For AkzoNobel, research development and innovation (RD&I) is in the heart of its business. And the man driving that zeal is Dr Graeme Armstrong. The company spends € 370 mn in RD&I annually with around 4,000 people across eight centres. India is an important market for the company, and it is committed to expanding the skills and capabilities the company has built in its Bangalore centre. Auto Tech Review speaks to Dr Armstrong on what lies ahead.
Dr Graeme Armstrong is Executive Committee Member at AkzoNobel, responsible for Research, Development & Innovation (RD&I). Born in 1962, the 50-year-old British citizen joined AkzoNobel in 2008 following the acquisition of ICI, where he led the company’s research, development & innovation function. Prior to joining ICI, Armstrong spent 19 years in the detergents industry for Unilever and JohnsonDiversey in technology and marketing roles in Europe, Asia and the United States. He also served as Regional President for JohnsonDiversey in EMEA.
A Chartered Chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a member of their Science Policy Board, Armstrong had earlier graduated from the University of Newcastle in the UK, where he obtained a BSc in Chemistry and a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry. He is also Chairman of Chemistry Innovation PLC, and a former non-executive Director of the UK government Technology Strategy Board.
ATR_ How critical is the Indian automotive market to AkzoNobel?
DR GRAEME ARMSTRONG _ The Indian automotive market is very important for us, especially in the re-coating and re-finishing businesses. However, all the other market segments, including commercial vehicles, are equally important. Serving markets like India requires bringing in and developing the best of technologies that the company has, and those that are increasingly and importantly made relevant locally for India, through local invention or adaption. We have decided to invest heavily in R&D in India, primarily in the performance coatings business. And that is not with the thought of doing R&D in a cheaper environment. We want to do R&D in India because we need products properly developed for India, with raw materials that are relevant for India and are cost-effective for India. The objective is to develop products that survives and works in Indian market conditions.
Secondly, some time ago we recognised that for our global business, there were skills in India that were second to none. And the nucleus of capabilities we have built around our R&D centre in India is on colour understanding, which comes from, among other things, high-end computing and understanding how you can measure colours. These capabilities are not unique to India, but are very advanced in this area around Bangalore. Add to that the India centre’s capability in digitising colours. I think they are world leaders in this aspect.
You are one of the few global companies that combine innovation to the R&D function. Could you give us a sense of the approach you take towards innovation at AkzoNobel?
To understand what innovative needs there are in the market, you need multi-functional thinking. That can even be an incredible consumer experience, or an interesting consumer marketing insight. So, when I took up this job at AkzoNobel, I needed a licence to look into the innovative process, and have people in technology, supply chain, maths and marketing to see what the customer is actually all about.
Talking about the ‘I’ in RD&I, the reality of an innovative world is that you need to be able to talk to all those disciplines and have them communicate. One of the concepts we’ve been working on is that good R&D people are T-shaped – they’ve got deep technical skills and know their colour, polymer chemistry and measurements very well. At the same time, they’ve developed business experience that makes them able to talk the language of marketing or commercial people, or even their supplier base, for instance. That makes it far more effective in catalysing innovation.
If you look into our research projects, the main driver is to develop long-term sustainable products through reduction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and elimination of toxic materials, for our customers and the society in general.
Talk to us about the transition or transformation that automotive coatings technology has undergone over the years.
In the automotive and refinish business, everyone’s looking at eliminating the use of VOCs. If you look at Europe at this point in time, the automotive industry has completely moved to waterborne paints. It’s a fantastic product, and is good news for developing markets as well. The bad news is there’s only ‘water’. A classical solvent-based system, on the contrary, can be adapted to drying speeds with faster operating solvents or lower solvents to make the base colour look like the way you want.
Making waterborne paints work is a challenge, and requires several measures and controls. In Europe, for instance, high-end body shops have acclimatised booths that are built with high investments. In India though, majority of the market do not have that level of experience. It’s the same story in China, yet we are trying to market this technology in all parts of the world. It’s an interesting challenge because there are customers who would like to stay ahead of legislation.
We are absolutely convinced that waterborne primers are the future. We’d also see more automation and IT-driven activities to help customers formulate the right colour. Lead has also been completely eliminated from all our products.The move obviously is towards making your products and processes more sustainable.Talking of sustainability in the context of VOCs and materials of concern, another critical factor is lightweighting of materials. In sync with megatrends, a lot of materials used by automobile manufacturers are getting lightweight, including the use of aluminium and plastics. And we need to be able to handle that, because it isn’t the same as steel.
Secondly, as in the case of Formula One, extreme lightweighting will occur when colouring of the vehicle becomes a significant part of the weight and mechanical structure of that lightweight vehicle. We foresee a time, where the coating is not just a protective colourant, but actually a structural component of very light films. That’s the extreme of sustainability. Our connection with advanced materials, plastic lightweighting materials, and how they can be coated is part of the way we have to think.
Let’s consider the movement towards electric vehicles. There will be a time when the car’s surface will start using available light to trickle-charge a battery. Currently, these options could be very expensive and may provide too little charge, but they are bound to happen. We are thinking how to make a surface become the electrical conduction, and alternately conversion to electrical power. Not sure how long that would take, but coatings would eventually be used to trickle-charge our vehicles, or generate heat.
So, it is clear the future would be all about renewable materials and energy?
Indeed, and these are all built into our sustainability strategy. You’ll see from us in the next six months or so, a new boost in our sustainability strategy, which will be much more focussed on resource efficiency. The amount of materials, energy and water for the entire supply chain are things we’ll put a lot of attention on.
As a practice, we constantly look for renewable resources. We have started work on finding alternatives to petroleum-based materials, for instance, without jeopardising quality. Frankly, a lot of renewable resources are terribly expensive, and not very functional. So, there’s no point in getting very excited about renewable resources that don’t work or are too expensive.
We’ve got an aggressive strategy towards this, with about 20 target choices of material developments that will take us through the bio-technology renewable route, which we have identified as a priority for the company. But even those 20 would cover less than 20 % of our raw material choices. And we’ve probably got one of the most advanced strategies towards this. But the moot point is these technologies would work only when they are truly effective and cost-competitive.
In that context, could you explain the concept of an eco-premium product?
Good question. The idea was to use sustainability for competitive advantage. In changing the culture of the company – done quite some time ago – towards sustainability, which allows you to make more effective products that are competitive for your customer, the concept of eco-premium products was born. We set-up a criteria that includes five components, where you systematically measure the product you have versus the best mainstream product there is in the market place. And you rank with some form of discipline whether the product is more eco-appropriate than the mainstream competitor.
We’ve been doing that for a number of years, and have made quite a lot of progress. We have set a corporate target to be 30 % eco-premium. We’re getting to the target, and are currently in around the low 20s. We like the concept because it’s competitive and it thinks about using sustainability in a market facing way. It’s not an easy task, because you need to know every competitor product in the market.
In philosophical terms, it’s a really good thing to do, but in practical terms – over the course of the next year or two – we will be adapting a definition so that we can actually make it a little easier for our scientists to work on. As a concept, eco-premium is absolutely important to AkzoNobel, and we’ll keep it going, albeit with some modification in our thinking. We won’t dilute the concept, but will make it more workable.
Let’s consider colour in terms of eco-premium, and link it to a point I want to make about research. Pigments are not natural; they are synthetically created. But nature doesn’t do it that way; it creates colour by clever structures on surfaces, which interfere with light. Our researchers in Bangalore want to work on that sort of a technology to replace pigmented colour.
A term that has become globally relevant for manufacturers is ‘frugal engineering’. What’s your view?
There s a mystique about people and companies, who believe emerging consumer markets want frugal or cheap products. I don’t believe it. I think they want excellent high-quality products at an affordable cost. You have to engineer products keeping that in mind. Anyone believing in making a car that “poor” people can afford to buy, I find the thought abusive. I believe that is a flawed strategy. In that sense, I don’t believe in frugal innovation, but in high-quality, affordable innovation. Frugality means to me compromises around cheapness and cost.
Interview: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah
PHOTO: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah / AkzoNobel