When Rust Bullet was ready to begin manufacturing overseas, we already were veterans at marketing an unconventional product. Swimming upstream against traditional attitudes about anti-corrosion coatings, we had learned that progress in product innovation always will be slow if it's limited to "the way we've always done it." Yet, our experience had shown that fresh, unconventional thinking can lead to big advances in technology, so we were well prepared to consider a novel approach to offshore manufacturing as well.
As it turned out, our experience transferring our process to an overseas manufacturing partner is a reminder to small- and mid-sized companies: The best path to success isn't always the one chosen by the market leaders that came before you.
For larger companies, it's a wake-up call. Sticking to what's familiar — resisting changes in feedstock and formulation, equipment strategies, packaging and even the choice of a new manufacturing partner — is risky. Smaller, more-agile companies always will be coming up behind you. Some will be willing to consider new directions, hoping to move quickly to exploit the opportunities you overlooked.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL PRODUCT
The anti-corrosion coatings market, like many other mature ones, is dominated by strong attitudes based on long experience. Most "old guard" engineers insist that to be effective an anti-corrosion coating must be zinc-rich. Indeed, zinc for decades has been the gold standard in preventing corrosion on ships, bridges, drilling platforms, aircraft, towers and many other structures in marine, industrial and agricultural applications.
In recent years, research has revealed serious environmental risks associated with zinc, so demand for an alternative has grown. This has led to the emergence of multi-layer epoxy-based coatings and zinc-filled conventional urethane coatings for corrosion mitigation and control. However, market acceptance has lagged. The hassle associated with laborious surface preparation and the time required to apply numerous catalyzed layers has caused resistance. In addition, companies concerned about environmental impact balk because many of these coating alternatives still contain zinc and other harmful ingredients.
Research and development in our laboratory, followed by three years of extensive testing at independent analytical laboratories and various universities, produced a different approach to corrosion control, one based on novel chemistry. Instead of protecting metal beneath a zinc-loaded film or an unfilled resin, the new coating uses a moisture-cured urethane to penetrate and dehydrate rust until it reaches the metal surface underneath. In most cases, surface preparation isn't required. Catalysts also are unnecessary. As it cures, the urethane captures the dehydrated rust and incorporates it in the resin matrix — killing the rust permanently.
Meanwhile, a protective micro-layer of metallic flakes also forms in the resin matrix. As the coating cures, these metallic flakes align themselves to form an armor that reinforces the coating and physically shields the underlying metal.
At first, companies were slow to adopt the principle of dehydrating and consuming rust with a moisture-cured urethane. Many doubted the possibility of protecting a metal substrate without zinc or other heavy metals. However, test results were compelling; the product now is accepted and performing successfully worldwide. Users include the U.S. Navy (Figure 1), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Hapag-Lloyd container shipping line and many others.
TRANSFERRING THE PROCESS OFFSHORE
A desire to increase capacity and cut costs usually dominates the decision to manufacture offshore. Often an additional driver is the ability to reduce time-to-market by locating production close to high-value offshore buyers.
Regardless of whether the offshoring involves a sister company or a contract manufacturer, the process engineer always faces the same challenge: How to replicate the process in a distant plant with no loss in product quality and performance? (From a business perspective, transferring a process overseas poses a host of other complex issues, e.g., currency risks, tariffs and regulations, language barriers, intellectual property protection and legal hazards.) This is a formidable challenge, even when simply transferring a process from one plant to another within the same company. The new site invariably differs in important ways, e.g., in overall culture and management style, legacy equipment on the floor, production-staff skill levels and experience, and local climate. The equation is full of variables that can be hard to control.