TOKYO -- Remember Merck KGaA? It was the hitherto little-known supplier that torpedoed swathes of the global auto industry when the 2011 Japan earthquake slammed its paint pigment factory.
Now Merck is introducing a new pigment -- and taking precautions to ensure future disasters won't trigger another worldwide bottleneck similar to the quake-induced shortage of glittery Xirallic.
Merck's countermeasures show how auto suppliers are implementing lessons learned from the March 2011 earthquake-tsunami double punch. They are adapting stricter contingency plans and reacting to carmakers' demands to diversify sourcing and boost stockpiles.
After the earthquake, automakers worldwide were forced to stop making cars of certain colors because they couldn't get the aluminum-flaked Xirallic pigment that makes the paint sparkle. Merck was making the pigment at only one plant worldwide -- its Onahama plant in the quake zone -- and kept significant stocks of the product only at the same factory.
It took months to restart the plant and resume deliveries.
Merck's new pigment, called Meoxal, targets bright colors such as yellow and orange. It has a similar metallic radiance to Xirallic but works better to cover surface irregularities that tend to show through other light-colored paint coatings.
Merck makes Meoxal only at Onahama. But spokesman David Pinsker says the company is stockpiling several months' supply at three sites globally: Japan, Germany and Savannah, Ga.
"We would be able to continue to supply customers for some months even with the kind of disruption we saw two years ago or worse than that," Pinsker said. "It's certainly sufficient."
Meoxal production had been scheduled to begin in early 2012, but that was delayed until July 2012 by the earthquake. In May 2013, Merck began delivering samples to potential customers, which are putting the pigment through qualification testing.
Pinsker declined to name prospective customers.
So far, the pigment line has two colors, both inspired by and named after deserts: Wahiba Orange and Taklamakan Gold.
The Wahiba Sands is a desert region in Oman, while the Taklamakan Desert is in the southwest portion of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China.
The series may be expanded up to five pigments.
Merck is making Meoxal at only one location because quantities are so small at the initial rollout. As for Xirallic, its longtime breadwinner, Merck now makes that product at its Gernsheim, Germany, plant as a backup to the Onahama factory.
Xirallic, too, is stored at Merck's three global warehouses.
Merck developed the new pigment with Toyo Aluminum K.K.