I recently attended a meeting highlighting the importance of Surface Engineering and Coatings Technologies to industry and wealth generation in the UK. Although the meeting focused on Aerospace, Energy and Automotive applications it struck me that the Surface Engineering and Coatings community is a very broad church encompassing many individuals who may not consider themselves “Coatings People” but whose products and outputs are critically dependent on coatings performance.
The Medical Technology Industry, employing 575,000 in the EU, (71,000 in the UK), sell many products which are designed for a primary medical function but cannot be used without the application of a thin surface coating. Urinary catheters, for example, are coated with a lubricious, hydrophilic finish to allow insertion of the catheter into the urethra. When surgeons wash and scrub up before surgery they need to don sterile surgical gloves with damp hands; an impossible task without an internal glove coating to absorb moisture and lubricate the process. In other applications, surface engineering technologies are often applied to dental and orthopaedic implants to improve interaction with and integration of human tissue – a problem which if not addressed can lead to expensive revision surgery. The coating/treatment is, therefore, a critical part of the product design process. The primary product function is medical but the product cannot be used efficiently without a coating or surface treatment.
The pharmaceutical industry, employing 620,000 in the EU, depends on coatings in multiple applications. Due to the limited number of new drugs coming to market, the Over the Counter (OTC) Pharmaceutical market often differentiates products by innovative delivery of existing actives. This may involve controlled delivery of a pain relief drug from an oral tablet over a period of time- a technology that can often rely on a coating. Certain low dose aspirin tablets are enteric coated to prevent release in the acid environment of the stomach but then release the dose lower in the digestive tract thereby protecting the stomach lining. Nicotine patches for smoking cessation also use controlled release technologies to transport the agent into the skin. Surprisingly, if you buy an OTC product to treat head lice in children it will almost certainly be reliant on a surface effect. Modern treatments consist of a silicone formulation which coats individual hair follicles with a formulation which has been shown, in clinical trials, to prevent the adhesion of lice to the hair and prevent the development of eggs which cannot always be combed out by traditional treatments.
Few people would consider Cosmetics a functional coatings market but in essence many cosmetics are applied as a coating to skin and are designed to release active ingredients over a period of time to achieve a functional effect. The cosmetics industry has led the way over the years in micro and nano-encapsulation of multiple ingredients, as evidenced in the patent literature, and utilises the latest coatings technologies to differentiate product. L’Oreal ranks No. 6 in nanotechnology patent holders in the U.S. and has used polymer nano-capsules to deliver active ingredients, e.g. retinol or Vitamin A, into the deeper layers of skin. As long ago as 1998 the company unveiled an anti-wrinkle cream using nanotechnology.
The manufacture of glass in the UK, for the Construction Industry is a remarkable example of the use of advanced coating technologies to transform a commodity product into a desirable premium article. Multiple layers of nano scale coatings are applied and monitored during manufacture to exceptionally tight tolerances using techniques such as Chemical Vapour Deposition (CVD). High clarity and self-cleaning properties can be imparted to the glass surface in this high technology industry. In addition, high rise buildings are often fitted with metal window frames which are coated with architectural powder coatings which need to exhibit exceptional weatherability over long periods of time in the extremes of -30C in Northern Canada to +40C in the Gulf. In other construction applications, 7 million rivets on the Forth Railway bridge are individually coated for protection* and 2.2 million miles of fibre optic cable are laid by BT and protected by two separate coating layers*. Multi-million dollar infrastructure projects are therefore ultimately dependent on technology in the outermost few microns or nanometres of a coating.
The Injection Moulding industry has a wide client base in automotive, medical and other industries. In dual injection moulding of plastic components one barrel containing a lower cost recycled masterbatch is co-injected into the centre of the a mould while the second barrel containing a premium functional coating material is injected around the surface of the article. Hence a lower value article can be enhanced by an unusual coating methodology.
The Packaging Industry is a good example of the everyday application of surface engineering techniques such as plasma for treatment of plastic bottles prior to the application of self-adhesive labels or treatment of folding cartons to ensure that the flap on the carton maintains its adhesion strength.
In the Ship Building industry, the economic success or otherwise of a deep-sea freighter weighing thousands of tons is dependent on a thin layer of antifouling paint which prevents the build of biofilms and adhesion of aquatic organisms which slow the vessel and hugely increase fuel costs.
In the Oil and Gas industry the transport and storage of product can be heavily dependent on coatings which prevent the build up of biofilms in pipework and vessels. Similar issues are addressed in the global food industry with innovative coatings technologies. 10 billion metal cans are coated every year on the inside to prevent contamination.*
In summary, there will be many who read this article who do not consider themselves “Coatings People” but perhaps on reflection recognize they like many others are part of, or dependent on, the UK Surface Engineering and Coatings community. This is an underpinning technology which impacts hugely on employment and wealth generation for the UK.
*British Coating Federation data.
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