PPG Industries' center makes sure company investments pay off through innovation

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When Chuck Kahle passes along his business card, he’s not just providing his contact information at PPG Industries.

The standard-size business card is made of Teslin, a smooth, synthetic paper trademarked by the Pittsburgh company and used in applications such as labels, driver’s licenses and passports. He can hand it out and squeeze in a simple lesson about innovative technologies PPG is working on at its four research and development centers in the region.

As he led a tour Monday of the company’s coatings innovation center in Allison Park, Mr. Kahle, PPG’s chief technology officer and vice president, coatings R&D, showed off labs where chemists are developing a range of technologies, including anti-corrosive paints for automobiles, environmentally sustainable coatings for cars, energy-saving processes for applying automobile coatings, and transparent plastics used in airline cabin windows to reduce aircraft weight and improve fuel efficiency.

Downtown-based PPG invests about 3 percent of annual sales in research and development.

“And my job is to ensure [the company] gets a return on that investment,” said Mr. Kahle, who was hired by the company in 1987 with a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois. He had worked in various labs before becoming director of the Allison Park center in 2005.

With $15 billion in global revenues last year, the company’s R&D investment translates to about $450 million poured back into labs and projects like those going on at the 175-plus acre facility about 13 miles north of PPG’s Downtown headquarters.

Other PPG research and development facilities in the Pittsburgh region are in Springdale, Monroeville and Harmar. The company has about 70 research labs worldwide.

Of approximately 2,200 employees in the Pittsburgh region, about 650 work in research and development. That number is expected to grow steadily, said Mr. Kahle.

The company hired 160 technical employees in the past three years and more will be based in the region as a result of PPG last year buying Dutch paints maker AkzoNobel’s North American architectural paints division for $1.05 billion.

While that business is being consolidated with PPG’s North American architectural paints operations in an office park in Cranberry, research and development for the unit will be housed at Harmar, where $10 million is being spent on renovating former glass research facilities for the coatings development team.

Mr. Kahle noted PPG has begun discussions about how to accommodate future growth because its R&D facilities are just about at capacity.

“R&D investment is driving a lot of change,” said Mr. Kahle.

“From a pure technology point of view, I can’t imagine a more exciting time,” he said. “Our customers are literally saying, ‘What’s next?’”

The company estimates new products introduced worldwide in 2013 will generate sales of $3.7 million in their first five years on the market.

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.

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