Covestro & TTP: Revealing a brave new vista for inkjet

Coatings and adhesives is a sizeable industry. In fact it is estimated by consulting firm Orr & Boss to represent about €100 Billion in sales globally every year, even after excluding the decorative paints market (architectural coatings applied on site at residential, commercial or even Industrial sites).   In terms of volume, 34 million tonnes of coating, adhesive, and sealants materials are made and sold every year, with production scattered across the world.  More than half of this total is coatings, with most of the rest being adhesives.  Coatings and adhesives form part of most of the things we interact with every day: Almost everything we touch (look at the graph below) these days is coated in some way. When you compare this with industrial inkjet inks, estimated at around $2 Billion currently (2015), you can see the scale of this market. 

I talked to Adam Salmen, Head of Marketing of Covestro’s digital printing movement at Covestro. Covestro (formerly Bayer MaterialScience), Andrew-Baker Campbell and James McCrone of TTP in this article and discovered more about this unique collaborative initiative designed to lead innovative digital inkjet technology onto a new market segment.

So Adam, why Coatings and why Inkjet?

Our belief is that if we can open the coatings industry to inkjet and vice-versa ,it will be good for both the adhesives & coatings industries, as well as the ink jet industry.  Ink jet has been talking about “Industrial Print” for years but we have not really seen anything substantial, other than the tile industry, and even that is relatively classical in its decorative aspect.  For adhesives and coatings, It also allows our current and future customers to use our products in ways they are currently unable to. In short, it will allow our customers to get a digital application of our products, Which in, and of itself has many benefits. Not to mention the new possibilities which will arise when you can digitally make individualized products at the push of a button. 

Our Motto is “Inventing for you”, and as a leading player in the polyurethane industry, we see it as our responsibility to push the limits of what is currently possible, and make this available to our customers. In order to achieve this, we are trying to create an open platform where all of the existing players benefit. This means  print head manufacturers, brand names, semi-finished products, and even integrators have something to gain from this new development.  ”

So opposed to a more closed, defensive strategy?

“Yes, we believe a closed approach would be far less effective. We saw how 3D got tied up for 20 years in patents and slowed the pace of innovation and adoption dramatically.  Our core competency is the chemistry behind our products, and want to continue to use our innovation power to differentiate ourselves in the market. This now creates a need for other companies with complementary core competencies to enter into the discussion. We believe that if we can all work together, there is enough room for everyone to prosper.”

Why are you so convinced that coatings will need some kind of digital solution?

Adam Salmen, Covestro

Adam Salmen, Covestro

“Covestro is a leader in polyurethane coatings & adhesives materials and we think the next step, as we move toward Industry 4.0, is towards a manufacturing technology that affords more automated and digitised production, enabling mass customization and resource efficiency. These benefits will enable on-shoring and even new business and manufacturing models.  When the market starts to develop in this way obviously we want Covestro to be the chosen materials partner – so we want to develop this market and this is why we also take the risk to seed new technology. We assessed the available options in the field and we settled on TTP’s Vista technology. 

The classical point of coatings is to protect a product from the environment , creating a barrier against UV and oxidation deterioration and increase its appeal and thus value by decoration.  Currently this process is largely done manually by hand with spray guns, roll, stencils, and brushes. These activities also tend to concentrate in low cost centres like China. The world is shifting to wanting more local production, with shorter runs and customised products, and we think that new technology is needed to fulfil this demand. This is why we have begun this particular mission.

Printing 2k waterborne adhesives is only a first step in this development.  We are demonstrating how our customers can digitally apply adhesives in thick layers in one pass and on different types of even 3d formed substrates, while maintaining the industrial strength and proven quality that polyurethane adhesives have come to represent. TTP’s Vista technology brings forward the possibility of inkjet printing of coatings and adhesives, creating a whole new market segment.”

So is the coatings industry ready for inkjet?

“We think so. Although for many years we saw this as merely a trend, this last year we conducted a survey, with over 100 people from the coating and adhesive industry’s value chains. We conducted these surveys on our website, at the European Coating Show, and through several of our marketing manager’s social networks. The results demonstrated that this digital printing idea was not only a need, but that they are already looking for (and developing) solutions in this direction. 

So it seems the market could be ready for something new – I also talked to TTP, Andrew and James about their technology, its background development and what their view of its integration into coatings.

TTP are based in Melbourn, situated close to Cambridge in the UK. TTP itself has created many print related innovations over the years, not to mention two companies exhibiting at the InPrint Show – namely Tonejet and TTP Meteor.

The aim of the meeting was to discover more about their Vista technology and a new partnership they have forged with Covestro which has the aim of opening up a potential new market for the digitisation of inkjet printing coatings and adhesives.

TTP itself isn’t your regular type of business. Positioned as a partnership organisation, both with customers and with their employees (the business is employee-owned), the organisation now employees 300 top level scientists, engineers, and business innovators, with in-depth industry expertise. It is active across a broad spectrum of sectors including drug discovery and pharmaceutical automation, bioprocess automation, laboratory instrumentation, wireless communications, digital printing, electric vehicles, digital radio, food and beverage, drug delivery, diagnostics, micro-devices and sensing, and consumer products. The innovation we are focusing on in this story is Vista, and Andrew and James believe it has strong a future in the coatings and adhesives market.  A part of TTP’s strategy is to partner with a head manufacturer who wishes to take on the innovation and commercialise it.

TTP has a strong track record within printing. In addition to their current businesses they were one of the early manufacturers of wide format printing machines.  This  is one part of their broader ability to develop and bring technologies to market that can disrupt and create new value.

It is out of TTP’s focus on innovation through science and engineering that Vista came into being. I talked initially to Andrew Baker-Campbell who is leading the Vista project.

Andrew what is the background of Vista technology?

“Vista itself started its life as an electronic aerosol technology in a medical nebuliser (refer to photo). This was developed for the treatment of people with cystic fibrosis to help them better cope with the condition and simply breathe more easily. Before Vista, a very big compressor would have to be plugged into the wall – it could hardly be termed as portable or easily usable by the patient away from home. However the Vista system provides a highly efficient way for people with the condition to get the necessary steroids and antibiotics into their bodies.”

“People with cystic fibrosis are very prone to infection and suffer from having a substantial amount of liquid in their lungs. Therefore they require steroids and antibiotics to manage it. The Vista technology helps them to take these materials into the lungs far more sympathetically to the body and far more effectively than the traditional method. The head technology within the nebuliser contains 1000’s of nozzles. The key performance value is in the droplet size precision, enabling the dose to be delivered 4 x more quickly and reducing side effects.  Another advantage is that you do not need to plug in the device: it works with a battery and is very small and hand held. This system does not work with compressed air as it is purely electronic. The product was developed by TTP and commercialised in partnership with healthcare company Pari GmbH.”

It is clear that TTP is a high end R&D resource that creates innovative solutions in partnership with customers, and more often than not they find other uses for the technology that can create new value in completely different industries through different applications.

For the world of manufacturing and industrial print, where is the relevance for this technology for industrial printing?

“We took our electronic aerosol technology and created a device in which each nozzle has its own, independent actuator.  You then have a DOD printer technology and you can get the nozzles to do different jobs with different substances. The droplet ejection process is quite different to normal inkjet, and this underpins the advantages of Vista.

For instance, in Vista  there is no chamber behind each nozzle, and no narrow restrictions in the fluid path. Droplet ejection is driven in a completely different way to most inkjet heads, by the inertial reaction of the fluid to the motion of the nozzle plate.  If you are ejecting an adhesive that makes a big difference, because you are not having to deal with tiny chambers and capillaries which are incompatible with high viscosity materials. This simpler ejection approach means that a wider variety of materials can be put through the head.”

James McCrone joins the discussion at this point and we talk about current inkjet and whether this has the potential itself to be adapted for different substances.

So why is Vista better for this than say a traditional DOD inkjet head?

“Traditional DOD inkjet is superb at certain jobs and its diverse use is proof of how robust and adaptable it is. However the core technology was created for graphic arts and for high quality image reproduction. The latest heads are amazing at 600 – 1200 dpi which is superb for textile and other décor applications where the main objective is the appearance of the surface. However there are clearly other opportunities in industrial printing, such as the coatings and adhesives market highlighted by Covestro, where the precise deposition of inkjet  to aid manufacture is appealing, but where current print head technology falls short in its ability to handle higher viscosities and deliver thick layers.”

With industrial printing a key driver is the shift towards Industry 4.0 – does this technology provide any obvious advantages for manufacturing?

“Yes it does. It gives a manufacturer significant advantage, especially those that are seriously looking at more effective ways to produce product closer to customers. China is still a large centre for manufacturing – and will remain so, not least to serve its growing domestic market - but due to speed, and to some extent cost, it is not always the best location.  This is particularly true for dynamic consumer products that target fast moving markets, for example the “fast fashion” market. Retailers and manufacturers need a more responsive manufacturing model, so any technology that can help facilitate this is in demand. Vista provides manufacturers the potential to respond more quickly to demand and to reduce labour costs, but most importantly it can also provide new value.”

I finish by asking Adam whether they have to make new coatings and adhesives?

“Of course, depending on the particular application this may be necessary. To be honest though, this is not going to pose a problem. As a world leader in polyurethanes, We have the production capacity to ensure the volumes required by customers, the long term vision, and management support to ensure we deliver the top quality products our customers have come to associate with Covestro.”

With the vision, expertise, technology and energy on display I am sure this is going to happen.

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