Many suppliers cut back on spending during the recent downturn, but Italian turnkey paintshop maker Geico has invested heavily in an innovation center 

At a time when many companies are scaling back on investment, Geico has built complete e-coat and paintshop cells at its Pardis Innovation Center in Milan. As Luigi Lazzari, Vice-President of Innovation and Proposal at Geico told APS: “The innovation center, opened in October 2009, is not only a showcase for our new equipment but also a place where we can work with our customers. “Demonstrating our expertise on their bodies and components, these production tests can also help our customers solve any issues that they are encountering.”

An invitation to OEMs
Geico’s ‘customer experiment days’ have proved very popular and have attracted Avotvaz, BMW, Fiat Brazil, GM, PSA, Renault Nissan and one Chinese carmaker.

The innovation center is built in two main areas, one with full pre-treatment and e-coating line (large enough to take light commercials, vans etc); one prototype with the (Geico) J-Jump system and one with the J-Flex system as Lazzari explains: “In these pre-treatment areas we can simulate the movement and treatment of customers’ bodies in the bath. We can tune the speed and type of drainage movement among other parameters.

“An example of this is the demonstration we gave to PSA a couple of weeks ago, showing how they could run their pretreatment and e-coat line in one of their new plants. We are proposing our J-Jump system for this application so, together with their technicians, we had a full day test, establishing the right body movement speeds and parameters.”

In addition to PSA, Geico has also recently demonstrated its innovative dry scrubber system of paint recovery to BMW paint technicians; this was the first part of the approvals process for BMW’s adoption of the system. The great advantage of this approach is that a customer can see parts of their proposed line modelled at Geico’s Innovation Center (and at Geico’s cost) before committing to buy the system.

Live paint booths and Speed Dry
The company also has a full aluminium-framed painting booth complete with robots and its dry scrubber system. The booth has ABB 5500 robots with cartridge paint handling and bell applicators. This allows simulation of what its customers can expect from a Geico finishing installation. Speed Dry is the company’s new high-speed curing system that it is testing in-house and also with PPG at their laboratories in Italy, close to Turin.

“We have left a space in the center for a new oven prototype that we are developing, this will reduce the time for curing to cut energy consumption – one of our great aims. This will not be just for intermediate curing (between coats) but also for speeding final curing.”

Autophoresis and nanotechnology
Autodeposition or A-coat, a waterborne process which uses chemical reactions to achieve deposition, thus removing the need for electrolysis in primer application, has been in use in varying forms in commercial applications since 1975. I asked Lazzari if he thought it was the way forward and why it has not replaced more e-coat baths? “As far as the primer coat is concerned we are in touch with chemical suppliers and we are looking at some of the materials that are available such as Autophoretic (a registered trademark of Henkel Surface Technologies). This seems to be an interesting process and we are testing it in some new projects in India, where plain and not galvanised steel is used. There are some issues on the overall result that we can achieve; the resistance to corrosion is not the same as we get with a fully-phosphated coating but for some products it can be a good compromise between required level of quality and the cost.”

Geico is involved in an exciting new project using nanotechnology in pre-treatment, working with Henkel and PPG. Indeed, GM has clearly stated that it wants to further investigate nanotechnology, using a zirconium salt product in pre-treatment, something that emerged when the company had a testing day at Geico’s Innovation Center in June 2010. Lazarri: “PSA are also looking at nanotechnology and are keen to try this in one of their new plants. Commercial products in this area are Zircobond from PPG and Tectalis from Henkel. I think that Chemetall is also developing a similar product.”

Aluminium challenges
With the rise of lightweight bodies and body panels, I asked Lazzari what the treatment challenges were with aluminium and what Geico are offering.

He sees one main issue in phosphating treatment of aluminium and aluminium-rich vehicle bodies: “Sludge must be kept well under control, it can be a problem when aluminium content is more than 20% of the total body. The chemical suppliers are working hard on this challenge and we look to them for the solution; one of the major German carmakers is a good example of this.

“This carmaker, who will remain nameless, is using some pre-phosphated coils and this gave us some new challenges, with some different chemical behaviour in the tanks. With steel brackets, fasteners and even small panels incorporated into an aluminium body, we found that different phosphate crystal shapes are formed on the body; this can result in some compromise in the surface quality post pretreatment and post e-coat. Problems with the appearance and roughness of the surface can be countered with careful management of the chemicals and keeping the baths as clean as possible.”

Wet-on-wet and low temperature curing
I asked Lazzari about the rise of popularity of the wet-on-wet process and lower temperature curing paints and whether innovation in these areas was being driven more by the material suppliers or by equipment and facility experts like Geico: “There are already many lower-temperature curing 2K products on the market but at the moment, their cost is very high and they tend to be used in niche markets, particularly in refinishing and bespoke paintwork. We have to look to the chemical suppliers for solutions here; we would be very interested in lower-temperature curing as it fits with our drive to cut energy consumption in the paintshop.”

R&D investment
In a strong financial climate, one might expect a company like Geico to invest from 5 to 10% of its turnover in researching and developing new products and systems. The last two years have not been kind to European companies, with the downturn in the economy coupled with the weakness of the euro but Lazzari insists that Geico must keep innovating, even in hard times: “The innovation centre is an example of our investment programme. Despite a very tough year financially, we have invested in the innovation centre. We are not a big company with big numbers and our policy is to make ‘sharp’ choices; we are very focused on our customers' specific projects in order to give them first-class support; Geico is NOT simply concentrated in specific products and processes. We also look outside of the automotive paintshop world, and take ideas from very different areas, including many diverse industrial activities.”

Leading partnership success
With Geico taking the responsibility for all elements of a paintshop in a turnkey contract with a carmaker, I wondered how much its customers dictated the choice of robots, paint handling equipment, even bells: “We are very frank and open with all our partners and suppliers and often the specification is dictated by the location as much as the customer’s preferences. We would look for an excellent supply capability and first-class after sales support from every equipment supplier in the region. We choose the right partner for the application, and always in a very transparent way.”

As to continuing to attract the major OEMs as faithful customers, Lazzari is confident: “We are putting a lot of effort into promoting ourselves to big carmakers. With projects like the new centre we are able to convince them that we are putting a lot of effort into innovation. We do not want to be followers in the paintshop, we want to be leaders.”