DETROIT -- White is the most popular car color, but the automotive paint business isn't quite so vanilla.
Paint suppliers produce thousands of colors each year, with names such as Grape Spritz, Coppernaut, Tuxedo Black and Pot O'Gold. As auto becomes a more chromatic industry, the automotive units of global coatings conglomerates are taking a more active role in helping automakers stay profitable.
"Color is a real differentiator," said Jane Harrington, manager of OEM coatings for PPG Industries Inc. at its automotive coatings headquarters in Troy, Mich. "When you buy a car, the first question you're asked is "What color?' "
Automotive paint -- applied by the automaker, not aftermarket or parts coatings -- makes up 6 percent of the global value of vehicles sales, or about $2.2 billion in North America, said Eric Linak, senior consultant in chemicals for research analysis firm IHS Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif.
"Nothing can beat a good glossy showroom finish," he said.
The 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan and shuttered the sole provider of a popular pigment in metallic-infused paints thrust the paint supply base into the limelight.
Without the pigment -- Xrillac -- Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC were forced to limit color choices like Blackberry Pearl and Bronze Star until alternative pigments were developed.
Suppliers quickly created workarounds for automakers, and paint's importance in the supply chain became evident.
Paint shop investments
Paint suppliers are as vital to an automaker's bottom line as any other supplier. Automakers' investment into an in-house paint shop runs from $100 million to $150 million -- the largest single capital investment in a plant, said Matt Robertson, North America sales director for DuPont Inc.'s performance coatings business unit in Mt. Clemens, Mich.
"This is why you don't see 50 different paint suppliers," said Cindy Niekamp, senior vice president of the auto coatings division for PPG. "Capital investment is huge, and the process is complex."
Pittsburgh-based PPG, Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont and Ludwigshafen, Germany-based BASF SE -- with its North American automotive coatings group in suburban Detroit -- hold the majority of the market share in North America.
One color costs paintmakers an estimated $50,000 to $75,000 to develop and represents $60 to $100 per vehicle, Robertson said.
PPG recently unveiled 70 new shades of exterior colors for the 2014-2015 model year alone.
Because of paint's large investment, automakers want cost-cutting measures and streamlined capabilities from paint suppliers, Linak said.
New systems, chemistries
Suppliers are developing new systems and chemistries that contain fewer solvents, can be applied in few stages and require less energy.
A plant's paint shop accounts for 50 percent of its energy use, so automakers bent on cutting energy costs and environmental footprints are relying on paint suppliers to develop new chemistries in formulas for cost reductions, Linak said.
Maureen Midgley, executive director of global paint and polymer engineering at GM, said in an e-mail the paint shop accounts for 70 percent of its plants' energy use and 70 percent of its air pollution and liquid waste, and cutting those costs and wastes is important to GM.
"This is a major focus of my team," she said. "We work on technology developments and deployments that are intrinsically safe, improve the quality, reduce total cost and are gentler on the environment."
Paint suppliers are actively working with the automakers to develop products that solve these emerging issues.
Niekamp said the biggest trend in the industry is to re-engineer the layering system, removing coats and lowering energy costs.
The average painting process includes five coats. Developing formulas that will allow automakers to eliminate a coat generates tremendous cost savings, she said.
PPG removed steps from the process at BMW's Spartanburg, S.C., plant last year. The process eliminated 20 percent of the paint line cost, Niekamp said.
"There's a huge amount of complexity between us and the automaker," Niekamp said. "Compacting the process is a major trend. It's not sexy, but it saves big, big dollars for our company and the automaker."
PPG's automotive coatings division is the company's largest. PPG generated revenue of $3.45 billion last fiscal year, including aftermarket and parts coatings.
DuPont's EcoConcept Finishing System allows car manufacturers to combine two coating steps into one waterborne coat. This removes the need for an entire spray booth and its associated drying equipment, reducing the total area of the paint shop by 25 percent, the company said.
"We're all looking to take cycles out of the production process," Robertson said. "Taking out a cycle generates enormous energy savings, and that's what our customers are looking for: a wider color space with fewer steps and greater cost savings."
DuPont employs 550 at its Mt. Clemens plant, and DuPont's annual automaker-related revenues are more than $350 million, Robertson said.
Research and development continues to push the coatings industry -- a large portion of DuPont's $1.3 billion spend on R&D went to automotive, Robertson said.
On the horizon? Self-healing paints: A chemical reaction triggered by a scratch will fill in the marred coating.
PPG and DuPont both have such paints in development, sometimes called biomimicry coatings or "amoeba" coatings.
"Abrasion resistance is one of the big things they've been working on for years," Linak said. "Going through the car wash dulls the finish, and automakers are looking for better performance."