How did you feel when you found out you’d become Scientist of the Year?
I was a bit shocked, to be honest. Because I’m not your average really die-hard researcher. A lot of the things I discover – through solving customers’ problems – are trade secrets – and not necessarily published or reported in technical magazines – because we want to keep a competitive edge.
But would you describe yourself as a scientist or would you use a different term?
I would say I’m a scientist, and in my work, I use science in all my interactions with customers really. The Coil Coatings business is B2B and the people we deal with have PhDs and ask very scientific questions. I may not know all the answers and have to do lots of research. I think I’ve probably built up a lot of knowledge through my interaction with customers and my peers, and I tend to share that with other people all the time. I don’t agree with the saying: “Publish or perish.” People say: “We need all this information reported somewhere, Richard. You ought to write something.” And I go: “Yes, OK – when?” Maybe in my memoirs.
Can you give us a potted career history?
I joined the company in 1980 after a degree in Organic Chemistry. Since then, I’ve worked in all sorts of research, sales and business roles – from Development Chemist in Coil Coatings to Regional Solution Manager for Metal in South Asia. From the mid-1990s to 2005, I was responsible for our coil coatings expansion into South East Asia, the Middle East, China and India. All of a sudden, my team grew, sales grew, customers grew in all those countries, so I had a very exciting time: travelling, employing people, drawing up contracts, presenting to customers in multiple locations and educating the coil business in those regions.
What’s your proudest achievement?
Pushing for sustainability – moving away from chromated products to chrome-free ones. It’s been a long journey and has taken 30 years of products – and technological developments. That move to chrome-free products is happening in parts of Asia without legislation – which is a great achievement – because then, it’s about what’s driving the customer to make the switch. We’re also pushing the longevity of the coil coating, so we’re making it more durable and it lasts longer – the longer, the better.
What are the future challenges?
Traditionally, the coil business has used gas ovens to “cure” paint. That means we’re using heat to increase the crosslink density and build molecular weight to make the coil coating more flexible and durable. I think the push towards green energy means we’ll move towards strengthening the coil coating by using radiation crosslinking – using a sort of UV or electron beam – instead.
Where are coil coatings used?
Mostly in the building and construction industries – on warehouses, roofs of buildings and garage doors. Other applications include hot water systems, microwaves and refrigerators.
How are coil coatings produced?
It’s a continuous process. It starts with a big coil of steel – weighing about 20 tonnes – which gets uncoiled and goes through a pre-treatment stage where it’s cleaned, before a thin film of primer is applied to both sides. Then it’s baked in an oven – typically, for less than 30 seconds – gets cooled down and goes through another coating room – where we add a top coat and a backing coat on the reverse – before being baked in yet another oven and recoiled. The process happens at high speed and produces a flat steel or aluminum product that’s formed into various shapes.
Why do people choose coil coatings?
Durability, cost, efficiency, sustainability. It’s very efficient because we apply very little film to the surface.
How do coil coatings differ from paint?
When you use paint, you apply it to a completed project or object. With coil coatings, we “pre-paint and post-form.” That means we paint directly onto the metal and then we make it into all these other shapes – such as fridges – that can withstand fabrication and still look pristine. Coil coatings need to last on a building for 30 years and still look good. But expectations for paint performance are a lot lower, because most people only have their cars, for example, for a maximum of between ten and 15 years.
What does your typical day look like?
People ask me for advice on products, performance or warranties, I deal with customers’ queries, people send me requests for potential developments and I might sit with a customer on a project review. Then I talk to my team about project deliverables, try to find out why things aren’t working and work out the science of what we’ve missed – and whether we need to introduce some new methodology. I research papers, read stuff coming in on a daily basis and have evening global project meetings – quite often at midnight – with colleagues in different time zones – so it’s very varied.
What would you describe as your “lightbulb” moment?
Learning from problems or things that aren’t going right in the business. I always say when something’s not working, we have an opportunity to develop something new.
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