The Rise of Multi-Functional Materials

Multifunctional coatings, paints and structured surfaces are starting to appear on the market with more such offerings certain to emerge from industrial labs over the next decade. n-tech believes that these coatings will present an opportunity for paints and coatings firms, specialty chemical companies, glass firms and specialty startups of various kinds.

We also see the rise of multi-functional materials as having potential for manufacturers of manufacturing equipment since nothing is settled with regard to how these materials will be created.  Multi-layered coatings seems like a popular approach, but so do nano-patterned surfaces and smart materials that are inherently multifunctional are also being created in the labs.

How Mulitifunctional Coatings and Surfaces Create Value:

A surface that can (for example) both self-clean and self-heal has an obvious utility.  However, digging a little deeper, n-tech sees multifunctional coatings and surfaces creating new value in three different ways:

Drastically reduced price/performance ratios.  Multifunctional materials create value by drastically improving price/performance ratios. In the construction sector we are not far from the time when smart windows will combine self-dimming, solar energy generation and self-healing into a single IGU.  Schott already has a glass coating that integrates anti-reflective and oleophobic capabilities.  It is aimed at large touch-displays for kiosks, where high visibility combined anti-fingerprint functionality are both highly valued.

The economic goal here is to create multifunctionality that is significantly less expensive than the sum of the costs of each functionality considered separately.  The result is a product with more features and functionalities on which to hang a marketing campaign.  Low-cost multifunctionality expands addressable markets and may even be genuinely disruptive.

Innovative products and expanded markets: Multifunctional smart materials establish new smart product capabilities for certain industry sectors and perhaps create whole new markets. In aerospace, for example, some smart surfaces can monitor the structural health of wings and fuselage and then make modest repairs. Combining such functionalities, creates a different functionality that has not really existed before.

Enhanced functionality with enhanced aesthetics: Multifunctional smart coatings and surfaces may improve functionality, while at the same time improving aesthetics.  A building panel that is self-healing and also self-healing (or color-shifting) is an example here.

Just where multifunctional surfaces will win significant business in the short to medium term remains an open question.  It is easy enough to point to how “clever” a material is on the basis of it doing smart things.  It is harder to turn that cleverness into a revenue stream.

As a practical matter, this requires the capabilities of the smart material being matched to market needs and then actively sold to that market.  n-tech is already seeing interest in multi-functional coatings and surfaces across the industrial spectrum.  Sectors where we can see multifunctional coatings and surfaces racking up significant sales include construction, automotive, aerospace, medical, textiles and consumer electronics.

Technical Issues Unresolved

As with all smart materials, multifunctionality is achieved in materials and surfaces using intrinsically smart materials through patterning of surfaces or through embedding sensors. n-tech’s review of commercialization in the multifunctional smart materials space suggests multifunctional smart coatings is the area of multifunctional smart materials right now and where the new business is going to be generated.

Nonetheless, standard ways to deposit multifunctional coatings or create multifunctional surfaces or even which smart materials best serve as the basis for multifunctionality have yet to be developed. 

The long-term goal here must be to develop technologies at all levels of the of the multifunctional coatings and surfaces sector that are potentially scalable to large-scale production, so that these products can quickly emerge from the early commercialization phase.  For now we don’t yet know what the established technologies for multifunctional coatings and surfaces are going to look like.  Nonetheless, some specifications are beginning to emerge.

Marketing shapes future multifunctional technology: All that can really be said with certainty at the present time that the core materials/technology choice for multifunctional coatings and surfaces must be related back to marketing issues.

Specifically, the choice of smart multifunctional technology is heavily dependent on what that technology can offer in terms longevity, and the performance of the final coating or other multifunctional product.  One doesn’t have to dig down too far to see that there is plenty of room for improvement here – not just in multifunctional materials, but in smart materials as a whole.  For example, according to some accounts, self-cleaning paints are often in need of improved lifetimes and are susceptible to damage.

Multi-layered coatings as a place to start:  A review of the technical literature indicates that there are many different ways to create multifunctional surfaces and there is a growing library of information on using sophisticated nanomanufacturing techniques to texture surfaces to give them smart functionalities.

However, the reality is that much of the demand for multifunctional surfaces will initially be satisfied with multilayered coatings.  Here the multi-functionality is created by simply layering one smart coating on top of another smart coating.  This would not be hard to arrange just as long as one layer doesn’t interfere with the other.

Almost every kind of coating technology seems to have been envisioned for the fabrication of multi-functional coatings.  These include thin-film technologies, such as physical vapor deposition (PVD), chemical vapor deposition (CVD), and sol-gel methods; and thick-film technologies, such as thermal spray, cold spray, aerosol deposition, and suspension plasma spray.

A role for biomaterials in smart multifunctional coatings and surfaces: Although many of the materials developed as part of smart materials programs are biomimetic, relatively few of them are actually biological.  However, n-tech does see a role for biological materials in the development multifunctional smart materials.

This is in part because smart antimicrobial functionality seems well positioned to be part of many different kinds of multifunctional product.  It seems to be a natural to be combined with self-cleaning functionality.

For these reasons developing multifunctional surface coatings with antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties may find large markets for implants, surgical instruments, surfaces in hospitals schools, etc.

Use of sensors:  Potentially smart multifunctional surfaces could use electronic sensors as well as smart materials.

Indeed, the evolution towards surfaces with large numbers of functionalities suggests that sensors and smart materials will increasingly be found together, and there are already real world examples of where this is happening.  For example, a sensor array might indicate the location of an area of degradation in an oil well and then signal a smart material to intelligently combat corrosion and heal the damage.

Although perhaps no more than a semantic point, we also note that just gluing a sensor onto an already smart surface and then calling it a smart multifunctional surface is something of a stretch.  There has be some attempt to integrate the sensor into the whole sub-system to be part of the whole subsystem we are talking about here