Paints and coatings, by their nature, serve to protect and beautify. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the word “protect” has taken on an even greater significance. Every member of the paint and coating value chain has focused on protecting their employees, customers, communities, and all other stakeholders under challenging, uncertain, and devastatingly tragic circumstances.
Innovation is at the heart of the paint and coatings industry. It is fundamental to the development of the paints, coatings, and other related specialty materials that are important for the production of life-critical products in healthcare, defense, food and beverage, hygiene, agriculture, energy, public works, information technology, and so many other sectors. Many raw material suppliers, resin, additive, pigment, and other ingredient manufacturers and paint and coating formulators were considered essential through lockdowns. In the United States, many were deemed part of the “Critical Manufacturing,” category required to continue in compliance with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).
For many companies, globalization facilitated ongoing R&D efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. “While physical lab resources have to be employed, more and more product development is a communications and knowledge exercise—the lab bench and office desk are equally important. We find that forward-looking customers continue to look at new options knowing that this, like other challenges in the past, will recede. We have simply adjusted our working schedules to allow us to continue working at the bench, developing products, and scaling them up,” said Mark Ryan, marketing manager, The Shepherd Color Company.
Solvay was able to leverage its global footprint to shift key mid- to longer-term projects to research and innovation centers in regions where labs were operating with normal schedules, according to Sel Avci, global marketing director for Solvay Novecare Coatings. In April, its labs in China were back in operation with increased safety measures, whereas its labs in Europe and North America were operating on reduced schedules with rotating shifts. “These contingencies are working effectively for us,” he reported in April.
Scaling Back for Safety
Operating with a smaller staff has also been important to continued innovation. Covestro’s onsite operations, for instance, were scaled back to primarily critical lab and production employees. “This lean setup of highly skilled employees has been crucial to maintaining the supply and development of our products. Ultimately, Covestro is a strong company with even stronger employees. We face adversity with courage and optimism, and our dedicated employees have created a positive and supportive culture amidst an unfortunate situation,” said Aleta Richards, head of coatings, adhesives & specialties for Covestro.
At Sun Chemical facilities, on-site supervision was reduced as non-lab personnel worked remotely to reduce the population density in all laboratories. The custodial staffs have increased disinfection concentrating on frequently touched objects (e.g., light switches, doorknobs, etc.). The New Jersey facility has produced hand sanitizer, supplying it to other locations in North America. Strict quarantine procedures have also been in place in cases of suspected exposure. “Several labs have been closed for a day for professional disinfection due to suspicion of possible coronavirus contamination. …The goal is to stay vigilant, enforce best practices, and stay positive,” commented Russell Schwartz, Sun Chemical chief technology officer.
This situation has not deterred us from focusing on innovation but has forced us to adapt our expectations with respect to project timelines.
Flexibility and agility have also been extremely valuable as companies worked to modify their approach to research and development. For Axalta, flexibility in schedules has been important, according to Robert Roop, vice president and chief technology officer at Axalta Coating Systems. “We extended the hours of our R&D labs to better accommodate the personal needs of our employees while also serving to facilitate social distancing,” he said. At Specialty Polymers, some chemists started the day earlier, helping to reduce overlap of staff, according to technical director Darrell Nasser. Evonik also implemented shift systems to balance social distancing, innovation efficiency, and individual family situations, according to Dr. Stefan Silber, senior vice president of innovation management for coating additives with Evonik resource efficiency. “We are deeply impressed by the professional and passionate attitude of our teams around the globe,” he said. A good project management system and agile process also helped Axalta adapt to a dynamic environment. “Using our project management system and maintaining consistent communication between the R&D team and the businesses has helped to identify high-priority projects and then deploy the available resources appropriately to these critical projects. As a result, we continue to deliver for our customers and make progress on key R&D projects,” said Roop.
Connecting with Customers
One of the biggest challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has been bridging the distance between suppliers and customers. “The physical distance from our customers, whose face-to-face connections we value so tremendously, has proven to be the most difficult part of this situation,” Richards asserted. “Human interaction and collaboration are vital to our efforts, and the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us to adapt and find new ways of communicating,” agreed Daniel T. Grobe, sales and marketing manager at Specialty Polymers. “Members of our technical team often accompany a salesperson on customer visits, and this, of course, has stopped for the time being. We like to keep customers informed of new products and what we see happening in the marketplace, and the way we deliver that information is changing. Virtual meetings are part of everyday life now, including for technical support of our customers,” he said.
Many companies, including Synthomer, Covestro, and Estron, have used technology to help employees stay in touch with one another and with customers. “Covestro employees maintain regular contact through online meetings and video chats, and we’re planning more digital offerings than ever before to develop virtual solutions to connect with our customers,” said Richards. Estron has provided its sales associates and employees home-based offices that are fully capable of providing a complete range of services and support. “We are utilizing advanced technological methods to keep in contact with our customers . . . to ensure that we are delivering a high standard of customer service and being able to engage on joint projects in an in-depth manner,” said Dr. Beth Ann Pearson, global director, marketing & business development at Estron Chemical.Day of the Week, Calendar
Synthomer has also worked to support employees, R&D personnel included, with technology to maintain frequent interaction and collaboration so projects can continue, according to Dr. Uwe Schulze, the company’s innovation director for the functional solutions division and Europe. The company provided best practices to help employees work most effectively and feel connected, motivated, and continuing to stay safe. Also, colleagues from numerous sites organized virtual coffee breaks to maintain a healthy social life and shared their own tips for effectively working from home in an internal newsletter.
Staying close to customers has been important to ensure their continued activities. “Based on our strong belief that the mid- and long-term innovation needs in our industry won’t be significantly affected by the current crisis, we basically maintained all of our innovation efforts at all of our global sites,” said Silber. “We prepared ourselves for a wide variety of scenarios regarding COVID-19, including worst cases, and have frequent exchanges of perspectives with many global market players to ensure we stay on course,” he added. Ryan stressed that having strong, resilient relationships with development partners that predate this crisis is critical. “At Shepherd Color, we like to say that ‘We work for long-term impact.’ Shepherd Color pigments end up in long-term, durable materials, so our customers appreciate the continued focus on forward movement. In the financial crisis in the late 2000s, Shepherd Color not only kept, but reinforced, key competitive competencies for when business picked up again so that we could respond quickly. We are doing the same thing today; we have a number of development projects ongoing with multiple customers in many industries, including tweaks to current products to developments of whole new color and functional pigment chemistries.”
Another challenge has been the slowdown in R&D activity at some of the customers served by ingredient suppliers. Estron, for instance, has been fortunate to be able to retain its full R&D headcount, but many of its customers have experienced a reduction in R&D resources for various reasons, which has slowed the pace of new product testing on their end, according to Pearson. “This situation has not deterred us from focusing on innovation but has forced us to adapt our expectations with respect to project timelines,” she observed.
The most prominent R&D activity for Sun Chemical has been to qualify raw material substitutions to secure supply chains and ensure sufficient product availability for its customers. “In addition, the incorporation of anti-viral materials into some products is being studied with the goal of reducing the period of time during which a virus remains infectious on a surface, especially surfaces of packages in critical supply chains,” added Schwartz. Several of Solvay’s business units have also put in place emergency product offerings to customers in healthcare and other sectors that have critical needs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “Maintaining business continuity is critical for us, as we are essential partners in the supply chains of our customers, with many of our products serving applications critical to our daily lives. Chemistry is a fundamental pillar of industry, and many sectors rely on us to keep operating. Our immediate focus is to ensure service continuity to our customers and address their immediate or short-term needs. We also regularly check in with our customers’ R&D teams to maintain project continuity and ensure timeline requirements are on track, as our customers are also impacted in similar ways,” Avci remarked.
This situation has not deterred us from focusing on innovation but has forced us to adapt our expectations with respect
to project timelines.