By Eric Casebolt, ChemQuest Powder Coating Research

Coatings Xperience: Informed commentary on the coatings industry

Over the past couple of years, there has been increased interest in R&D activity for powder coatings used in architectural applications in the U.S. market. From the perspective of industrial coatings, the architectural segment comprises coatings applied in a factory environment for use in building and construction applications.

For the purposes of this column, we will focus our discussion specifically on coatings applied to aluminum extrusions that are used in the manufacture of building products, which is the highest volume and value application in the architectural coatings segment. These coated aluminum extrusions are used as the structural component for a variety of architectural products, including doors and windows, store fronts, and curtain walls that define the façade of most high-end commercial buildings constructed today.

The coatings that are used on these products are either solvent- based or powder coatings that are applied in a factory environment, which includes a pretreatment process of up to seven stages, followed by a highly automated coating process. The pretreatment and coating process is specifically designed to ensure the highest level of quality because the coated architectural components will be used on high-value assets, such as stadiums and skyscrapers, which will be exposed to harsh environments for an extended period.

In fact, to be considered an approved applicator for the architectural segment, the coating application process is audited by the coating supplier. The audit process helps to ensure quality is consistent and performance meets specifications as outlined by the Fenestration & Glazing Industry Alliance, commonly known as AAMA standards.

Key Growth Drivers

Now that we have defined the market segment, let’s dig into the reasons behind the increased activity in this segment. At ChemQuest, we see two main drivers:

  • High growth potential of powder coatings in architectural applications in coming years.
  • Uncertainty in the highend AAMA 2605 segment created by potential PFAS regulations.

The growth potential of powder coatings is predominantly due to their environmentally friendly profile compared to solvent-based coatings. Although coatings experts often debate the math behind which technology is more “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly,” decision-makers along the architectural value chain generally perceive powder coatings to be the technology of choice when sustainability is the top priority.

In the United States, however, powder coatings only account for an estimated 25% of the value of coatings over extruded aluminum for architectural applications. For comparison, powder coatings are the dominant technology in the Western European architectural segment, with widespread use over aluminum extrusions.

While various factors could account for powder coatings being used more broadly in Western Europe, ChemQuest has interviewed architects and architectural component suppliers who usually attribute the preference to Western Europe being further ahead in its sustainability efforts in building and construction—however ambiguous the term “sustainability” may be. It follows then, that as sustainability in building and construction becomes more of a priority in the United States, these value chain members will increasingly specify powder coatings to be used on their products.

The second driver behind the increased interest is pending PFAS regulations that could potentially impact the coatings that are used in the AAMA 2605 segment of the market, which is the highest performance standard and includes a 10-year weathering requirement. All powder coatings and solvent-based coatings that currently meet the AAMA 2605 specification use fluoropolymers as their base resin because of their ability to meet the longterm weathering requirement.

Under the broad-brush PFAS regulations that are currently proposed, these polymers would be banned from usage once regulations go into effect. To be clear, many scientifically sound arguments are being made that would exclude these fluoropolymers from any upcoming PFAS regulations—and this is certainly within the range of possible, if not probable, outcomes. However, with the long testing cycle and the high value of the coatings used in the AAMA 2605 segment, coatings companies and raw material suppliers are compelled to develop potential replacement materials to ensure they are either able to take advantage of the regulations or have a plan in place should regulations affect their products.

When trying to understand the potential changes in coatings technologies used in the architectural coatings market, business-savvy folks often ask the question: Who makes the decision on which coating technology is used on construction projects? This is an important question because if one wants to influence the use of their technology in the market, they need to determine who must be convinced that their technology has the strongest value proposition and warrants consideration.

For mass-produced products, which we will define as standard architectural components in stock colors, the architectural component supplier (façade or glazing manufacturer) makes the decision on which coating technology is used on their products, regardless of whether they are applying the coating in-house or if the coatings are applied externally. However, on custom-made or mass-produced products with custom colors, which are often referred to as “project-based” products, the decision process is not so clear. To keep the discussion at a high level, we will consider three potential decision-makers: building owners, architects, and architectural component suppliers.

Building Owners

Building owners have the highest level of decision-making power as they can make a unilateral decision on what coating is used on their building. However, this decision-making power is seldom used and only happens in practice if the building owner is on the extreme high end of the sustainability-minded population.

Even in that case, the building owner deciding on which specific coating or coating technology is used on their building is very rare. With that said, if one was able to convince building owners—or third-party organizations that can influence building owners—that a certain coating technology should be used based on sustainability merits or another value proposition, building owners could make that decision.

Architects and Architectural Component Suppliers

Architects have the secondhighest level of decision-making power and are often mentioned as the key decision-maker because they are responsible for specifying the coating. While it is true that they specify the coating, there are a couple of caveats that must be considered.

First, architects often specify a coating by the AAMA specification and do not include any details about the technology—powder or liquid—that must be used. Furthermore, even in cases when they do specify the coating technology, it is often followed by the term “or equivalent.” This gives architectural component suppliers the ability to use whatever coating technology they choose as long as it meets the AAMA specification and aesthetics as required by the architect. Because of these two caveats, it is most often the architectural component supplier that makes the final decision, even though there are two parties in front of them that could dictate which coating technology is used.

Innovating for the Future

While uncertainty remains regarding whether fluoropolymers used in AAMA 2605 architectural applications will be included in upcoming regulations, it is clear that this is a market where powder coatings will continue to grow at a faster rate than solvent-based coatings. When change and uncertainty exist in these types of high-end markets, the result is often increased R&D activity as companies try to capitalize on the change or prepare to launch new products should their current products be impacted.

The architectural construction market involves a complex decision-making process. ChemQuest remains optimistic about the segment’s future and is actively engaged to provide assistance with new product development or help teams navigate the market activation process.

Eric Casebolt is director, ChemQuest Powder Coating Research. Email: .