Inside AkzoNobel’s New UK R&D Hub

AkzoNobel cut the ribbon on a new £10 million R&D centre in the UK yesterday: no VOCs, but a distinct whiff of the future.

The 120 scientists — previously spread across three floors at the former ICI site in Slough, now have their own wing and are making the most of it. Half-empty bottles of red wine, soy sauce and marmite lie about the place *. It’s party time lab-style as new formulations of Dulux Easycare and other brands are put through their paces for stain and scuff resistance. (*That’s an exaggeration, the bottles are on the window-sills and benches waiting to be used professionally.)

Next door is Hippo and three other modular robots capable of formulating paint at speeds 10 times quicker than a mere human. They quietly knock out row after row of tiny pots containing new recipes, unless they are clearing their pipes. More robots are on the way.

Having been through some tough years (cost-cutting, a hostile takeover approach and a breakup), it's all about leveraging brands like Dulux, cromadex and Interpon, embracing lower-VOC water-based technology to improve sustainability, and harmonising production processes in an industry where there are all sorts of regional variations in the painting trade: AkzoNobel CEO Thierry Vanlancker.

One ancient battle continues: a lot of human- and robot-hours are still spent on Titanium Dioxide. The holy grail is finding an alternative for this white pigment that suffers volatile price swings.

But even here there’s some controlled excitement around a possible work-around: powdered paint. No more brush and roller, this is mixed in the home and sprayed directly onto the wall. You need far less TiO2. And the logistics costs and carbon would be lower given paint-distribution involves trucking heavy paint pots about. There is a drawback, once mixed, its shelf life is a week, potentially stretchable to a few months at a push. No more half-finished walls then.

More popular in the Nordics, powder paint would require a wholesale shift in consumer behaviour elsewhere. While paint technology is currently accelerating at an incredible pace with the addition of biocides, even solar cells, the art of painting is steeped in tradition.

Early forms of paint were made from limewash or a chalk and water mix bound with glue and then tinted with natural berries to provide a colour. Oil-based mediums containing white lead, turpentine, linseed oil and pigment, plus a dash of varnish for a gloss finish were the mainstay for years.

Some companies embrace technology quicker than others. (There’s a funny story about the iconic US paintmaker Valspar flying over to the UK to check out a company it wanted to acquire to expand overseas. The target in question was a real premium paint brand, top quality pigments for an exclusive clientele. Left to fill in the blanks as they prepared for their UK visit, the Valspar team envisioned state of the art manufacturing, shiny steel vessels and sterile white walls any clinic would be proud of. Let’s just say the reality was somewhat different. On arrival, poking their nose into the plant for the first time, the Valspar team were greeted by a much more medieval scene and got straight back on the plane to the US.)

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