Few manufacturing advancements are coveted more by the auto industry for the factory of the future than the elimination of the paint shop.
It's the messiest and most expensive part of the automaking process. A modern paint shop can cost between $90 million and $250 million.
Paint has been sprayed onto car bodies since the dawn of the auto industry more than a century ago. And even though the process has been streamlined over the years, the basic concept of applying paint with high-pressure guns and then baking the finish is still the same. So far, no breakthroughs have emerged that will radically change the process.
In the next 25 years, paint - in either chemical or powder form - is still going to be sprayed on in paint shops. At least, that's the view of experts from DuPont Automotive, PPG Industries Inc. and General Motors.
"We could come up with a great solution that requires a complete new paint shop, and it isn't going to go very far," says David Fischer, DuPont Automotive Systems marketing manager for the Americas.
"Most of our customers have as many paint shops as they care to own, and they are not anxious to build new ones."
So it seems the factory of the future still will have a paint shop, albeit a much cheaper, more efficient and faster operation.
Meanwhile, engineers and scientists are tinkering with ways of changing the paint process, such as painted steel and powdered coatings.
It is possible to paint rolls of steel or aluminum before it is pressed into fenders and doors and have a high-quality finished product. But attaching a prepainted part to the car body damages the corrosion protection and finish.
GM is taking a serious look at using powder coating.
In that process, a colored powder is sprayed on a vehicle and heated to about 350 degrees. The heat melts the powder and creates an exremely durable finish, not unlike that on a refrigerator or stove.
GM is already using powder-coat primer for interior body panels on the Chevrolet Cobalt.
Karen Lis, senior technical engineer for topcoat systems at GM, says powder coating saves money because it eliminates waste. "It is the solid material that makes up the coating. It uses 100 percent of the material," she says.
For the immediate future, the focus is on saving energy and reducing emissions by combining steps in the painting process.
DuPont and PPG have perfected what they call wet-on-wet paint systems that eliminate the baking procedure between coats.
"Everybody is driving to what they call compact paint systems," says Vince Datillo, manager of global application technology, automotive coatings, for PPG. That saves chemicals, lowers cost and time, saves energy and reduces inventory, he says.
Robots also will be dramatically more efficient when applying paint. Fanuc Robotics America Inc., for example, is finalizing the latest generation of paint-shop robots for an assembly plant in Canada. Following the application, there is no sign of any excess paint on the floor of the shop.
The process will get more efficient as robots learn to improve how they see, touch and communicate.
What else can be done?
Another common theory that could make the paint shop obsolete would be the use of color films that could be melted on the car body.
"You'd think that they would have come up with something where you could just lay a film on the body and it would just melt into color. You see things like that in other industries, and you wonder: Is that right around the corner for a car?" says manufacturing efficiency expert Ron Harbour.
It isn't, DuPont's Fischer says. "The technology to make good-looking films has been around for 20 years. The technology to process them in a way that is cost-competitive to paint has not been there yet."
Films don't work well on irregularly shaped parts. "It's like making Christmas cookies," Fischer says. "If you can't use 50 percent of your film because of the shape of the part, your efficiency is actually worse than painting."
The paint shop still may become extinct someday, but not in the next few decades.
Says Jim Haverland, director of paint material for global paint and polymers engineering at GM: "In everyone's mind is a future that contains no paint shop. I don't know if I will still be working, but it is out there somewhere."
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]