Feature Stories

Waterborne Coatings: A Waterfall of Opportunity for the Coatings Industry

Waterborne coatings, which are typically made up of 70% water, have become a viable option in helping to meet sustainability goals in the coatings industry. By decreasing the amount of solvent, waterborne paints and coatings emit fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs). In addition to these environmental benefits, waterborne solutions achieve customer requirements of superior durability, ease of use and a beautiful finish.

As waterborne coatings have gained popularity over the past decade, the market for this technology continues to expand. According to Markets and Markets, the global waterborne coatings market size will grow approximately 4.4% annually from $74.1 billion in 2019 to $91.8 billion by 2024. “This exciting market is opening new opportunities for Axalta and the entire coatings industry,” said Matthew Boland, Vice President of Global Transportation Technology at Axalta. “We are excited to take a leadership position in evolving and growing the waterborne market and offering customers the chance to decide which coatings solutions are best for their products.” 

Although the transition to waterborne coatings has been felt in many industries, it has had a particularly profound impact on the automotive industry. “Five years ago, our Mount Clemens, Michigan, plant was manufacturing about 60% solventborne and 40% waterborne coatings. Today, that ratio is reversed,” added David Powell, Global Business Director for Axalta’s Transportation business. Many large original equipment manufacturer (OEM) customers, whose manufacturing plants in North America use waterborne coatings almost exclusively, play a significant role in this shift.

Axalta’s Transportation business was tasked with a similar challenge. In 2012, a benchmarking study conducted by General Motors (GM) revealed that its full-size SUV and luxury vehicles manufactured at the Arlington Assembly plant in Texas ranked last in terms of appearance compared to similar vehicles manufactured in other plants in its network. “When we converted that plant from solventborne to waterborne, Arlington went from the worst plant for appearance to the best plant in the corporation for appearance,” said Powell.

These changes to the automotive industry began decades ago, when the California Air Resources Board made a groundbreaking decision that would significantly change the automotive refinish industry and push coatings manufacturers to seek solutions that would satisfy these new VOC restrictions. The State’s Consumer Product rule placed strict limits on the percentage of VOCs for several product categories.

“After California’s Consumer Product rule went into effect, we knew change needed to happen because you just cannot achieve the low VOC levels required through traditional solventborne technology. An effective waterborne solution was required, and we sought to take a leadership position in making that happen,” said Steffen Apollo, Axalta’s Brand Manager of Spies Hecker®, Cromax®, Standox® and accessory products. Although California was an early driver of change in the United States, the European region was an early adopter globally, passing its own VOC solvents directive in 1999 aimed at reducing industrial emissions of VOCs. The onset of these legislative changes would forever change the direction of the coatings industry.

Waterborne coatings are having an impact all around the world, most notably in Europe and Asia. According to a study by Grand View Research, Europe is the largest regional market for waterborne coatings, followed by Asia Pacific, which is growing at the fastest rate. In fact, China’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan of 2015 placed strict controls on VOC emissions and caused companies to rapidly develop technologies that would comply with the new regulations. As a result, the overall market share of waterborne coatings grew from less than 1% in 2014 to over 3% in 2017, representing an annual growth of more than 15%. “China believes that waterborne solutions are a good choice to reduce overall emissions in the country, and their ability to regulate this change quickly was remarkable,” commented Boland.

While the shift from solventborne to waterborne coatings has been more recent in the automotive industry, some segments in Axalta’s Industrial business are already on to the next big thing. “The transition from solventborne to waterborne coatings happened more than a decade ago in our building products segment,” commented Carl Gaynor, Marketing Director for Axalta’s Industrial Wood Coatings business. “We continue to see a transition to waterborne ultraviolet (UV) coatings and 100% solids UV coatings for some applications.” UV coatings, which protect against non-ionizing radiation from the sun, reduce finishing costs and offer superior scratch, mar, abrasion and chemical resistance over various substrates.

Nucor Vulcraft, an Axalta customer, began the transition from a solventborne product to a waterborne product 17 years ago and today represents a case study in success. Through this transitional process, Axalta helped Nucor Vulcraft cut VOC emissions by nearly 400 tons per year in its Grapeland, Texas, plant alone. “Our work earned Axalta and Nucor Vulcraft the Texas Environmental Excellence Award for being the first company to create a water-based immersion primer system for the joist industry,” said Brian Martin, Sales Director for Axalta’s Industrial Coatings business.

Although it’s hard to predict if and when environmental legislation and sustainability goals will once again change the course of the coatings industry, one thing is for sure: Axalta will remain on the leading edge of new coatings innovations, technologies and products.

“Trends can reverse, right? What if water becomes, at some point, such a commodity for other uses around the globe that there is no longer enough to sustain the coatings industry?” questioned Boland. “Axalta must remain nimble and be able to quickly adapt to whatever changes are thrown into the mix. I think one of Axalta’s advantages is that we are experts in both waterborne and solventborne technologies. If the demand for waterborne coatings changes for whatever reason, we’ll be ready.”