Secret Ingredient X

A typical formulation for industrial coatings will include resins, solvents, pigments, extenders, and various additives (dispersing agents, UV stabilisers, and thixotropes). But it occurred to me that the formulations always omit something important, the ‘secret ingredient X’

During my career I have encountered some lab managers who were obsessed with the idea of ‘professionalism’, and this usually involved wearing a tie to work. Apparently this strip of fabric bestows marvellous properties on the wearer, allowing him to achieve higher yields and cleaner colours.

I was never convinced by this; indeed, surrounded as we were by high-speed stirrers, surely the necktie should be prohibited for reasons of safety? But no, the boss was insistent – “You’ve got to look professional and pro-active at all times, and the tie is an essential part of the business wardrobe.”

And it seems convenient to use the word tie as a mnemonic for the secret ingredient X, which I consider to have three main components:

Time                     Information                 Effort

It is not enough to list the materials which get poured, mixed and filtered during the production of coatings, even if one includes a hefty mark-up to cover the cost of production. Correct materials accounting should also consider the three items above.

Time: both as position and duration, ingredients need to be added in a precise sequence and mixed for the correct amount of time. We may bleat about ‘working smarter, not working harder’ and the joys of multi-tasking; but the fact remains that an individual worker cannot be in two places at once, and when two jobs are allocated together, one of them must be performed first and the other one second. This idea is regarded as monstrous heresy by production managers, who see their staff as uncooperative layabouts.

Information: this includes data, capta, knowledge, information, understanding, wisdom and insight. There are so many things to be learned about raw materials, where they are stored, what they are called, how they are mixed and how they perform in a final product. The entire manufacturing process is shot through with tacit and explicit knowledge which is often jealously guarded by workers in order to protect their jobs.

E is for Effort, and Energy and Entropy…do we consider the fuel demands in transporting materials around a factory, or running a machine, or filling out hundreds of paint tins, or cleaning the equipment, or disposing of the waste materials and packaging? Diesel for the stacker trucks, cooling water for the mills, food for the workers…these things all have a bearing on the manufacturing process, but are rarely accounted for in detail.

And I wonder if these components – the ‘secret ingredient X’ – should be included in the overall formulation of a coatings system, as a way to understand the process details. Instead of being dismissed as an uncomfortable problem, we might recognise the sheer impact that these unseen factors have on the cost and quality of the end product.


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