Evolution (not revolution) in coatings

The importance of harnessing the combined strengths of liquid and powder by Ben Mitchell

As the surface coating industry gears up for the 134th edition of Zak World of Façades, it is important to consider the changing face of the construction and architectural industry and how players within the aluminum coating space must evolve in tandem.

While sustainability is fast rising up the agenda, the degree of prioritization afforded to it varies between regions. Although the comparatively more sustainability-conscious European market has embraced powder coatings, the same cannot be said for the US market. Here, liquid coatings are still in the ascendancy, and while this is likely to change at some point, the transition is less imminent than previously expected.

The phrase ‘evolution, not revolution’ is highly applicable to our industry context and certainly in the US market, we anticipate a more gradual transformation. With this in mind, an improved understanding of the relative strengths of both liquid and powder coatings is necessary, so that we can leverage the value each one provides respectively for the benefit of individual projects and on an industry-level.

Powder to the people!

One of the questions I hear most regularly from customers is ‘why powder’?

As somebody with extensive experience within the coatings industry, I am all too familiar with the view that powder coatings are the future. Since as far back as the turn of the century, I have encountered customers and other industry colleagues who have foreseen the decline of liquid coatings and the rise of powder, with many investing heavily to position themselves to cater for rising demand. Such predictions are, however, yet to truly materialize, with powder accounting for only about 15% of the US market.

While the superior scratch-resistance properties of powder coatings are well known, one of their clear, yet underpublicized, benefits is their contribution of points to LEED EQc4 credits on account of their “low-emitting materials”. By eliminating or minimizing the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), they represent what could be termed as a greener, more sustainable alternative to liquid coatings.

Moreover, the availability of SuperDurable powder coatings, such as those within our ICONICA collection, is playing a vital role in maximizing the life of surfaces for longer than ever before, something that is integral to preventing waste and utilizing materials in the most sustainable way possible.

Global efforts to tackle carbon emissions and the environmental impact of the built environment are gaining pace, and while there is a growing recognition within the US that more progress is needed, old habits persist and architects remain loyal to the tried and tested option of liquid coatings. The fact that liquid coatings are well established and seen as the most reliable option for US-based projects contributes to a general reluctance to embrace change.

Liquid leading the way in the US?

Environmental and sustainability considerations have to be reconciled with other competing priorities, which may go some way to explaining the continued popularity of liquid coatings.

For instance, many of the production environments where surface coatings are used tend to operate on a just-in-time basis. In this context, where delivery lead times are so crucial, liquid coatings represent a more favorable alternative, and are available for supply within a significantly shorter timeframe compared to powder alternatives. Most of these applicators use Thermal Oxidizers that, while destroying VOCs, use the heat generated to fuel the curing oven. This reduces the amount of natural gas required to power the oven, significantly cutting CO₂ emissions in the process.

The cost implications are also noteworthy. Because the film thickness for powder coatings is higher than liquid, more raw material is required, which incurs additional cost. Additionally, the level of wastage is higher when changing between colors, whereas this process is much more instantaneous with liquid. It is impossible to recover paint particles and the time investment required for clean up is a further efficiency hurdle to overcome. This is less problematic when working with a smaller selection of core colors, however, it becomes an issue when regularly formulating custom colors. The net impact is that the US market remains somewhat cost sensitive, to the extent that environmental concerns are still secondary to other factors such as lead times and applied costs.

A Total Solutions approach

While both powder and liquid coatings have their merits, it is important to acknowledge that neither is a perfect solution. There are certain scenarios where one is better suited than the other and it’s important for us to be transparent about this and to prioritize the needs of the project instead of stubbornly advocating for one coating type over another.

At Axalta, we recognize the transition that is underway and have worked hard to account for the full spectrum of market needs through what we refer to as our Total Solutions approach. In essence, this philosophy requires us to be objective and to recommend the optimal solutions based on our customer needs. A great example off this is our ICONICA collection of coatings, which are available in a carefully curated palette of forty colors in both powder and Ceranamel™ E7000-SD AAMA 2604-compliant liquid form. Offering this degree of flexibility allows us to fully support our customers in reaching their numerous goals.

As the price and film thickness gap between powder and liquid coatings continues to narrow, enabled by technological progress, we are likely to see a change within the industry. Until we reach this day, however, we must accept that the evolution will be an ongoing process, during which we are best advised to leverage the respective strengths of both liquid and powder coatings.

The issue of sustainability is rising in importance and although we cannot discount the possibility of a potential change in legislation in the future mandating the use of powder coatings, there are no immediate indications that this will materialize. The most likely outcome is a steady process of transition and we need to be ready to move with the times.

Inspiring greatness

Through our flagship SuprAnodic and ICONICA ranges in powder, and Durapon 70 ultra durable liquid, we are aiming to go beyond the purely functional, providing designers with superior aesthetics that will withstand the test of time. Informed by our understanding of designs from across the globe and built on painstaking research, these provide a blueprint for the designs of tomorrow. We see it as our duty to set the standard for the future of coatings, a future that combines performance with outstanding aesthetics on every project. This purpose is at the heart of our commitment to innovation, and by continually adapting to the changing needs of our customers and the market, everybody wins.