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The Powder Paint Project

To create a cleaner, greener automotive paint, the Big Three are collaborating to put powder coatings on cars – and to send solvent clearcoats the way of dinosaurs.

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Powder coating has been around since the 1950s. But, in recent
decades, this "dry painting" has become an economically
viable and preferable process for coating a countless variety
of products, such as vacuum cleaners, roofing tiles, decorative
glass bottles and appliances.

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So why not cars?

That’s the very question the Big Three automakers are currently
investigating.

If dry-painting technology has improved as dramatically as some
experts say, it could potentially make today’s liquid-based vehicle
paint – long considered an environmental foe – obsolete. In fact,
many believe that today’s sticky, toxic solvent clearcoats will
make way for the paint of the future: a clean, renewable powder.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are currently testing powder
paint and new application processes at a $20 million paint test
facility in Wixom, Mich. The automakers want to perfect powder-paint
use so eventually it will replace liquid-based paint as the clearcoat
top layer applied to vehicles.

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"The testing facility is part of Ford’s Wixom Assembly Plant,"
says Tom Meschievitz, director of paint engineering for GM North
American Operations. "Each car company has a full-time engineer
on site and jointly pays the salaries of six hourly Ford employees
who test paint and application processes."

The testing is part of the automakers’ Low Emissions Paint Consortium
(LEPC), and the resulting formula, if successful, could eventually
be used in automotive assembly plants around the world.

Be Nice to Mother Earth

The paint group is one of 12 under GM, Ford and Chrysler’s United
States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR). USCAR is a Southfield,
Mich.-based organization formed in 1992 to oversee Big Three research
in noncompetitive arenas, such as vehicle recycling, vehicle emissions
and advanced occupant-restraint systems.

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The purpose of the collaboration is to create automotive paint
that won’t harm the environment when applied. While U.S. automakers
have reduced hydrocarbon emissions from paint facilities by 80
percent in the last 20 years, powder-paint technology achieves
nearly zero emissions.

Powder paint, which comes in 1,000- to 1,500-pound metal boxes,
doesn’t release ozone-forming gases into the atmosphere when applied
because it’s sprayed or pumped onto the vehicle with air – and
electrostatic charges hold the paint particles to the surface,
much like a balloon that’s rubbed sticks to a wall.

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Another environmental plus: Oversprayed powder paint that doesn’t
cling to a vehicle can be collected and reused. How? Collected
paint is filtered, reconditioned, mixed with new powder paint
and applied to other vehicles.

"We’re lowering stack emissions," says Meschievitz.
"Powder affords the opportunity to recycle and reuse the
paint particles that don’t go on the vehicle. Nothing, or almost
nothing, gets taken to the landfill."

By contrast, liquid-based paints emit toxic gases into the environment.
Such paint requires harmful solvents to keep it in suspension.
After it’s used, this type of paint becomes sludge and is collected
and hauled to a landfill.

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Collision Repair & Customer Considerations

Many challenges lie ahead. For powder paint to be used successfully,
researchers need to ensure that its quality and reliability will
equal today’s durable clearcoat paints. Researchers are also trying
to ensure that the new technology won’t affect current collision
repair processes. And, as of now, experts predict that body shops
will be able to restore damaged vehicles without changing their
processes because vehicles with a powder-paint clearcoat will
be as repairable as those with a liquid-based clearcoat.

"Our goal and objective with the paint testing is that body
shops can continue to use the same repair methods," Meschievitz
says. "If we do our job right, changes in paint technology
will be transparent to the body shop and the car buyer."

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While many automotive paint shops already use powder paints to
prime vehicles, using powder paint for clearcoats is more difficult
because it’s the final layer applied to a vehicle and must provide
a more lustrous and resilient surface than primer does.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, is being "green"
without charging customers more for new vehicles.

"We want to keep costs the same," Meschievitz says.
"None of us [automakers] make paint or paint application
equipment, so this whole development effort is to make sure everyone
resolves issues with respect to maintaining high quality and equal
operational costs."

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The Testing Process

For the most part, vehicle bodies painted under test conditions
in Wixom aren’t sold to the public. Instead, technicians paint
and test the vehicles repeatedly and examine different paint and
powder-paint formulations, spray nozzles and other related equipment.
Some fenders, hoods and trunk lids sprayed with the clearcoat
powder are moved to cure in an oven, and there, the powder particles
are melted and fused to the surface of the metal and examined
to determine the level of quality.

Parts are exposed to extreme heat, humidity and cold weather conditions
for long periods to test durability. A few of the painted vehicles
are made into production vehicles and put into test fleets to
examine their performance under real-world conditions.

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More than 40 suppliers are playing a large role in this testing
process by providing materials, equipment and facilities. Recently,
one manufacturer oversaw the coating of several Chevrolet S-10
pickup trucks. Employees painted the trucks with a powder primer
at the assembly plant and then shipped the trucks to Wixom, where
they were painted with a waterborne basecoat. From there, the
trucks were transferred to the LEPC facility, and technicians
applied the powder clearcoat.

The trucks went through a variety of curing processes using electric
infrared heat, black-wall radiant heat and a combination of both.
They were put into a normal convection oven for final curing.

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The LEPC is working to develop methods that will allow the use
of powder paints in a conventional paint facility, and success
depends on special equipment and processes at the Wixom plant.
But, according to LEPC, it’s getting closer to taking a process
and making it adaptable for existing paint facilities.

Collaborating for the Common Good

Meschievitz says LEPC formed almost five years ago, although 1997
was the first year it was operational. It will be another eight
years before the partnership expires, Meschievitz says, but it
may take less or more time to get the powder-paint process fully
developed.

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"It’s a great effort combining the resources of GM, Ford
and Chrysler," he says. "It helps to focus the industry."

This article was reprinted courtesy of Movin’ Parts magazine.
Writer Marti Benedetti is a Detroit-area freelance writer whose
work has appeared in local and national publications. Benedetti
can be reached at (313) 882-4179.

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