with a focus on coil, extrusion and packaging coatings.
Earlier this year, a €12.6 million research and innovation hub was inaugurated in Felling, northeast England, with 100 scientists and technical specialists.
The Paint the Future project has laid a pathway to a more structured approach to the use of open innovation as a way of finding new ideas.
‘’What’s important about the scheme is that it allows us to start a dialogue with its participants, which should lead to a more permanent relationship,’’ explained Thierry Vanlancker, AkzoNobel’s CEO, after the awards ceremony. ‘’It should be the start of a series of innovations coming from the networks linking their laboratories and scientists with our own.’’
In its effort to create strong relationships with the Paint the Future participants, AkzoNobel will not be confining itself to the five winners or the 16 who reached the shortlist.
‘’The others have exciting ideas as well,’’ said Vanlancker. ‘’Some of them are developing innovations which are clearly related to areas we are interested in.’’
The procedure for drawing up the shortlist involved meetings with these participants. So the dialogue with them has already begun
For AkzoNobel, the scheme has opened up a whole new dimension to open innovation.
‘’With the power of an entire (new innovation) ecosystem behind us, big things are on the horizon,’’ said Kruithof.