What prompts innovation? Is it the pressure of problem-solving? The demand or need to get a job done? Or just the desire to invent? Is inventing done by a single person with the desire to reach a group or community in need of an idea, a solution or just pure invention? The book Inventology: How We Dream Up Things that Change the World by Pagan Kennedy touches on all these themes, for example, in a case where a doctor realizes that an innocent-looking tube is killing his patient, or in another where an engineer dreams of a future world and pioneers the cell phone. By studying breakthroughs like these, we can learn how people imagine their way around impossible problems to discover groundbreaking answers.

The story of powder coating is a similar such breakthrough — one in which the founder of Modean Industries played a crucial role.

Picture this: in the early 1960s, a small factory in Switzerland caught on fire. The fire was a direct result of workers having used solvent-based paint to coat perforated ceiling panels, ones normally used in airports and office buildings. The system was a dip-type system. The unique design of the panels facilitated the use of air conditioning without too much piping/ducting in order to manage air distribution.

Sadly, the fire completely destroyed the factory. After the disaster, the owners were determined never to allow such a situation to happen again. Mainly, they decided no solvent-based paint would be used in the plant ever again! They met with a professor at the University of Munich, Germany, in search of a solution. After several months of research, the professor came up with a proposal to eliminate solvent from the coating process altogether. They proposed using an electrostatic charging field to be the carrying media instead of solvent.

The concept worked famously. The gun that they invented charged the powder particles. Then, with the help of air transport, it conveyed the charged powder particles to a grounded object — the part that needed coating. After this, the coated part was placed in an oven in order to melt down the powder to a smooth, homogeneous surface. Interestingly, in addition to a good quality finish, the method offered especially excellent corrosion protection.

The innovation generated much curiosity. Soon after, other factories in the area started visiting and asking questions. With time the interest became so great that this little factory decided to open a manufacturing facility to supply electrostatic systems to other factories in the area.

This is when the management of Modean Industries got involved and brought that technology to the United States. It was the beginning of a multi-billion dollar business that soon was to experience unbelievable growth. In connection with this new coating concept, further innovations followed. For example, although quite forward thinking, the original generator design was bulky and required a high tension cable to transfer the energy to the applicator, also known as an applicator “gun”. With safety concerns in mind, some of the younger engineers decided to reinvent this gun. To do so, they created a much smaller generator that fit into the applicator. The gun could then fit in the hand with the generator already embedded in it. This was safe, efficient and easy to manipulate, both manually and automatically.

The new gun also eliminated the unsafe high tension cable that was originally part of the first design. Again, this follow-on concept was extremely successful. With the engineering guidance of Modean Industries management, this next generation of applicator guns was put to use at the Singer Sewing Machine factory in the United States. Over time, these guns emerged as a worldwide standard — one that even allowed for the coating of plastic and wood parts. Today the standard established remains the leading paint coating process and is used in a wide variety of industries!

An especially important factor in the new gun’s success was that it was nearly 100% efficient in managing single color applications. This made the system considerably less expensive to use. Nevertheless challenges emerged. Despite all the advantages of electrostatic powder coating, a great disadvantage was the difficulty of color change. With powder coating, the powder that has not been applied can be recovered and reused. But this made changing color considerably more complicated, since this required the complete cleaning of the powder recovery system that was used to collect the unused powder! At the beginning, people employed existing equipment to accomplish the powder recovery — components such as dust cyclones and booths.

At first, the thinking was to make the gun so efficient that there would be no need for recovery. In this context, a gun with several powder hoses for the different colors was evaluated. At the same time, faster recovery systems — ones with an easier cleaning method — were also being looked at.

One such system was referred to as a twin air system. Developed jointly between the company in Switzerland and Modean Industries management, the concept was to divide the air system to both recovery air and pick up air. For several years this was the best system available. Subsequently, Modean Industries was able to introduce the concept to companies including Whirlpool, General Electric, General Motors and many more. The system at General Motors included 18 such booths. A second system — one with a total of 21 booths — is still in place at the GM factory. In fact, it represents the largest recovery systems in the world! The system at Whirlpool remains in operation as well.

The development of the twin air system in turn led to series of further innovations. The recovery system demanded the creation of one invention after another, with Modean Industries leading the way in relation to several of them. Ideas by individuals, as well as groups of engineers, began to solve the various problems encountered.

One especially fascinating innovation was one used in the coating of glass bottles. It was Modean Industries that developed a booth with louvers in the side panels. This had the distinct advantage of keeping the powder from sticking to the sides, while simultaneously maintaining the system’s air safety.

In the end, the most acceptable overall solution at the time was to use more than one powder booth to recover the coating.

In some cases they used as many as three to five booths in order to make a quick color change. The color change was accomplished by cleaning one booth while the other was being used for a specific color. And one booth was used for what is referred to as “spray to waste”, which meant that the production requirement of that specific color was too small to have a financial impact.

Since these times, “inventology” has continued its creative magic. Now there are booths that can change colors in a matter of minutes.

But there is continuity too. Then as now, inventions emerge as a result of need – but also sometimes as a matter of serendipity. We should never underestimate the power of individual inventors or groups of inventors to address problems and change our world!