Why Color-Shifting Materials Bear Watching

Color-shifting materials are becoming more sophisticated, as n-tech sees them increasingly serve as enablers for a range of applications that we believe will have the potential to generate hundreds of millions of dollars on an annual basis:

•    In some cases, the change is evolutionary.  For example, some color-shifting paint makers are combining certain polymers with the crystalline or metallic flakes which typically create the color-shifting effect in paints, coatings and inks to make that effect more vivid and dramatic.

•    Thermochromic color changing sensors and novelties have been common since the 1950s and are also seeing potential upgrades as researchers explore the commercial potential of other chromic materials.

•    To these innovative approaches, n-tech believes, will soon be added some genuinely revolutionary color-shifting materials that take the chemistries of color-shifting, often by invoking nano-engineering.

•    For example, one start-up company has developed a color-shifting ferrofluid.  And Berkeley researchers have developed an ultra-thin material that changes color when flexed and which is based on bouncing back light from ridges that are etched into a silicon thin film. Color-shifting may also extend beyond the realms of smart materials per se.  Researchers, at the New University of Lisbon have developed a transistor that can change the color of almost any surface.

Also, while our focus here is on the contribution that smart materials technology makes to color-shifting, we also note that other technologies can be used to expand the appeal—and therefore the markets—for color shifting materials.  For example, arrays of high-brightness LEDs can be deployed to enhance color-shifting paints, adding more color effects and letting the color-shifting effect be seen at night.

Color-shifting paints, inks, coatings and additives present a dynamic extension of the use of color for products of many kinds.  Color shifting materials can enhance both the aesthetic and the functional use of color and the range and capabilities of such smart materials are themselves increasing.  Some color-shifting products have been around for a while, but n-tech’s sense of this part of the smart materials business is that the number of color-shifting materials is expanding rapidly.

Not only that, but the number of “A list” firms that are entering into the color-shifting materials business is quite impressive. They include: BASF, DuPont, Epson, JDS Uniphase, Kodak Graphics, Merck, PPG, Sun Chemical, and Valspar. To this list must be added some specialist firms and a few start-ups.

Notable though all of this is, it is only the supply side of the equation.  What remains to be seen, however, is the question as to whether the novel capabilities of color-shifting smart materials (especially the newer ones) can be easily monetized.  n-tech believes a good case can still be made for answering this question in the affirmative, both from an aesthetic and a functionality perspective.

Attracting Customers to Color Shifting Surfaces

Color as an aspect of visual appearance (i.e. aesthetics) has always played a critical role in consumer choice when purchases of cars, clothing or homes are being made.  Adding color-shifting to the mix might leverage the immense pre-existing importance of color in such choices to more effectively sell products or even grow addressable markets.

The emphasis here is on “might.” Today, some color-shifting “products” which emphasize aesthetics are marginal at best (how many women really want color-shift lipstick?) or actually fraudulent (YouTube videos that apparently show cars and dresses dramatically changing colors; from yellow to purple in the case of the cars).

Nonetheless, n-tech believes that one should not be too dismissive of color-shifting aesthetics.  We note that firms that have made a lot of money in the past understanding how aesthetics can be turned into dollars and cents are currently giving considerable attention to color-shifting materials.

Adidas, Johnson Controls and Valspar are all good examples of important firms that apparently believe that they can make money out of color-shifting materials.  And their current activities indicate their expectations of a positive customer response to color shifting.

Adidas:  In early 2015, Adidas debuted its new Chromatech materials, which change colors as they expand and contract. Each Chromatech sneaker that adopts Chromatech technology will therefore gradually take on its own unique look, because each is worn in a different way.

What n-tech sees here is an effort by Adidas to use color-shifting materials to better enable its skills at creating fashion trends.  But we think that here the company is also playing to another supposed marketing megatrend; mass customization. Mass customization is the idea that individuals can take a basic form and re-engineer it using simple low-cost technologies to meet their specific requirements.

Johnson Controls:  Meanwhile, Johnson Controls has announced color-shifting technology for car interiors that can both change colors and filter odors.  This work is being carried out as part of a joint venture with Yanfeng Automotive Trim Systems. What this JV is doing is creating plastic surfaces that will have the ability to change colors depending on the driver’s preference.

In the same way that Adidas knows how to create trends in shoes, so Johnson Controls knows a lot about what sells in terms car interiors.  However, we expect that color changing car interiors, will remain confined to the luxury car business—much as self-dimming windows are today.

Valspar:  The luxury market—in this case prestige buildings—is where Valspar’s focus is too.

This paint company has marketed color-shifting paints for over a decade, focusing its marketing efforts on architects who are the main specifiers of materials for prestige buildings.  It is then the task of the architect to convince his or her clients that color shifting is a feature that attracts attention to the building, but is also distinguished and welcoming.

Common themes: The three examples above cover totally different markets—clothing, automotive and construction.  Nonetheless, we note some common themes:

•    All three companies are trying to create customer need, not play to an existing demand for color-shifting.  Such a strategy is inherently risky. It might seem reckless, if these firms didn’t have (1) large marketing and financial resources and a (2) history of success following this strategy.

•    The confidence of these companies in the color-shifting space is boosted by recent developments that add credibility to their color-shifting strategies. Adidas is looking to mass customization and Johnson Control’s to current concerns in the automotive industry with improving car interiors.  Valspar has recently raised its profile in color-shifting based on materials improvements.

•    In all three cases there seems to be a presumption that the opportunities will be found among high-income consumers.

Although we are discussing just three firms here, there are other companies creating similar products.  In any case, we think the points made above offer guidance on how consumer markets for color-shifting materials are likely to evolve and why. Current conditions suggest that the potential opportunities for “consumer color shifting” is growing, but they are fashion oriented and therefore inherently risky.

Color Shifting Materials Add Functionality

This risk goes down where color shifting is adopted for functional reasons, but historically selling color with functionality has been less important than selling it with aesthetics. Thermochromic sensors and novelties have been around for decades, and there are also paints that change color only when they are dry, the initial color therefore acting as kind of “this paint is wet” statement.

These are niche markets.  Where n-tech sees the most future commercial potential is in the use of color-shifting materials for brand protection and anti-counterfeiting applications; mostly for currency and consumables of various kinds. This application has also been around for some time (using optically variable inks), but we see it expanding greatly because:

•    Counterfeiting is a rapidly growing threat in a digital age where copying is becoming increasingly easy to do.

•    At the same time, color-shifting is becoming more competitive as a security technology.  For example, Epson has a color-shifting label which is currently being used to brand protect genuine Epson ink cartridges.  Epson has said that this technology is now both functional enough and cost-effective enough to replace its older holographic systems.

The bottom line for color-shifting materials and surfaces therefore is that we appear to be moving out of an era where all that is available are just some mica-based paints and simple thermochromic films, to one in which traditional color-shifting materials will see enhanced performance and entirely new materials will appear.

n-tech believes that these technological developments will continue to encourage Tier 1 suppliers in consumer-oriented markets to use color-shifting to take the marketing significance of color to the proverbial “next stage.” However, where color-shifting is primarily deployed as a fashion statement, there is an inherent risk that won’t go away because of improved materials.

But there are also practical uses for color-shifting materials, of which, anti-counterfeiting and brand protection seem like the one with the most potential because of the easy way with which digital copying technology can be accessed.