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Future coating technologies Combined expertise

Coatings are found everywhere and it has become impossible to imagine our modern world without them. Some of them are obvious, but others are hardly recognizable. Dr Pierangelo Gröning is head of the department for ‘ModernMaterials and Surfaces’ as well as president of the research commission of Empa, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology. He deals with coatings day in and day out – and was available to BEYOND SURFACES for an interview.


» We can imagine a great deal, but it takes a while to move from research to implementation.«

Dr. Pierangelo Gröning Dr Gröning, coatings exhibit some very multifaceted properties which are able to powerfully influence and change our lives. In what direction are the technologies going to be developing in the next few years?
Take a look around you – everything is coated. The role and significance of coatings has changed dramatically over the course of time. They not only serve aesthetic purposes, but are also often the key to making highly efficient processes and additional functions even possible. A surface is usually in direct contact with the environment. Consider for a moment the surface of a human being – the skin: It protects the body from external influences, on the one hand, but at the same time, it consists of innumerable sensors which transmit the information gathered to the interior, to our brain. Of course, there is enormous potential for development in the area of technology with regard to such complex processes as these. We can imagine a great deal, but it takes a while to move from research to implementation.

And may we ask you for a prognosis for the near future?
I could imagine that organic light emitting diodes will illuminate our environment in the foreseeable future. This will expand the functionality of surfaces by one additional feature – that of light. For example, this would allow walls to become large-area room luminaires. But I could also imagine the use of organic light emitting diodes in flexible screens, as well as a plethora of further application possibilities.

INGENIA S3p

INGENIA S3p at Empa’s CCC

Facts & Figures

Empa is currently establishing a ‘Coating Competence Center’ in Dübendorf. Using several different coating machines, new manufacturing technologies are being developed and refined there. In addition to other partners from industry, Oerlikon Balzers is also supporting the CCC – with an INGENIA S3p plasma coating system. This enables scientists and engineers at the CCC to conduct research on equipment that is currently in use in the industry. They can carry out process steps and sequences which match those used in production and, at the same time – thanks to Empa’s analytical laboratory – analyse them using the best possible scientific methods. This allows findings to be made which greatly reduce the investment required for businesses to accomplish so-called ‘up-scaling’ to industrial equipment.

The development of new coatings and the processes they require is very time consuming and therefore expensive. What does that mean for the industry?
The effort involved is indeed very great, which is why industry is often not in a position to undertake this alone. Consequently, cooperative ventures, for example, with universities, are sought as a solution. Many developments must take place at a molecular and atomic level. This requires a broad spectrum of expertise in various disciplines. Understandably, no business wants to, or is able to pursue this.

So, research and industry should work together more closely?
Yes – and that is already very often the case today. Both sides benefit equally from such collaboration. The step from the laboratory to production is enormous. In manufacturing, you are confronted with a completely different set of challenges than in the lab. Research facilities usually lack the infrastructure because pilot plants – which are test systems that make it possible to model processes in real time – are very expensive. This means that financing is only possible with the support of industry.

What are the effects of this type of collaboration?
It enables early data acquisition under the corresponding production conditions and with the inclusion of the necessary production know-how. This has many advantages. For example, the development time is shortened dramatically because a process can be tested under actual conditions very early on. And, once we’re in a position to produce a quantity of one in the requisite quality, then we can also do it for 100, 1’000 and more. Of course, businesses, for their part, must also express interest in a collaboration of this nature.

What role does an institute like Empa play here?
Empa endeavours to create innovations and to make the corresponding knowledge and insights gained available to industry. You could say that we function as a bridge between academic research and industry. The new Coating Competence Center on the Empa grounds in Dübendorf near Zurich is an important step, for example, in intensifying the collaboration between research and the coating industry. In coming years, a location of the ‘Switzerland Innovation Park’ (SIP) will be constructed here in Dübendorf on the grounds of a decommissioned airport. The aim is to encourage businesses to locate their research and development departments there so that, in close cooperation with the scientists of Empa, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and other institutes, insights can be gained from various processes.

Empa works with many different businesses – even with some that are direct competitors.
That’s true. Empa stands for open innovation, which means making the findings gained from research available to everyone. The last refinements in the development of a process or a product must then still be made by the respective business. As Empa, we enjoy a reputation for the best in professionalism – and that is a plus for us in this sensitive area as well. Trust plays a great role here and forms the basis for good cooperation.

What benefits does the end user actually derive from the new coating technologies on which industry and Empa work?
There are several. For example, coatings are able to increase the service life of a product enormously. The area of ‘printed electronics’, or electronic components which are produced by means of gravure, offset or flexographic printing processes, also offers tremendous potential. This could result in many products becoming significantly less expensive. Coating technologies are also producing new possibilities in medicine such as in the use of coated, high-performance synthetics as implants. In contrast to conventional implants made of metal alloys, these are radiolucent. This makes examinations to track the healing process much easier than is currently the case.

What makes a technology a ‘good’ technology?
A good technology is able to meet needs that you previously didn’t know existed. A fitting example of this is the mobile phone. Who would have thought a number of years ago that one day it would be important to be able to use the telephone in any situation? Or to take pictures with a telephone? Initially, this was considered by many to be completely absurd, but today it’s totally normal for all of us! Developments of this nature are always unpredictable.

What would you like to see personally and in your role as a researcher for the future of technology?
My greatest desire is for mankind to be able to keep pace with technology, both intellectually and culturally. This is of crucial importance, in my opinion. As a responsible researcher, you have to ask yourself the question: “What is possible in the laboratory? And how much of that should be taken to the outside?” Let’s take the example of lengthening life – does this make sense? And if yes, then for whom? All of our research, developments and refinements, of course, always entail questions concerning social issues. Those involved in any innovation must be aware of this responsibility.

Dr Gröning, thank you for this interview!


Enabling highly efficient processes

Comment Column

Dr. Helmut RudigierDr Helmut Rudigier, as the Chief Technology Officer at Oerlikon Surface Solutions, you have been involved in the development of new coatings now for decades. What areas are the main focus of your work?
The main issue our coatings are always concerned with is how to enable highly efficient processes, for example, through wear protection or by reducing friction. To do so, a specific effect is achieved by modifying the surface or improving it with a coating or in some cases an additional treatment so that the underlying body is protected from external influences. Dr Gröning mentioned the human skin in his interview, and that is a good example, because just like a ‘coating’, it, too, protects our body from friction or chemical influences and bacteria. Our coatings work like skin: They protect the covered body against external influences and enable applications that would not be possible without these coatings.

How do you implement your own research results, and those of others, at Oerlikon Surface Solutions?
Our coatings are made for engine components, among other things, where they reduce friction, resulting in greater fuel efficiency. Or they extend the service life of turbines or industrial tools, meaning these can be employed more efficiently and resources are conserved. However, our newest developments go one step further and enable additional functions. One example of this would be our ePD technology – an environmentally friendly coating method for obtaining a chrome look in plastic parts. The ePD coating can have various colours and can also be transparent for light or signals, which opens up totally new possibilities for designers, for instance in the automotive industry.

And what will the coatings of the future look like for Oerlikon Surface Solutions?
An interesting and attractive area is that of the so-called ‘self-healing’ coatings, which are able to repair mechanical damage to their surfaces on their own. Our coating materials will increasingly possess ‘self-healing’ properties in the future. And here is one more fascinating field: In the future, a component and its coating will no longer be seen as two separate parts – instead, the one will be considered an integral part of the other. Their interaction will be matched and coordinated, opening up new design possibilities for savings in materials.

Dr Rudigier, thank you for this interview!

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