Wards Auto Article

Why all the fuss over automotive paint?

It’s a huge business worth $4 billion to $5 billion annually worldwide just to key paint suppliers such as PPG Industries Inc., BASF and DuPont. It’s worth billions more to paint-shop facility and equipment suppliers such as Durr, Inc., ABB Paint Finishing Inc., Fanuc Robotics Inc., Graco Inc. and Nordson Corp., to name only a few.

Although much progress has been made by reusing equipment, making paints that spew less pollutants and holding down facility costs, paint shops still are horrifically expensive because of the necessity for big-ticket items: elaborate emissions-control systems mandated by government and sophisticated robots.

A totally new paint shop including new anti-corrosion electrocoat dips and other surface-preparation processes can cost $300 million to $500 million, says Larry C. Crawley, DuPont director of E-coat and product technology.

With a price averaging about $50 per gallon, even the paint itself is a precious commodity. And too much of it still winds up literally going down the drain during the painting process.

What’s more, a durable, shiny finish is crucial to long-term customer satisfaction. Problems with peeling paint – which plague numerous automakers to varying degree, and all of the Big Three – can turn into warranty nightmares. Peeling paint on 1985-’91 Ford F-Series pickups, for instance, reportedly cost Ford more than $1 billion in warranty costs.

Aside from environmental and cost issues, paint possesses extensive emotional, psychological and customer-satisfaction aspects – all heavily researched by automakers and suppliers.

Color is the first thing a shopper notices about a car, and it often can make or break a sale. Moreover, the need for attractive paint jobs covers the entire spectrum of vehicles and consumers. A potential buyer of a base model pickup truck is no more likely to buy a vehicle in a color he or she doesn’t like than is the purchaser of a top-of-the-line BMW or Lexus.

Mimi Cooper, a principal at the Cooper Marketing Group, which specializes in color research, says that people who don’t give a hoot about the various hues of their home carpeting or office furnishings usually care deeply about the color of their vehicles. Some macho pickup truck buyers actually agonize over which shade looks best when dirty. She says it’s a major reason purple is gaining popularity in the predominantly male pickup truck market segment: it coordinates well with splattered mud.

While purple is gaining a following, most color experts agree it will never be as popular as green, which eclipsed white as 1994’s most popular vehicle color in intermediate and luxury passenger cars.

Green was rare only a few years ago, but it’s now established as a permanent part of the automotive pallet, says DuPont’s Mr. Daily. Green’s popularity also marks an emerging interest in other natural colors and earth tones, such as bronze, copper, gold shades, light brown and beige, he says.

White recently has slipped as the perennial overall favorite, while special-effect paints – including pearlescents, aluminum flakes and bi-colors that shift hue at different viewing angles – spark interest in all shades among buyers, says Mr. Daily.

Offering a variety of colors and special-effect paints becomes practically mandatory as automakers push to differentiate segments and establish “brand character” and to add spice and distinctiveness to otherwise bland models.

Ms. Cooper adds that buyers – many of them aging baby boomers who have been out of the market for a long time – are looking for new, more fun-loving colors as their kids grow up, their lives shift gears and they finally can trade in their plain white minivans for something jazzier.

A far-out example is the upcoming Mystic Cobra Mustang, whose iridescent skin changes color faster than any chameleon could ever hope to. The effect is impossible to capture on film; otherwise we’d show you a picture.

“The Mustang in particular is an emotional purchase, and I think color helps create the emotion,” says Mustang Vehicle Line Director Janine Bay, explaining why she thinks the new mystic paint will create interest in the marketplace.

Critics quickly point out that this special paint costs $1,000 per gallon and that the Mustang application may be little more than a costly experiment by Ford and BASF – even if buyers happily pay $815 extra for the option.

What’s so dramatically different about the paint is that it contains no pigments. Instead, it uses tiny transparent flakes that are layered and act like prisms that break up white light into its various colored components. Through precise changes in the thickness of the flakes and their transparent layers – and by adding special reflective coatings to individual layers – any color or iridescent combination of colors can be produced from the same basic paint.

Such consistency offers a huge potential benefit to both OEMs and suppliers, argues BASF’s Mr. Hall. Normally, each paint color has its own distinct chemistry, processing idiosyncrasies and weathering characteristics. That means each new color or special-effect paint has to undergo years of weatherability testing in blazing sunlight before it’s put into use. Then it must undergo further testing to make sure it can be easily applied in a high-production environment.

If automakers could create all the colors and effects they wanted simply by changing the flakes instead of the paint chemistry, durability testing and processing could be greatly simplified, he says.

And these are no small issues to color designers. Once upon a time they were responsible only for developing new colors and interesting new paint finishes; somebody else worried about the practical stuff. But now they have to immediately deal with cost, durability and repairability issues.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hall assures that BASF is developing a plethora of interesting, but more conventional, finishes as well including new approaches to aluminum and mica flakes that achieve beautiful new effects.

Sparkling “candy apple” paint finishes have been commonplace on show cars for decades, but because they often require 20 coats or more of special paint and metal flakes, they have never been feasible on production cars.

That’s changing fast as new – but relatively conventional-technologies come on board. Specially tinted clearcoats are leading this effect on a number of new ’96 models, DuPont’s Mr. Daily says.

Another eye-popper is DuPont’s holographic paint: it not only dramatically shifts color along a vehicle’s curves and according to viewing angle, it gives an intense candy apple appearance as well.

Imagine making a holographic image of a gold mirror – something like a giant size version of what’s on your credit card – and then grinding it up into flakes and mixing it with paint. A few problems still have to be worked out with this experimental finish, but it should be ready for production by the late 1990s, Mr. Daily predicts.

The importance of paint goes well beyond mere marketing aspects.

Right now painting is the most environmentally troublesome operation of vehicle manufacturing. It releases tons of solvent fumes as thousands of gallons of solvent-containing paint are sprayed onto vehicles during the coating process.

The solvent-laden overspray that turns into sludge at the bottom of paint booths is another big problem: it’s considered toxic waste.

Automakers all over the world are working together with suppliers in an unprecedented effort to develop more environmentally friendly paints and primers that produce virtually no harmful pollution at all. Water-borne paints that contain only small amounts of solvents are being used increasingly for the pigmented color-coat layer of vehicle finishes, and traditional solvent-based paints are evolving into “ultra-high solids” coatings, which minimize solvent content.

Totally solvent-free powder primers are here, and powder clearcoats are on the way. They are sprayed on dry and then melt like Velveeta cheese into a smooth, shiny finish as vehicle bodies pass through hot paint bake ovens. Instead of gunking up the floor, powder overspray falls to the bottom of spray booths like talcum powder and is collected and reused.

Numerous problems still need to be worked out to create a powder version of the shiny clearcoat layer that’s a standard part of today’s automotive finishes, and it’s currently impossible to do a pigmented color coat with powder paints that provide fancy metal-flake finishes, exotic hues and special effects that more and more car buyers demand.

But the Big Three already are sharing engineers and expertise to help one another launch powder primer systems at several of their auto assembly plants as part of the Low Emission Paint Consortium (LEPC), one of 13 consortia under the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), which coordinates joint research among the three automakers.

On July 27 the LEPC launched a $20- million pilot production facility at Ford’s Wixom assembly plant to develop a powder clearcoat that is as shiny and durable as a traditional liquid clearcoat.

That’s no easy task. Current powder clearcoats are expensive and difficult to apply.

The concept is simple, says Richard Pearson, manager of manufacturing technology planning at Ford and a member of LEPC’s management committee: rather than reducing emissions by adding expensive controls that provide no value to the vehicle, engineers have agreed to change the paint materials and to eliminate pollution at the source.

If successful, these efforts should chop paint plant emissions significantly and help rein in costs. Emissions already have dropped 80% since 1975, but the costs of the sophisticated pollution controls necessary to do it have been extremely high.

Suppliers are playing a crucial role in all this.

ABB Paint Finishing Inc., for instance, is designing, engineering and fabricating the new powder clearcoat pilot line at Wixom for the LEPC.

Competitor Fanuc Robotics has just built a $3-million facility in Auburn Hills, MI, to develop and test new painting systems. The days of taking a paint spray gun and bolting it onto a robot arm are long gone, explains Rick Schneider, vice president of Fanuc Robotics’ Paint Finishing Div. New robot paint applications must come as complete systems that manage the highly complex interplay between computer software and sophisticated application equipment, as well as manage a variety of colors and coatings – each with different processing characteristics.

Another major issue is cost control, says Mr. Schneider. Fanuc – along with other suppliers – is working to develop a system that will deliver the most bang for the buck in terms of capital and operating expenses “without using a customer’s assembly plant as a research lab.”

Better-looking, longer-lasting finishes that resist 10 years or more of paint-destroying acid rain, road salt, bird droppings, ultraviolet light exposure and general owner neglect; that’s what automakers want. And they also want something that’s more environmentally friendly, at a price that’s less than last year’s. It sounds impossible, but paint suppliers apparently are doing it. They’re fighting to the finish, so to speak.

Ward’s Auto World – September 1, ’95, p.32

Copyright ©1995 Ward’s Communications