CORDIS - EU research results

Feasibility Study of a marketable, sustainable, innovative WAter-based high Vacuum METALlization

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WAVE-METAL (Feasibility Study of a marketable, sustainable, innovative WAter-based high Vacuum METALlization)

Reporting period: 2015-07-01 to 2015-12-31

MARBO is an Italian SME operating since 1966 in the sector of chemical auxiliaries for different industrial end application, from composites processing to PU moulding and surface products valorization. Its attention for environmental aspects and sustainability led MARBO to develop a range of water-based products (demoulding agents for the composites and polyurethane industries, varnishes, lacquers) that are currently best sellers, well renowned for their quality and the comparable performances to solvent based additives.
The water-based chemical transition is aimed to improve the environmental sustainability of the products and the whole process, responding to the request of the market, eager to develop eco-friendly products with reduced VOC content, and improving safety conditions for the operators during their interactions with the products. The market is seeking water-based products also to overcome the drawbacks of the solvent-based products, such as, for example, the cost of the solvents, their environmental footprint, associated to emissions of organics, and the safety issue during the storage and use.
High Vacuum Metallization (HVM) is achieved by means of two layers of varnish, i.e. Base-Coat and Top-Coat, with an aluminium layer deposited between them, for imparting the metallic effect. Varnishes composition depends on the end use and required functionalities of the products, as well as the compatibility with the plastic substrate. Generally, they contain three components: solvent (aliphatic, ketons or alcohols), resins (Alkids, Vinylic, Acrylic thermoplastic or thermoset, Polyurethane...) and additives (dryers, surfactants, hardeners, adherents, matting, dyes). HVM has become a standard for consumer products metallized parts, for its lower associated environmental impact with respect to the electrochemical technology. HVM parts find applications, for example, for electronics shell and casing, automotive interior and exterior parts, lighting paraboloids, perfume and cosmetics packaging and electromagnetic shielding elements.
So far, HVM varnishes are solvent-based, for the capacity of such products to flow when applied by spraying, filling gaps on raw parts surface and avoid drops, perfect surface wettability, thixotropicity, fast and controlled evaporation. The past years of research, through lab scale trials on specific compositions developed on proprietary formulation resins, motivated MARBO to invest in the WAVE-METAL initiative, for a concrete and sustainable future for the development of water-based HVM varnishes.
The MARBO testing campaign has been deployed within the course of the Step 1, finalized to the development of a water-based Base Coat and a water-based Top Coat for the HVM process.
As per the Step1 feasibility activities, the following aspects have emerged:
• For the Top Coat, the promising results reached, from a technical point of view, lead to the decision from the side of MARBO to further invest, to reach a higher TRL and permit the stability of the product to be a basis for the sales, also out of the HVM where the varnish performances can grant the technical success
• For the Base Coat, the target performances of the material in the HVM seemed to be still far to be achieved, and the associated costs to be borne high. Doubts of the opportunity for a project follow up therefore have been raised, in reason of both the technical developments (still feasible) and the market acceptance, given the economical situation

In addition, according to MARBO management, a market issue is raised, overcoming the technical issues of the water-based varnishes for HVM (especially with regard to the Base Coat): hearing to the voice of the customers, the processors seem to be reluctant to abandon the current status-quo and to run the risks of a totally new process. Such risks could be borne in case of conjunction of different aspects: rebound of the fossil fuel prices, making less attractive and available the solvents, introduction of more severe norms on the VOC emissions, and different perception from the end users of the balance from cost and performances of different products.
This Feasibility Study has been aimed to evaluate, in concrete and measurable terms, the feasibility of the development of the water-based products for HVM process, assessing the following elements for the future developments and deployment of the system:
• The technical performances of the new developed water-based varnishes are hereinafter introduced, on the basis of the internal trials inside MARBO facilities and for external trials in MARBO clients’ facilities (Idealtech, Molteni, PM Panzeri, Crippa, Met Agnelli):
o the Base Coat showed limitations in terms of spreading capacity and adhesion to the plastic support; the performances in all cases showed to be inferior with respect to the solvent base product. Efforts in research still seem to be needed in order to raise the product performances at levels sufficient to permit the commercialization. In other terms, the lowest amount of solvents that has been sufficient to ensure minimum performances was assessed at 20%, still too high to consider a water-based product
o the Top Coat, despite some drawbacks, such as longer drying times, variable spreading power and the necessity of surface pre-treatment via plasma (although quite common in this technology), demonstrated satisfying technical performances. The water-based varnish for Top Coat, in fact, can be almost completely solvent-free (the necessary amount of solvent is lower than 6%), and presented better technical characteristics than the solvent-based products, mainly in terms of yield, solid residue and overspray.
• The relatively high costs of water based products, in comparison to those of the solvent-based products, make their adoption rather complex given the current low price of fossil oil and derived materials (e.g. solvents). What is relevant, the different behaviour of the base from the top layers of varnish creates a barrier to the creation of a complete “water based suite” of products, and therefore the real advantages of storage and application price reduction could not be achieved. What the market could be willing to pay for, at this stage, would either be a full water solution or a product with outstanding performances at lower price than the current competitors, to be able to absorb the modifications to be planned on the spraying line.
As a result of the project, MARBO has carefully evaluated the possibility to further invest on the development of the water-based products through, for example, seeking additional funding through a Step2 project. The result of this evaluation, built on the basis of the WAVE-METAL project results, and, in particular, listening to the opinions and desiderata of a range of customers operating HVM lines, is twofold: the technical drawbacks on the base coat can be overcome through the additional research. At the same time, the market conditions make such investment particularly dependent on the real capacity of the market to uptake it. Therefore, MARBO will is to put on hold the Step 2 (or any other source of funding finalized to the development of such water based innovative product), “freezing” the research results achieved so far, in order to resume them when the market conditions would be favourable for HVM to uptake such products. Markers for the good period to the research would be combination of fossil oil price rise, legislation banning products with VOC content superior to strict limits. The combination of such events is likely to permit a favourable market introduction of the newly developed products, now that the research is already launched and the way towards the achievement of objectives paved.
MARBO activities have been focussed in three directions, in accordance to the plan and the main aspects of interest in the project: testing for a technological feasibility, checking of market acceptance and defining a strategy to access the market through the identification of main players and their willingness to cooperate.
Testing campaign has been deployed within the course of the project activities, and have been finalized to the development of water-based Base Coat and Top Coat formulations for the HVM varnishes. For the Top Coat, the promising results reached, from a technical point of view, would lead to a real product, characterized by a high TRL, within a relatively small effort and narrow timeframe. The Base Coat, having higher requirements and demands for performances, in the light of its status of basis for the whole mechanical resistance of the product, seem to require a higher investment and research effort in order to reach a high level of performances, required to compete against solvent based products.
Market has been analysed and checked, in parallel with the process of testing, and the voice of customers collected from the direct impressions and ideas showed by the managers and technical personnel of the customers exploiting the innovative products in their line. In spite of their interest for the new lines of products, they admitted the shift from a well assessed, solvent based product towards a water based one, having no warranty on the final acceptance and performances from the final customers, would hardly be accepted. The only driver would be on the price of the final product, to be lower than the current standard. No compromise on the performances would be discussed: the same performances of the current products are the benchmark to be reached.
From the technological and market development deployed into a plan of business development, there emerged the need to combine a strong R&D research activity, in cooperation with university or research centres with strong expertise in the polymer and varnish technology, before addressing the initial ideas of downstream (regional and market) alliances to cover the market and to permit the products to be reaching the widest audience. such element is likely to provide an extension of the time required to reach the market and therefore to further increase the risks associated to the whole action.
The impacts foreseen in the proposal, associated to the results achieved and their market benefits for the entities proposing them, remain unchanged, according to the high expectations and the open mind of the customers willing to test and employ them into the pilot lines. What is changed, as a result of the work performed, is the time horizon for the results to reach the market in a comprehensive way. MARBO is well introduced into a market characterized by a global reach, and from a wide layer of investments established on simple yet delicate equipments. The set up of the process represents a key point in the chain of the product development, and so far MARBO has granted to own products the success on the basis of strong cooperation relationships with the customers, strict set-up of all the processing parameters, and custom tailored development of products. This approach would be replicated as well for the water based products, relying on a well established relationship and a growing interest to further increase the strategic joint developments and customization of chemical specialties.
Unfortunately, to generate such impact that would self-sustain and permit a double-digit growth in the company, the conditions in the market are not likely to be verified within the period foreseen in the original proposal. The management will therefore remain in close attention, permitting to identify at a glance the conditions making worth the investments. In the meanwhile, the technological developments, in particular on the most difficult Base coat materials, will continue on own funds, as it was for the top coat, therefore supporting the reduction of the risks once the market would allow for such a development and the actions will start again.