Vauxhall’s new Astra is guaranteed against rust for 12 years. What is remarkable is not the length of the anti-corrosion warranty, but that it was achieved by zinc galvanising, a technique developed in the 19th century.
Similarly with computer hard disk drives, which use a stack of steel discs, nickel plated by a process Werner Siemens was developing in Germany 150 years ago.
In 1976 Professor Allan Matthews was working on titanium nitride two decades before US and German companies introduced vapour deposition of TiN into the UK as an anti-wear coating for cutting tools and moulds and dies.
The problem, says Matthews, now head of the surface engineering research centre at Hull University, is that most users of engineering coatings and surface finishes are ignorant of what can be achieved with existing materials and techniques, let alone more exotic ones.
Not for them thin diamond coatings just 1,000 atoms thick, or ion implantation using high-energy plasma beams to reduce surface wear. More than 95% of the market is for the established coating techniques of paint and electroplating, Matthews says. A report he released last month says it looks set to stay that way well into the next millennium, with the aerospace, automotive and agricultural machinery industries calling the shots and playing a technologically conservative game.
In 1992 the DTI funded Matthews to map the UK surface engineering industry and its prospects. He found the coatings market was worth about £3.4bn and set to grow to £5.5bn by 2005. But its image needed promoting so that coatings were an early concern in engineering designs, not an afterthought. Quality and standards needed improving. Suppliers (mainly small companies) and users needed better information about markets and technologies.
Five years on little has changed, according to Matthews’ study, published at the request of Nasurf, the National Surface Engineering Centre at Farnborough. The growth in the market for wear and corrosion protection coatings has been revised upwards, mainly because of the bigger-than-predicted boom in the UK economy. It now looks set to hit £5.9bn in 2000 and £7.5bn in 2005 at 1995 prices.
There has been some shuffling in the relative fortunes of the coating technologies. But the prime users remain the automotive and printed circuit board industries for electroplating and the construction and automotive industries for engineering paints.
‘We’re still educating the user about what can be achieved using surface engineering techniques even existing ones such as electroplating, thermal spraying and vacuum deposition have yet to make any real inroads in many application areas,’ Matthews says. He blames a lack of data about the the newer coatings and surface finishes. So users tend to stay with a coating that works, and neglect better ones.
The vapour deposition of wear coatings, for instance, is tested in the optical and semi-conductor industries, offering high volume output with low reject rates. Yet it has not become a mass production system for engineering components. Matthews says that although big customers such as the automotive industry demand cheaper and more reliable components, no one is prepared to make the investment in the high capital cost equipment needed.
But behind the scenes, there has been plenty of change since 1992. Nasurf, launched in 1991 with £2m of DTI money, has an expert system, SurfSage, to help users choose the right coating for the job. The Surface Engineering Association, formed last year to bring together the Metal Finishing Association and the British Surface Treatment Suppliers Association, provides another focus for surface engineering information.
It is in the middle of Surface Engineering 2000, a DTI-funded programme to improve the industry’s competitiveness with better training, benchmarking, best practice, marketing and statistics.
Europe’s first web site for surface engineering suppliers was launched in March. SurfaceWeb is part of an EU Esprit programme called Samson, aimed at helping small surface-engineering firms benefit from advanced information technology. Samson is led by UK coatings firm A T Poeton and SurfaceWeb incorporates Poeton’s expert system for choosing surface treatments.
The first integrated graduate development scheme, offering a two-year MSc in surface design and engineering, was launched last year by Hull, Sheffield Hallam and Nottingham universities.
‘It has generated a lot of interest,’ says Matthews. ‘But we are looking at modifying it to take in weekends to attract busy engineers.’
2005 Revisited: The UK Surface Engineering Industry to 2010, £50 from Nasurf, 01252 394290
SurfaceWeb: www. surfaceweb.com