Interview: “Removing the tedious process of testing out assumptions”

Digital tools offer more and more ways to improve the development of coatings. One way utilises digital prototypes to help reduce the number of redundant trial-and-error lab tests. Jurjen van Rees, Commercial Director, COO of Rheo Cube, a Dutch start-up specialised in simulation software explains how this works.

Digital tools can improve the development of new coatings formulations. Image source: angellodeco -

In what way can virtual prototyping of rheology help to improve R&D in coatings laboratories?

Jurjen van Rees: In recent years, a major paradigm shift has occurred in R&D departments throughout the coatings industry. There’s been a clear move away from repetitive wet lab experiments, as scientists and industry leading companies gravitate towards a digital environment. The timing of this shift is perfect. Simulation modelling and computing power have now reached a tipping point, creating new opportunities for experimental scientists. These opportunities are being further driven by the pandemic and digital transformation over the last 12 months. Experimental scientists can now transfer manual processes to a virtual lab environment, accelerating trial-and-error and removing the tedious process of testing out assumptions in their day-to-day research.

Take the example of developing a rheology modifier to help a coatings product perform better on horizontal surfaces. Lab-based trial-and-error iterations offer a limited set of answers that are based on assumptions made while the formulation is being developed. Imagine being able to confirm or reject those assumptions in a virtual lab or being able to look deeply into a product’s materials. You could truly discover what’s happening inside a formulation and answer certain questions for the first time. How are surfactants behaving around particles? How are they impacting your rheology modifier?

Today’s state-of-the-art virtual prototyping software, RheoCube, brings experimental scientists that kind of capability. Compared to a regular rheometer, virtual prototyping empowers users to, for example look inside a sample of a material to see individual ingredient behaviour. This look allows them to see where surfactants and particles go and to look at forces acting on and applied by ingredients. Further they can understand aggregation and how particles stick. They understand strange flow curves – by simply turning effects on and off and see if they are caused by sedimentation, diffusion or/and aggregation. In this way they overcome issues in replacing ingredients – by testing compatibility in simplified systems.

Simulation has come a long way in recent years. What further advances do you expect in the coming years?

Jurjen van Rees: For simulations on the meso-scale, we are on the cusp of some big technological developments. We’ve not yet reached the limit of what an internet browser can handle. Imagine being able to pause a simulation, tweak parameters in the formulation and continue experimenting? There’s huge potential to dive deeper into the behaviour of particles, surfactants and polymers. This kind of futuristic technology is seen in our system. It’s the first software to become available for experimental scientists, as opposed to specialised software that requires coding skills, or maybe a PhD in computational or polymer physics.

It’s also unique in offering insights on the meso-scale physical behaviour of systems (individual components), with only minimal data input. The software offers on-demand computing, and the most comprehensive digital data analysis and visualisation module available on the market right now.

Your company is offering simulations as a service. Are companies not hesitant to outsource valuable research information?

Jurjen van Rees: Information sharing is not a big impediment with us. Companies using this software don’t outsource any valuable information, so this doesn’t hamper our new client procurement processes. The software environment provided is unique to each licence user. Without their approval, even our own support scientists cannot access their account, or the information within it. The level of security offered meets the highest standards and we expect additional formal certification of this in 2021.

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