Five Market Opportunities for Color-Shifting Technology

Color-shifting paints, inks, coatings and additives are increasingly able to serve as technology enablers for a range of commercial applications, in areas as different as clothing and automotive exteriors, adding a dynamic extension to the use of color. n-tech Research believes this can potentially translate into market opportunities in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually basis.

Many of these opportunities leverage kinds of thermochromic technologies that have been around for a while, primarily those activated by changes in heat, light, and simply the angles of view. At the same time, there are innovative developments that offer to up the ante, from color-shifting ferrofluids to nanotextured thin films that present different colors when stretched. We expect the breadth of color-shifting materials will expand rapidly, and open up even more options to help drive adoption in various end markets.

In our view, there are roughly five end-markets with the most to gain from incorporating color-shifting technologies into end products: clothing and textiles, security and brand protection, automotive, construction, and sensors (a vast range of lower-end uses). Each sector displays a growing interest in the added value that color-shifting functionality could provide. Moreover, within these segments are many prominent companies adopting these technologies, firms that understand what drives demand within their markets.

Clothing and Textiles: Adding Style, but With Risks

Forward-thinking high fashion always seeks the next cool thing, and integration of smart capabilities is high on that list. There always has been a novelty aspect to color-shifting clothing and textiles, and much of the technology involved here is fairly mature, although some newer fashion designs are playing with conductive fivers and even embedded flexible displays.

A number of fashion designers are working with color-shifting materials on unique styles from headdresses to leather jackets to handbags. What is most happening in this sector, though, is an attempt to break out into higher-value markets and appeal to multiple demographics with extra aesthetic (and in some cases functional) attributes. The big one is athletic gear and shoes, where adidas, Nike, and Under Armour recently have come out with versions of color-shifting products. There is also some appeal for color-shifting for camouflage, with obvious military interest but also some consumer appeal as demonstrated by a new line from outdoors retailer Cabela’s.

Guarding the Gates: Color-shifting for Currency and Product Security

Compared with apparel, use of color-shifting as a security measure isn’t a risky sell. Consumers aren’t too concerned about anti-counterfeiting or brand protection, but the true customers for these technologies — banks, companies and printers — do value it and are proactively seeking answers. These firms are always looking for new and better ways to deal with these problems.

Optically variable inks (OVI) have dominated this sector, particularly for currency, although they are also used alongside other measures such as metallic threads. Thermochromic and photochromic inks have found some use, as have other options including polymer substrates instead of paper to provide additional layered optical features. In research, embedding photonic crystals and colloids into substrates can achieve color-shifting features, with promising capabilities including resistance to bleaching and being patterned after printing. Repeated physical handling is a key aspect of currency and secure documents, so improving on this is one way that ink and coating suppliers can compete.

SICPA and technology partner Viavi (JDSU) have long been atop this sector, with others also offering OVI-based options including Sellerink and Sun Chemical.

Automotive: A Milestone for Multifunctional Materials

Color-shifting technology in automotive is part of bigger marketing/design trends for vehicles that is exploring new technology for both interior and exterior surfaces of cars and trucks, both alongside and as part of a theme to evolve vehicles into, essentially, digital devices. Color-shifting is essentially an aesthetic play here, and is somewhat risky, and there are concerns in the automotive business about the quality and reproducibility of colors.

Most such materials utilize a passive chromatic effect based on the angle of view or incident light; some thermochromatic types of paint are available but are expensive and not long-lasting. External color-shifting paints have been around for decades but limited to high-end luxury vehicles (Lincoln Black Label) or ultra-rare high-performance cars (McLaren, Lamborghini) where the extra cost is of little concern, or on custom one-off paint jobs by enthusiasts.

For interior applications the options widen to other type of chromatic effects (activated by light or electric current), and lighting schemes embedded into surfaces. Here is also where some interesting future development might occur: materials combining additional “smart” functions such as self-cleaning or odor-absorbing (antimicrobial) — and not just for automobiles but also airlines, a related high-value sector. Johnson Controls (JCI) is driving much of this trend, now in conjunction with China’s Yanfeng Automotive Trim Systems.

Construction: Building a Business Case

Here we see two main opportunities of use for color-shifting materials: interior and exterior walls (paints, siding, other treatments) for prestige buildings, and smart windows where adding a color tint can perhaps be a competitive differentiator. In either case, the market is in prestige buildings — and the key strategic issue is finding ways to break out of that into more mainstream markets.

As we see it, there is really only one way to do that: expand the functionality of color-shifting materials into practical uses, and not just aesthetic merit. As an example, a color-shifting exterior might help improve energy efficiency to make a play in the sustainable construction market. One might also find novel uses for color-shifting walls, as is proposed by E Ink with its electrophoretic panels.

Valspar is the veteran of the color-shifting paints business, and bears watching just on those grounds alone, having marketed its Kameleon color-shifting paints for over a decade . The firm has made some quiet technology improvements over that time, and promises new products are coming from the “neat things” brought to it by new pigment suppliers.

Sensors: Stuck at the Low End

Color-shifting properties have found use for many years in a wide range of sensor-type applications, mostly low-end or novelty: toys, battery testers, thermometers, etc. We can’t really call them a market opportunity; volumes might add up but the value and margins are typically low. We do see some possible pockets of promise, though, in some very specific segments: thermal imaging applications for biological testing, aerospace compliance, radiation and chemical agent testing, and a few types of packaging.

The bigger problem for color-shifting across all these sensing applications is that nearly all of them assign even higher value to other technologies that can provide a broader range of information. Cold chain packaging, for example, can appreciate knowing not just that a temperature shift occurred, but over what range and for how long. Similarly, it’s valuable to have some depth of information a radiological or chemical exposure (identification, proximity, duration).

The Big View: Buildings and Cars, and Everyone Else

Our views on the markets for color-shifting technologies add up to a current market size of roughly $380 million, but ramping up fast: exceeding $1 billion by 2019, approaching $2 billion by 2020, and nearly $4 billion by 2022. The biggest segment is in construction — there’s a lot of surface to cover on a building wall — which we see representing a little more than half the market today and through our eight-year forecast. We expect automotive use of color-shifting technologies will grow substantially, from about 20% of the market today to nearly a third by the end of our forecast.

Brand protection is currently the third-biggest segment, but we don’t see this as much of a high-growth area, mainly because of the small amount of material used. It’s currently about a quarter of the marketplace but will only double in value through 2022. Where we see the biggest growth in terms of revenues throughout our forecast is in clothing and textiles, which we see at just at just 3% of today’s color-shifting market but rising to more than 7% by 2022. At the bottom end is the market for sensors, which as described above as very low-end and low-margin areas.