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Monday, 20 February 2017

Digitization in the coatings industry?

Tuesday, 25 October 2016 | Posted by: Sonja Schulte, European Coatings Journal

Two weeks ago at the CEPE Annual Conference, one of the topics in addition to sustainability once again concerned digitization and the Internet of Things. On the whole, all very exciting, but how does the coatings industry stand on the subject of digitization? And how might digitization be implemented? I decided to investigate further.

The Association of the German Coatings and Printing Inks Industry (VdL) has uploaded a great video to YouTube (in German and entitled  "Industrie 4.0. in der Lackindustrie”, which gives a glimpse at the digital future of the coatings industry: paint robots ordering their own paints, warehouses managing themselves autonomously, customers and suppliers all networked to each other – but it’s all science fiction, because small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are nowhere near that far advanced. Paint production is often still personnel and labour intensive. In fact, I keep hearing from insiders that digitization actually isn’t at all possible. "At which particular stage in the production process is it going to happen?" they ask. However, a survey of international SMEs shows that they are concerned with digitization.

 

SMEs see digitization as a survival factor

In this survey, Exact Software Germany, based in Frankfurt, interviewed 2600 companies with up to 50 employees in Germany, Belgium, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Spain and the USA about their software usage, their attitude towards digitization and related trends.

Digitization and technological change is set to have a decisive impact on the competitive landscape over the course of the next three years: some 62 percent of SMEs worldwide agreed with this statement. In Germany, respondents were less convinced, with 56% of companies concurring. This contrasts with Spain, where 74% said they wholly agreed. Unfortunately, the study does not reveal the type of companies that were interviewed.

Germany lags behind when it comes to using the "cloud”: roughly 50% of German companies claim to use cloud-based business applications, compared with the international average of 61%. In Spain and the Netherlands, the figure is as high as 70% and more.

Some 41% of German SMEs say that digitization of their business enjoys high priority. However, this puts them at the bottom of the international league: 45% of all the companies surveyed accord it high priority. In Spain, the figure is as high as 56%, while in France it is 49%.

Digitization in the coatings industry

When we now actually go digging for specific examples in the coatings industry, we can search high and low, but to little avail. Of course, many paint makers – at any rate, those offering DIY products – have online shops where products can be ordered direct.

But apart from them, other examples are few and far between. If you look at the list of exhibitors at the sector’s largest trade fair, the European Coatings Show, you’ll find just a handful offering software solutions. There were no providers of cloud-based software at the last ECS. Let's see what the situation will be at the upcoming ECS ​​in April 2017.

Sharing data sheets on a media-neutral platform

In various conversations with industry participants, I was told over and over again that, e.g., sharing safety data sheets and technical data sheets between suppliers and paints manufacturers is proving more difficult than was initially thought. Complaints were arising because, say, a customer might be unaware of the latest data sheet or still have the outdated one stored on his system. It seems that there is a lack of standardisation and that customers sometimes simply fail to "process" the data.

Although most companies use dedicated software to create safety data sheets, a fact which means that the data is already available in digital form, transmission of the required data and information along the supply chain is still predominantly  paper-based. What is needed is an electronic standard for transmitting this data and information from the safety data sheet. Technical data sheets, too, can be produced with the help of software solutions, but here again there is no electronic transmission standard.

What usually happens is that PDFs are sent via e-mail to the customer, who often enters the data manually, because he only needs a few specific details, etc. This is all very time-consuming and can lead to transcription errors.

The ideal solution would be a neutral data platform on which suppliers provide their data in a media-neutral format and "push" any change directly into the customer’s system. Why has no-one thought of developing something like this? Perhaps you have an idea? There are bound to be plenty of steps in the entire coatings production process that would be amenable to digitization and I’m intrigued to see what will come onto the market in the next few years.

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