Innovations: “Clear communication between our technical and business teams”
PPG is among the biggest players in the industry for patents held. What do you think is most important for a good innovation management?
Aditya Gottumukkala and Kurt Olson: Like any other industry, innovation is key to growth, and patents are one of the key indicators of PPG’s strong innovative efforts. We currently have around 1,200 active patents in Europe, which have an active life span of 20 years. Over the last few years, as we continue to innovate, we’ve used our “search and reapply” framework to apply existing technology to new market areas. “Search and reapply” refers to our system of using technical knowledge and learnings from one business unit to solve challenges or meet customer needs in another business unit. It’s a clear example of how PPG’s scale gives us an advantage.
Given our scale and extensive customer base, it’s critical for us to share ideas from across the world, refining them into new products that give our customers value. We do our best to collaborate across a balanced portfolio of incremental, transformative and breakthrough innovations. We develop projects across the globe, so an innovation may originate in the U.S. but we’ll develop it to serve our European customers. A patent will likely follow from that activity. We also understand that ideas can come from numerous sources – whether it’s internal, through our partnerships at universities or national labs, from start-ups or from our customers. To achieve this, we rely on clear communication between our technical and business teams, not just within our business units, but also across them, as well as ongoing conversations with our partners.
Could you give an example on the process from idea to patent?
Gottumukkala and Olson: We start with an idea which is then tested before we apply marketing insight to it. It then must receive support from our business or corporate science and technology (S&T) function.
Globally, PPG files approximately 60 to 80 patent applications a year, so we’ve streamlined our process to move ideas into patents effectively. While the majority of these ideas originate in our technical organisation, members from our commercial and legal teams are also involved in the idea generation and evaluation process.
Aditya Gottumukkala, PPG Intellectual Asset Manager, (left) and Kurt Olson, former PPG Corporate Fellow (now retired).
Our reflective “eggplant” coating is one example of how the patent development process allowed us to innovate. We were inspired by the eggplant and its dark, heat- and light-transmitting exterior skin and reflective interior and were able to replicate these properties in a practical aerospace coating. An eggplant’s white core reflects most infrared radiation – the heat goes in and is reflected out, despite a deep purple exterior. Applying this idea to coatings for the aerospace industry lowers the plane’s exterior temperature by about 25 degrees and the interior by five to seven degrees – effectively lowering airline fuel and air conditioning costs. This also speaks to our customers’ needs, by allowing them to fully express their branding on their planes in a deep colour palette, without having to sacrifice interior temperatures and comfort. We’re now using this same technology when developing autonomous vehicle coatings to help make them reflective and visible to LiDAR and radar systems.
Could you give some examples of recent patents by PPG?
Gottumukkala and Olson:
We currently see opportunities in coatings that offer energy storage and we continue to be active in this area. For example, our patent EP3126444B1, which was granted at the end of 2018, discloses a new acrylic polymer dispersant for battery electrodes.
Our patent US10,208,198B2 discloses a new solvent-borne binder for applications in intumescent coatings, which are coatings that expand severalfold on exposure to heat to help protect the underlying structure from fire. Our patent US 10,183,274B2 relates to coatings that can be applied to a Teslin water filtration system. Teslin is a uniquely engineered synthetic polyolefin material, made by PPG. This durable, microporous material offers special performance with applications ranging from synthetic paper for wine bottle labels, to tamper-proof ID cards, and even water filtration.
What innovations are PPG currently working on?
Gottumukkala and Olson: We see energy storage as a great opportunity, and this is an area where we are making several developments. Last year, PPG launched a cathode binder that is free of hazardous solvents like N-Methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP) while improving battery performance. It’s not only more environmentally friendly, in improving the sustainability of electric vehicles, but it allows for lower mixing times and faster production rates. This cuts production costs by reducing manufacturing cycle times, which drives value for our customers as electric vehicle use increases. It also enables thicker electrodes, thus allowing more energy to be stored in a similar volume.
3D printing is another area where PPG is actively involved. Our Ambient Reactive Extrusion additive manufacturing for 3D printing won a 2018 R&D 100® award for innovation. This process delivers 3D printing up to 100 times faster than traditional 3D printing, allowing for a wide range of material properties to be included in a single part. Unprecedented part strength has been achieved because of chemical bonding between print layers.
Sustainability is at the core of our operations, and environmental stewardship has driven our research and development portfolio for more than a century. This heritage is embedded in PPG’s commitment to innovate products and processes that provide environmental and sustainability benefits to our customers. Our coatings, materials and technologies are designed to reduce corrosion, extend the life of customers’ products, help our customers reduce energy usage and emissions, minimise waste and water consumption and protect their employees. We continue to challenge ourselves to do better as we work toward aggressive sustainability goals.
What would you say are the most important resources to stay innovative as a company?
Gottumukkala and Olson: Innovation is made possible by a strong, forward-thinking workforce and by fostering a culture of invention. Thus, PPG is dedicated to attracting the best minds, whether fresh recruits or experienced professionals, and equipping them with the right tools to do their jobs. These tools aren’t just material like spray apparatuses and formulation equipment, but also access to discussion boards and electronic databases that allow employees to exchange and contribute ideas and opportunities to learn customer challenges firsthand. We encourage our people to attend symposia, trade shows and conferences to learn and bring in best practices. This is where our scale and resources give us an advantage.
We collaborate with several universities, national labs and research institutes around the world to generate new innovations and ideas, together. We also garner ideas from startups that we partner with or from our customers who don’t always have the resources to drive innovation all the way to the final product.
What are currently the main drivers of innovation in the paints and coatings industry?
Gottumukkala and Olson: Megatrends are a key driver of innovation in the coatings industry. One example of this is the shift toward autonomous and electric vehicles. Other examples are distributed/additive manufacturing, and new lightweight materials for automotive and aerospace bodies. Sustainability is another key driver of innovation in the industry. Environmental stewardship has driven our research and development portfolio for more than a century. That rich history has embedded the commitment to innovate products and processes that provide environmental and other sustainability benefits to our customers.
Regulation is another important driver. For PPG, this has resulted in innovation for reducing VOCs, chrome-free pretreatment technologies, and formaldehyde-free and BPA-free coatings in food packaging.
What impact would you say has digitization on innovation in the coatings industry?
Gottumukkala and Olson: Digitisation continues to play an increasingly important role in the coatings industry. It allows PPG to react to the needs and challenges of our customers much faster, thanks to the ease of rapid communication. This also makes it possible to leverage our expertise from around the globe to find solutions for our customers. Digitisation has completely revolutionised manufacturing. Real-time monitoring of manufacturing processes allows operators to reduce waste, streamline processes and become aware of any irregularities and take corrective steps immediately. This ensures on-time and accurate delivery to customers.
In terms of product, digitisation is crucial to meet the increasing need for things to be on-demand. Our digital colour matching tools are of utmost importance in the purchase process, whether in refinish body shops or for do-it-yourself customers. With PPG’s “Measurecolor “Mobile tool, customers are no longer limited to a narrow colour palette and can walk in to stores with a picture on their smartphone for us to match. Within seconds, the technology links to more than 2,500 commonly specified colours in our industrial powder and liquid coatings library in a very personalised and on-demand service.
The interview was conducted by Vanessa Bauersachs