Coatings As Active Components

“Eggplant Tech” (Image Credit: PPG)

Buildings using smart coatings that absorb pollution. Airplanes wrapped in heat-deflecting tech borrowed from eggplant biology. Surfaces of wind turbine blades that slice through the air with practically no drag.

PPG doesn’t just make paint anymore, and its approach to surface coatings reveals much about the drivers and processes of successful innovation.

“Actually, we’ve been innovating on environmental issues since the early 60s,” explained Chuck Kahle, PPG’s VP of Coatings R&D and CTO. “Things like improvements in transfer efficiency, rust prevention, lead-free paints, these were all opportunities to innovate products.”

“I think now we’re at the forefront of the next wave, which will center on increasing the functionality of systems overall.”

This systems perspective has profound implications for what and how PPG innovates.

For instance, it has rethought how the company engages in innovation, at once expanding its perspective to collect and address issues around the globe, while pushing ideas into a tough rigor of project proposals that need operational support in order to proceed.

“When I started 28 years ago, we had an idea database, but the world’s awash in ideas,” Kahle said. “We used to push technology innovations and then look for ways to apply them, like a hammer in search of nail. Now, we start with the nail, and that usually originates from a customer need, and then work together on inventing the hammer.”

In addition to mapping its innovation projects to VOC insights, it also encourages its scientists to engage in  test drills, which is a proof-of-concept phase that occupies as much as 15% of their time. But any idea needs to find a ‘home’ in a business unit to get past that step.

“My mandate is to deliver innovative products quickly by finding synergies and building coalitions,” Kahle said, also noting that he frequently reminds his scientists that they’re in sales too, not just R&D.

PPG’s systems perspective also impacts its relationship with its customers, which often now extends into manufacturing processes and supply chains. For instance, automotive paint shops are traditionally the largest consumers of energy on a factory floor, so it innovated a process called B1:B2 that cuts energy use by almost a third.

“Customers don’t always know the solution they need from us, so our opportunity is to innovate solutions for them that go beyond their expectations.”

By broadening its view on where and how it can innovate, PPG is also bringing a variety of new coatings to market that are better understood as active I/O system components.

In the U.K., tests have been promising for a wall coating that cleans itself, and a new product was introduced in France earlier this year that absorbs airborne pollution. It already successfully sells heat reflective products for cool roofs. A similar product is used on airplanes, which helps keep cabins comfortable while protecting the physical structure of the composites of which planes are built.

“Finding synergies for innovation is a core capability of ours,” Kahle said. “We could develop something for aerospace, and discover it has uses for cars. Coatings are really just the application of materials science in two dimensions.”

“The synergies mean application of material science in multiple areas such as an easy-to-clean solution in optical might have implications for tablets and smartphones.”

Is there a scientist somewhere at one of PPG’s 60 locations around the world testing a coating that gets updated from the Cloud?

“If it qualified as a project with a budget, deliverables, and operational sponsor, anything is possible,” Kahle replied.