Visit Strokes of Genius to read more stories about the technologies behind the paints and coatings that are transforming everything--from the way we work to the way we fly.
When discussing the latest innovation and technology, most people don’t think of paint. Yet, without coatings, sealants, and transparencies, everything from air travel to ocean shipping to driving would be more difficult to do. These materials, usually designed by scientists and engineers, allow people to go about their daily lives safely and efficiently. “Paint has so many different functionalities that enable many things to work,” says David Bem, PhD, PPG’s vice president and chief technology officer. “That’s not really recognized.”
What’s also not well understood is just how innovative the paint and coatings industry is. Pittsburgh-based PPG, for instance, has almost 50,000 employees in more than 70 countries creating complicated materials for nearly every industry and device on the planet. Like the feel of your computer keyboard, or a new aircraft where the sun doesn’t heat the airplane cabin while you are on the ground in your seat. You can thank PPG’s products, which help beautify city streets, make products more comfortable to use and allow new technologies to transform the future.
Ever since it opened its doors in 1883, PPG has always put innovation first. It was one of the first companies to conduct research on how colors affect people’s moods and environment. The company was one of the first to employ chemists, challenging them to create products that would do more than just make things look good.
One of its core missions today is to make products last longer. Doing so reduces waste, which helps the environment. It also allows consumers to keep more money in their pocket. “We protect items by giving them a longer life,” says Bem. “It’s one of the most important things we do.” And when customers are happy, they return, which increases profitability for the company.
For instance, in the 1960s, the company developed a process called electro-deposition coating, or e-coating, which uses electrical current to apply paint on conductive surfaces. This mechanism enables complete and efficient coating of all areas of three-dimensional parts, protecting metals from corrosion for longer periods of time. It’s the technology that enabled the decrease of cars rusting. To maintain technology leadership, the company is constantly tweaking this process to work with new materials. For example, it began e-coating aircraft parts within the past several years, Bem says. The benefit there is better overall corrosion coverage of the parts and weight savings, which translates into increased fuel efficiency.
In addition, many new coatings are being applied to still-in-development technologies. Before people can start driving autonomous vehicles, for example, cars need speciality paints that can help them to “speak” to other cars and city infrastructure in snow, sleet, and rain, among other future-forward innovations.
Even with technology changing so rapidly, PPG’s products are in more demand than ever before. Its motto says Bem, is “if it moves, we paint it and if it doesn’t move, we paint it.” In other words, PPG coatings touch nearly every type of surface on the planet.
However, creating the right products requires collaboration with its customers and expert insights from PPG’s leadership. Its teams are always paying attention to industry trends, consumer tastes and scientific developments - they often partner with university researchers, too. “We’re paying attention to how things impact our customers and then we get in front of it,” he says. “There are a lot of changes in material sciences that can change how coatings work. We do the research and then apply it.”
One challenge that many companies have had to deal with over the last few years is the speed of change. PPG is able to drive innovation efficiently and effectively because it often embeds staff in its customers’ companies who use PPG products. This gives PPG employees a first-hand view of the products and technologies within the customers’ systems and enables the PPG service teams to partner with customers on innovations.
While no one knows what cars we might drive or what products we might own in the future, one thing is certain: PPG will likely be developing the coatings and paints those manufacturers use. They’ll be making yet-to-be discovered materials and painting things that currently live in people’s imaginations. “Our technologies and products are more important than ever,” he says. “And with the way things are accelerating, we’ll still be innovating for years to come.”