Coatings products are quickly commoditized and as a result manufacturers are always in search of that next big thing; novel coatings offering (1) high gross margins and (2) strong intellectual property protection. Smart coatings appear to offer all this and are therefore one place that coatings makers tend to look for new products. In fact, there is nothing new in this. Smart coatings have actually been around for many years in the form of electrochromic-coated glass and piezoelectric coatings and have found niche markets in a number of areas such as self-dimming mirrors and certain kinds of specialist sensors. For our purposes, smart coatings are broadly defined as any coating that responds to a stimulus (such as heat or the presence of gas) by re-arranging its morphology or composition and/or self-enhance its functionality.
As n-tech sees things however, the business environment associated with smart coatings is changing. In the past smart coatings represented just one of the places that coatings and specialty chemical companies searched when they were looking for new opportunities. Today, we believe this class of coatings is one of the first ports of call visited by strategic planners at these companies. And, as indicated below, we think that the focus on smart coatings is likely to become even more intense.
Our understanding is that today when major coating/specialty chemical companies talk to universities and research institutes about the R&D priorities that they see smart coatings are frequently to the fore. As we see it, there are a number of factors are combining to make smart coatings a more serious proposition with larger addressable markets than ever before. The most important observation is that smart coatings are now a material class that both coatings firms and large OEMs can feel confidence in.
Where in the past, smart coatings were often low-performance, short-lived consumer/aftermarket treatments sold by small mom and pop manufacturers, they are now long-lived coatings that can make a real difference. In the past, for example, self-healing coatings were more of a novelty than anything else and couldn’t offer much more than conventional anti-scratch coatings. Today’s self-healing coatings are powerful enough to wage a successful competitive battle against older and less smart coatings.
If the low-performance coatings just mentioned are Generation 1 smart coatings, then n-tech believes we are entering the next era of smart coatings; Gen 2 coatings—the coatings that, as we mentioned above, can inspire confidence among coatings firms and users alike. That is the big specialty chemical firms see a good prospect of profitability from such coatings, while end users see some real potential for improving their product by using these coatings.
Some examples are in order here and we note that many of these Gen 2 coatings are polymers. Thus, on the user side of the equation, we note that smart electroactive polymers have already reach a level of maturity that Boeing (a demanding OEM if there was ever one) has announced an extensive program to deploy them. At the supplier level, Covestro (the former Bayer MaterialScience) has done work on self-healing surfaces for the automotive sector using polyurethanes. Polymers are not the only materials that fall into this generation of smart coatings—silicon and nanomaterials are also quite important. And because so much of smart coatings design is biomimetic, biomaterials are also a factor.
n-tech believes that these Gen 2 coatings are just paving the way for a Gen 3 smart coating that has characteristics that are qualitatively better than any functional coatings that have come before. A good example here is the omniphobic coating developed by SLIPS Technologies, a firm with a self-healing/self-cleaning technology with a myriad of possible applications. SLIPS has received an investment from BASF, a company with a reputation for early entry into new technologies.
Finally, we note that the opportunities are not just in the coatings themselves but also in a broad range of additives, dopants and equipment that facilitate the deposition of these coatings onto a broad range of substrates.