Meet the Chemical Engineer Improving the Appearance and Durability of Automotive Coatings 

Erin Hiestand of PPG discusses the development of new coatings for cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles

By: Nina Notman, special to C&EN

Erin Heistand
Erin Hiestand shows off a panel coated with a color that PPG currently makes for a customer.
Credit: Danielle Gardella

Erin Hiestand’s passion for automotive coatings started during a student internship in Honda’s paint shop. “The complexity of applying a coating to a car body has intrigued me ever since,” she explains.

In 2013, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Ohio State University, Hiestand landed a job with coatings company PPG Industries at its Cleveland facility. Her first role was lab based, developing protective base layers that protect automobiles from corrosion caused by road salt and the weather. “It was in this role that I learned the fundamentals of coating chemistry,” she says.

Hiestand then switched her focus to looking at how customers apply PPG coatings in their paint shops. This involved designing experiments to determine the optimum equipment and environmental conditions for a coating’s application.

Next, a big-data project beckoned. “The concept of big data for coatings is relatively new,” Hiestand says. PPG and its customers collect information about a coating at every stage of production, from the raw starting materials to final application of the finished coating. “In the past we would use those data streams independently of each other,” she says. “Now that we're moving to the concept of big data, ingesting all of it in a single location, we're getting a clearer analysis and business intelligence from beginning to end.”

Recently, Hiestand moved to a team that looks at improving processes and troubleshooting issues across the entire PPG coatings range. “I’m working on multiple coating technologies, including protection layers, color base coats, and clear coats for durability and protection,” she says.

One of Hiestand’s current projects is to replicate any issues that customers encounter when applying products on a manufacturing line. She designs experiments to replicate potential issues and identify their causes. “The customer will take our recommendations from the lab and change their application process,” she explains.

What is in your lab coat pocket?
Sharpies of all colors, a calculator, and some earplugs.

What can't you live without in the lab?
Prescription safety glasses. I really dislike wearing the large safety glasses over my normal spectacles.

What is the last experiment that you planned?
To determine the best equipment and conditions for a customer to use to robotically apply a product that has been redesigned to meet new environmental regulations.

What is your scientific obsession?
Data. I'm a very analytical person. I'm constantly searching for ways to use data to drive decision-making.

Who is your science hero?
My dad. He is a pediatrician. As a child he always made sure that I continued to be excited about science and never made it seem that it was just for men.

Who is your mentor?
PPG’s director of technology development. She leads her team with confidence, transparency, and technical expertise. Her commitment to the ongoing learning and growth of others makes her an excellent mentor.

What is the best professional advice you have received?
If it looks like you could help get something done, just go do it. Don’t wait to be asked. Today, there's a stigma around young people needing to be constantly told what to do.

What is your favorite car color?
A black metallic with a blue mica undertone. Mica coatings contain polished metallic flakes that sparkle.

Would you like to ride in a self-driving car?
Yes. I'm not against owning one either. Coatings are becoming a large focus for the self-driving car market. They need to be developed and applied differently to take into account the multitude of sensors and various other factors.   

What are your hobbies?
I love to cook, spend time with my family, and take my dog to the dog park and on walks.