Innovations
Published: June 27, 2024
Innovations
Published: June 27, 2024

Nicole Rakers: Peak Performance in Protective Coatings

Just like when she’s rock climbing, Nicole Rakers is laser-focused on finding the best path forward when developing new coatings that protect everything in the world’s most extreme environments. She’s the product development supervisor for thermal management, passive fire protection (PFP) and zinc-rich primers in our Protective and Marine Coatings (PMC) business, and she…well…rocks. 

A Pathway for Professional Growth 

As soon as the ink was dry on her bioengineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh, Nicole joined us in 2012 as a contractor. She became a full-time technician four months later, making various resins used in automotive and refinish coatings. In 2015, she transitioned to coating formulator in the PMC business while pursuing a master’s degree in colloids, polymers and surfaces at Carnegie Mellon University.

This period in my career was really a time of growth. I was not only learning how to formulate coatings for the first time, but I was also getting immersed in various innovation projects, building a global network, and teaching, leading and growing the PMC team at my location.

That professional growth continued during a two-year stint as a chemist and accelerated when Nicole was named PMC product development supervisor in 2019 after returning from maternity leave. While this role’s initial focus was atmospheric protection coatings, the product categories that Nicole oversees have expanded to thermal management, PFP and zinc-rich primers. 

Coatings for thermal management are used on substrates like pipes and tanks that experience high temperatures ranging from 100˚ F (38 °C) to nearly 1,400˚ F (760 °C). PFP coatings, which insulate steel from fire, are used on the steel beams inside buildings and on pipes and tanks that might be exposed to flames. Infrastructure that faces corrosion, such as bridges and stadiums, are key applications for zinc-rich primers. 

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Benefiting from Customer Symbiosis 

In 2021, Nicole received the Society for Protective Coatings (SSPC) President’s Series Lecture Award for a paper she wrote that explored reducing zinc levels in these primers without impacting performance. 

Developing new products requires a master multi-tasker. One day, Nicole may be managing day-to-day activities in the lab. The next, she’s visiting a supplier to ensure quality control is up to our standards or materials are being delivered when needed. Most days, she interacts with other areas of our own company – product management, sales, manufacturing, supply chain, etc. Overarching all of this is customer interaction and collaboration.

I talk and meet with our customers a lot, which I really enjoy. Visiting their sites allows my team and me to better understand their needs and possibly uncover a pain point or requirement that they may not be considering since they’re immersed in that environment every day. Conversely, our customers help us develop new products by providing early feedback that allows for course corrections to better align with their needs.

Enhanced Surface Safety & Efficiency 

Nicole and her team have hit the bullseye for many of the products they’ve developed. Recent examples include PPG HI-TEMP® 1027 HD coating, which earned a prestigious R&D® 100 Award. PPG SIGMAZINC® 70 and PPG Sigmazinc 75 coatings provide improved protection for U.S. and Canadian bridges.  

The latest arrow in PMC’s product quiver is PPG PITT-THERM® 909 spray-on insulation, which was a finalist for a 2023 R&D 100 Award. Designed for high-heat environments in the oil and gas, chemical and petrochemical industries, this latest advancement enhances surface safety and asset protection in fewer coats*. As the only spray-on insulation product in the market that doesn’t require a primer, Pitt-Therm 909 offers exceptional corrosion resistance, shielding the metal substrate by repelling water.

The three words that I use to describe this product is hotter, faster and drier when comparing it to other spray-on and mechanical insulation, such as blankets and ridged foam. It handles temperatures up to 500˚ F (260 °C) compared to 350˚ F (180 °C) for many existing waterborne acrylic spray-on insulations and around 250˚ F (120 °C) for organic foam insulation. PPG Pitt-Therm 909 can also handle cryogenic temperatures as low as -320˚ F (-195 °C).

The new spray-on insulation reaches a ½-inch (13 mm) thickness in only two coats compared to five to 10 coats for comparable products. The fast application and hydrophobic properties translate into significantly reduced corrosion resistance, costs and production interruption. 

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Reaching New Heights of Problem Solving 

Developing step-change products takes a team effort, but it also requires focus and energy at the individual level. Those are two things Nicole has in surplus, and she plays as hard as she works.  

She’s been rock-climbing since her now-husband introduced her to the sport during college, with her highest climb topping a couple thousand feet in Yosemite National Park in California. Her five-year-old daughter is already climbing and loves it. 

“With rock climbing, it’s a lot of problem solving. There are different routes, and you have to learn how to work with them through continuous practice or by looking at them from a different angle. This relates to a lot of things in life. If something doesn’t work, don’t give up. Keep working at it to find new routes or new ways of doing things.”

*Compared to traditional spray-on insulation coatings 

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