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At productronica 2015, I interviewed Phil Kinner, technical director of Electrolube's Coatings Division, about the latest conformal coating challenges being faced by their customers, and how they are addressing these issues. Kinner also talked about the trends driving product innovation strategies at Electrolube, and some of the new solutions they are offering the market.
Stephen Las Marias: Phil, for those who are not familiar with Electrolube, tell us about the company and your business.
Phil Kinner: We're a multinational British company headquartered in the UK. We have subsidiaries in China, India and the United States. We manufacture in China and India and the UK, and I think we're about 50 years old, more or less. We do contact lubricants—that's where we first got started, hence the name; but we do thermal management materials, encapsulation resins, conformal coatings, and cleaning media. Our business is really focused on enhancing the reliability of electronics through cleanliness, environmental protection and thermal dissipation for end-users' products.
Las Marias: In relation to your customers, what are their biggest challenges that you're trying to address?
Kinner: Smaller, faster, longer. Everything's got to be smaller, more tightly spaced; everything has got to be faster and more powerful; and everything has to last longer. More power generally needs more heat to dissipate, and lasting longer obviously has to do with the thermal side, but also on the environmental side of things we see more and more applications going to places where, historically, electronics wouldn't go. So they need to be alert to their environment to keep functioning longer, and so we see a lot of opportunities for coatings and encapsulation resins to help seal their devices from their operating environment.
Las Marias: Having said that, do you have any new products that you recently developed to address some of these challenges that you mentioned?
Kinner: Yes. From a historical perspective, we have our resin business and we have our coating business. What we've done is merge the two together to make a hybrid product so it has the protection of the resin materials with the ease of application and reduced weight demands of the coating, so it's green, solvent-free, it cures quickly, is applied easily, and gives a much higher level of protection than any other coatings that are available on the market right now.
Las Marias: How does that benefit your customers?
Kinner: What we see is a reduction in weight. We see a reduction in material usage, reductions in cycle time and possible process optimization improvements. Then we see reduction in costs, but we also see improvements in reliability compared with the coating. It's really all the advantages of the coating and all the advantages of encapsulation resins combined into one package, which really solves both environmental performance and process issues that relate to all of these issues.
Las Marias: What are the biggest and application segments that are driving the growth of your product?
Kinner: For us, we see the automotive industry very much as a leader and a lot of the systems for the automotive industry are perhaps more advanced and certainly need to be more reliable than other traditional industries. Aerospace has traditionally been seen as the highest reliability segment, but generally an aircraft has backup systems and in cars there isn't, so it needs to work at least first time every time when it's needed and so, increasingly, we see the number of applications for electronic sensors and devices in the car grow compared with five years ago, even. Five years ago it was high end cars that had electronics, and now it's every car. Really, the automotive industry is driving a lot of this technology.
We also see a lot of industrial control applications where devices are going into more hostile operating environments, so we see a lot more opportunities where they can't get the reliability without the combination of cleanliness, thermal, and then coating or resin protection to achieve those end goals.
Las Marias: Can you tell us about the product innovation strategies that you're doing for your series of products?
Kinner: We spend a lot of time trying to understand where our customers want to be in three or four years' time and this might depend on where they’re at regionally. We have a China R&D team and a UK R&D team, and the two teams work very seamlessly together listening to what customers are looking for and then delivering solutions to meet those needs. The other thing is watching the kind of specifications that come in and seeing how they're developing, and then trying to extrapolate forward as to what's going to be next. For us it's all about trying to see what's going to happen in the future and make sure we're ready now.
Las Marias: From a regional perspective, which regions around the world are the biggest markets for Electrolube?
Kinner: For Electrolube, Europe is our home market and we do well there. We do really well in China because we've had a subsidiary company for more than 10 years offering local support, local language, and local manufacturing. Now we're seeing more and more development in India; and we opened a factory in India. I think India can be a big area for us. Key things are specifications. We're a specification-driven business, so getting specifications in Europe enables production in China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, or wherever; so it's really our focus to make sure we're on the specified product list and then supporting the end-users wherever they may be.
Las Marias: How difficult is it to get approved by your customers and your clients?
Kinner: Well, you generally need to provide either a cost saving or productivity improvement or a performance improvement, and for many of them they’d have all three simultaneously, which is a challenge, but those are the drivers. Or even the supply chain. In China, the local manufacturing makes product availability much easier than maybe some of the import businesses. It's a challenge, but if we didn’t have a challenge, then we wouldn’t have jobs.
Las Marias: Are you seeing some weakness in the China market?
Kinner: We see uncertainty. It hasn’t translated into weakness, but we see some concerns.
Las Marias: Whereas India is actually growing because the government is really investing heavily into promoting manufacturing there.
Kinner: Made in India.
Las Marias: Yes, "Made in India". Could that be a big opportunity for you guys?
Kinner: Absolutely. I think there's a lot of people that say China is more or less on the way back down slightly and India is the way forwards. For us, we see both markets as important and keeping our business healthy in China, but really developing our business in India is one of our key challenges moving forwards.