Photography Frames a Complex Picture

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Eastman Kodak's announcement in late January that it would be laying off 20% of its workforce during the next three years garnered much industry attention. Staffing cutbacks have been all too common at U.S. manufacturing companies during the last three years, but the Rochester, N.Y., firm's move seemed to offer a bleak picture of what could happen to an icon in the chemical industry.

Rumors abounded in the press that Kodak, whose name is synonymous with photography, was leaving the film business altogether. That, in turn, led to another round of headlines that contended conventional photography is dying, and has been done in by the increasing popularity of digital cameras. The chemistry that provides the foundation of film photography -- the dyes, pigments and processing chemicals -- is giving way to the bits and bytes that are stored on a computer hard drive or flash memory card.

Predictions of the demise of film photography certainly give pause to the chemical engineer involved in producing photographic materials. After the harsh business conditions that the chemical industry has endured for the past several years, the idea that well-established, high-value products of the industry -- photographic chemicals and materials -- may become obsolete is troubling, to say the least, to many others.

Has electronics technology, so long the ally of the chemical engineering profession, turned into its enemy?

A look beyond all the gloomy headlines gives a different and reassuring picture. Film photography is not disappearing, and the overall chemical industry is benefiting from the "digital revolution."

Kodak is not leaving the film business. It is making more film than ever, and has recently forged business alliances in Asia to produce more film. The firm also is expanding its deployment of photo-printing kiosks (that allow consumers to turn digital photos into prints), and is developing new inks and papers. Kodak is abandoning some lines of business, such as reloadable cameras, but is now a global leader in digital camera sales. All this is cold comfort to the employees who are being laid off by the company, but it does not appear to have larger implications for engineering -- or chemical engineers specifically.

While there's no question that exponential growth in digital photography is occurring, this is not cannibalizing photography on film or paper, so far. What it will do is carve into the future sales growth of these materials.

Meanwhile, digital photography is creating a fast-growing market for materials such as photographic ink and photo paper for home use. Market surveys from leading firms show that demand for pigments, toners and dyes is increasing at steady rates; digital photography is one of the key drivers boosting the use of inks. "Consumer uptake of digital printing in the home and the huge popularity of digital photography are mainly responsible for the continued growth" of these products, says Frost & Sullivan, San Antonio, Texas, in a 2003 report. It projected that global sales of ink will grow from $16 billion to more than $25 billion between now and 2009, and forecasts that there will be an opportunity for photo printing in the home to take over some traditional applications in commercial printing.

U.S. consumption of pigments of all types will rise 5% per year through 2007, according to a late 2003 report from Freedonia Group, Cleveland. "Printing inks will be the largest and fastest-growing market based on greater use of metallic pigments in packaging and promotional graphics, phosphorescent pigments in security and digital ink pigments in computer printers." The industry now has a sales volume of $2.8 billion, and counts chemical firms such as Sun Chemical, Ciba Specialty Chemicals, Bayer, Clariant and BASF as participants.

Here's another benefit of the digital revolution: battery sales are booming. The worldwide market for alkaline cells will rise from $3.17 billion in 2002 to $4.67 billion in 2009, Frost & Sullivan predicts. Sales of rechargeable batteries will climb from $5.90 billion in 2002 to $7.24 billion in 2009. And, batteries, of course, require chemicals and materials.

By now, the "electronics chemicals" market sector is well known to the chemical industry, with product offerings that include industrial and specialty gases, photoresist chemicals, abrasive slurries and others. That business suffered through the past downturn, too, but is rebounding nicely.

Market data like these don't say much about employment or opportunities for chemical engineers. However, for the engineer who is seeing all of the headlines about the "death" of this or that business, the reality is that chemical technology is not a zero-sum game, where one technology's growth is another's decline. It's a far more complex picture.

By Nick Basta, editor at large

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