Paint-free technology for automotive applications is moving forward at a rapid pace, driven by a need for environmentally-friendly and cost-effective alternatives to traditional painting operations. Paint films provide huge benefits, such as the elimination of paint lines and their associated emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). They also reduce the pervehicle costs of manufacturing.
Estimates from SABIC Innovative Plastics (formerly GE Plastics) show that automotive paint films offer a $5 billion/350 million tonne opportunity for the paint films industry. However, the uptake of paint films is lagging behind manufacturer expectation and the reason for the slow adoption is primarily because carmakers and suppliers have invested billions of dollars over the past two decades in large-scale, automated painting operations. SABIC puts the cost of constructing a large-scale painting facility at about $400m and there is a proliferation of these facilities in the US. With this in mind it is easy to understand the reluctance of the industry to abandon them in favour of completely new technology.
That said, bankruptcies among Tier One suppliers such as Plastec and Collins & Aikman, means the market is opening up somewhat and there might just be a way in for paint-free technologies
John Cupstid, Sales and Marketing Director for Soliant, agrees that the opportunities for growth in paint film are tremendous and that demand in applications for automotive exteriors is increasing. Soliant is also experiencing a lot of demand for its products in Europe, where Soliant BV operates in the Netherlands. “Paint film can be perceived as a disruptive technology to traditional painting,” Cupstid admits. “We probably won’t sell our products to someone who’s just put it in a $200m painting facility, but we do sell some paint film to some painting companies. The lion’s share of our sales goes to those who don’t have painting facilities.” While admitting that paint film will never completely replace paint, Cupstid notes there are many plastic applications for which painting is a problem, such as thermoplastic polyolefins (TPOs). Typically, when applying conventional paint to TPO components, it requires spraying bonding layers onto the part prior to the actual paint application in order to get proper adherence. “Our film has an adhesive layer that bonds the TPO to the paint film,” says Cupstid.
Thermoforming and moulding
Currently, paint films are being used primarily in applications such as claddings, rocker panels and bumper fascias. There are two primary methods of applying paint film to these sorts of parts. One involves thermoforming: a “thermoformable” film is made in the desired shape, which is then inserted into an injection mould cavity and moulding the thermoplastic substrate behind the form. The other method is putting the film directly into the cavity of the injection mould or thermoform mould, and moulding the component.
Michigan-based Durakon Industries is a leading provider of thermoformed products and paint film technology to the automotive industry. Dennis DeLeonard, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, says the company started down the paint film path about four to five years ago with a project for GM. It began with the Chevrolet SSR and actually evolved into two projects. “Vehicles like the SSR are created as a technology test base for the OEM to show off their technology,” DeLeonard explains. “They produce things on a smaller scale and if works out, they bring it to a larger scale.”
The project involved fenders for the Chevy SSR that were similar to those of the old Volkswagen Beetle; they stuck out and therefore had a problem with rock impingement. According to DeLeonard, GM needed stone shields the same colour as the body that would be “sacrificial parts”. DeLeonard explains: “After you have them on for a while and they become chipped, you can snap them off and buy more for replacement.”
Durakon launched the programme in “an unbelievably short time frame: about 30 days”, then had to catch up with all the internal processes. “The product worked very well and we learned an awful lot about the paint film process and by adding paint film we’re adding value. The OEMs or Tier One suppliers don’t have to paint the parts, they can cut VOCs and create a part that is more chip resistant than normal paint,” says DeLeonard. Initially the Chevy SSR vehicle came without a running board, so that was developed and a Class B running board, themoformed using twin sheet construction, was added to finish off the vehicle. “Initially it was a grey colour, then we began offering the running boards in all the same colours as the vehicles, which was a technology test for us.” Having success on that programme allowed Durakon to redefine what paint film is and the role it plays in automotive components. Through its proprietary process, that also involves manufacturing its own sheet to ensure quality control. The paint film is applied to the extruded sheet in a clean room environment to optimise quality and reduce scrap.
Durakon’s work with thermoformed paint films has led to additional contracts. Its work on the lower front fascia for the Jeep Liberty has ended with that vehicle no longer in production but the work on components for the Saab 9-7 still continues. “The breakthrough programme was the rocker panel for the Buick Lucerne which we now make in 18 colours,” says DeLeonard. “We’re the only supplier of rocker panels for that vehicle and we make them in Lapeer where our R&D division is located.” In January, 2006, Durakon announced that it would begin high-volume production of the rocker panel. The company’s CEO, Ed Gniewek, says: “Our initial efforts and products were directed at niche vehicles of lower volume applications and those earlier results were impressive and lauded by the industry. The decision of GM to expand use of our thermoformed paint film products to its high production Lucerne model reflects the level of design, technology and quality that we have been able to deliver to the industry on a consistent basis.” Durakon produces approximately 250,000 rocker panels annually for GM.
Installing paint film technology comes with a fairly high price tag. DeLeonard recognises that for Durakon, “it’s come with an investment of many millions of dollars,” but he sees it paying off. “We’ve now started our third product group at Durakon, but we feel we’re just scratching the surface as far as market share.” While paint film technology promises to offer a good return on investment attention needs to be paid to when doing so. DeLeonard concludes: “I think you have to be very careful with accounting. Is it a short term or long term rationalisation? We have a better part with better appearance and better chip resistance. Over time, when you add up all the extra steps and costs involved in painting something, this paint film technology really starts to make a lot of sense.”