So, What's Next?

Posted on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

By: Kevin Biller

Lately I have been asked by more than one party, “What future trends are in store for the powder coating industry?” It has been a while since someone wondered out loud what the future might hold for our fair technology. Let’s dust off the crystal ball and have a look.

The Overall Market is Growing

The economic recovery has provided a natural expansion of powder coating consumption compared to the 2008 to 2012 industry climate. OEMs have been ramping up production and the powder producers have enjoyed increased sales. The US automotive industry just had a record year producing over 17 million light vehicles which sparked significant growth in powder for automotive parts.

Another very encouraging trend is reshoring. A number of manufacturers have scaled back production in Asia due to long delivery lead times and uncertain quality. In addition labor rates have climbed in China, thereby reducing the attractiveness of sustaining operations there.

New Market Opportunities are Substrate-Driven

Everyone knows that if a product is metal and can fit into an oven, then it is probably powder coated. If it isn’t powder coated, then the finisher is still in the dark ages or must be pulverantphobic (a new word). Hence the commodity powder producers slug it out in the procurement agent trenches escaping bruised and bloodied, but hopefully with at least a sliver of profit margin.

As fabricators continue to displace sheet metal and castings with SMC, injection molding and composites, powder technologists are rising to the occasion with lower temperature cure materials and processes. Interesting new cure chemistry and fine-tuned heating processes have evolved to meet the challenges posed by these non-traditional (to powder, at least) substrates. These chemistries span the polymer spectrum from epoxies for tough, highly chemical resistant coatings for non-UV exposed surfaces to outdoor durable polyesters for architectural uses and automotive grade acrylics.

Venturing into the lower cost plastic goods arena with polymers such as ABS, PC-ABS, PVC and polyolefins then radiation cure powders may be the answer. This technology can be cured without the substrate exceeding 110°C (230°F) albeit with a multi-step process (application, IR then UV).

These emerging powder chemistries are opening up opportunities in the architectural, automotive, appliance and industrial market areas. I see the non-automotive transportation industries exploring ways to include powder coatings in their future finishing operations that include these non-metallic substrates.

MDF Powder Coating is Poised for Growth

Major furniture makers have made a push to displace paint and laminate lines in favor of powder coating. This is one of the first bona fide market pulls for this technology. Refinements in cure chemistry have created powders that cure in around 5 minutes at 125°C (257°F) making powder coating a very attractive alternate to multi-coats of paint or the cumbersome laminating process that includes edge-banding.

Raw Material Prices are Stable

Raw material prices have stabilized partially due to increased production for key components such as titanium dioxide. TiO2 production in China continues to grow and DuPont is set to bring substantial capacity on line in Mexico in 2016. The shortages of a couple years ago are in the rearview mirror and are not expected to reappear for the foreseeable future. Resin prices have been stable and in some cases have dropped due to historically low petroleum prices. Pricing blips have occurred because of sporadic supply issues however the overall trend has been consistently lower resin prices.

Technology Centers are Shifting to Asia

Not long ago I noted that industrial manufacturing was relocating en masse to China. This was an inevitable trend based on lower costs for relatively easy-to-manufacture goods. The spectacular growth during the 2000s has ebbed a bit, however the expansion in technical centers continues. Some Asian R & D facilities are celebrating their 15th anniversaries—and with them a keener understanding and focus on new technology. They are poised to eventually overtake the traditional innovation centers in Western Europe and North America.

Promising Young Technologists Seek America

In spite of the rapid growth of technical centers in Asia, high caliber students continue to flood graduate programs in the United States and Canada. These students are seeking degrees disproportionally in physical sciences, math and engineering and emanate mainly from India, China and, to a lesser extent, Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Turkey. Most enter the United States with a highly coveted H-1B visa, a privilege controlled by the U.S. Congress. Many of these students are soliciting future employment from prominent powder producers and may fill the gap we’ve experienced from the recent industry brain drain. 

So, what’s new? It looks like the powder industry is being re-energized from a range of directions. The market is expanding, technology is evolving and new faces are bringing vitality to our once-stagnating industry. Hang on tight; we’re in for a ride.

Kevin Biller is technical editor of Powder Coated Tough and the president of The Powder Coating Research Group. He can be reached at kevinbiller@yahoo.com.