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The Science of Paint

Ever wonder about the people formulating today’s paint products — and if they have any clue how their creations affect refinishers? Wonder no more. Some of the industry’s leading paint chemists answer the questions on everyone’s minds.

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For many of you, painting is a huge part of your life: For shop owners, the paint finish is a critical factor in selling the customer the finished repair. For paint shop technicians, years of training and experience go into every panel that makes its way out of the paint department. Match the color, match the gloss, match the texture and, while you’re at it, don’t waste a drop.

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It’s an absolute testimony to the talent in this industry that so many shops have CSI ratings in the high 90s. These statistics show that despite the amazing number of product, application equipment and painting environment changes in the last 15 years, the people doing the work have adapted — and adapted well.

It’s a good thing, considering the profound change paint products themselves have undergone. Where factory-pack lacquer used to be the predominant product sold in the United States, the vast majority of shops currently utilize in-house mixing stations with computerized formula retrieval. Painters have the capability of mixing mere ounces of color for a small job rather than buying at least a pint or, most likely, a quart. When variances from vehicle manufacturers have been detected, the painter can put the formulas next to each other on the screen and compare them. And all of this has been developed by the paint manufacturers to increase their individual market share while helping the painter to be more productive.

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In the 1970s, such things weren’t even dreamed about. If you worked at a new-car dealership back then, when the new models came out, you had to be ready for warranty and transportation claims immediately. You’d order a quart of your favorite lacquer and see what it looked like. If it didn’t match, you’d order a quart from every manufacturer to see who came the closest. You knew there wasn’t anyone at any paint company who gave a flying hoot about your need to get a car ready for the new-car show that weekend.

This is about when people started pushing the idea of blending into adjoining panels. At Fisher Body School, they taught a great two-gun technique: one gun with color and the other with rich thinner and clear. All I knew, as a painter, was that nobody was paying me for all this. Fortunately, I learned quickly that I had but three stalls to do work in, and the sooner I blended a problem out of my way, the sooner I could start the next paying job. It was a profitable way to think then, and it still is.

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As a painter, I also remember wondering, "Just who are the people making the products I use every day? Do they have any clue what I have to put up with? Do they have any idea what the weather is like here? Have they ever tried to sand or rub this?"

I’d see the local paint rep on his rounds, and the store I bought paint from had a salesman who stopped by every week to see if I needed paint for the jobs that had just arrived — but that was as far as it went. There were no national conventions with huge booths full of factory people and, at that point, training for refinish technicians was extremely basic.

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The situation today is significantly different: huge conventions every year, training programs that can earn you college credits and an amazing willingness on the part of paint manufacturers to address individual needs of painters all over America. They even let their chemists out of their cages once in a while. Mercy!

I was fortunate to spend time with some of these chemists, who are also some of the paint industry’s brightest minds. We discussed a lot of topics, and we tried to look ahead to see if monumental changes were in the foreseeable future. And, personally, I was really curious whether the concerns of shop owners and refinish technicians were even on their minds. I’m glad to report that your concerns are at the top of their lists. They know that developments in paint chemistry have to bring value to everyone in the loop — or they’ll be left formulating new donut recipes.

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Note: The chemists names and the paint companies they work for have not been included to ensure the article is purely informational and in no way serves as an advertisement for any one paint company.

Chemistry Notes
BSB:
From the perspective of a paint-company chemist, what’s changing in paint coatings?

Chemist A: "Environmental issues are still a driver for change. Anybody still in the paint business today has a good VOC system for dealing with the national law, as well as a very productive system. … There are still issues surrounding hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and other environmental issues. They’re not driving it hard, but they can be an issue. Ultra-low VOC remains the standard in some markets, like the West Coast, and water is also still a player but it’s mostly European in focus. Their legislation doesn’t allow exempt solvents and, in some cases, is driven toward water specifically, but that’s country by country and makes it complicated."

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Chemist B: "The refinish market is my specialty and a number of very important things are [going on]: First is the issue of VOC compliance. There’s also an issue surrounding speed; we’re having to speed up the repair process and the application and curing processes. There’s a whole issue of durability of the topcoat as well. Lots of other things also are important, including color and adhesion, but when I think of what we’re trying to do, those are the three main things."

BSB: Is the way OEM coatings are changing affecting refinish suppliers?

Chemist B: "Certainly on the durability side. The OEM coatings being put on cars right now are tremendously more durable than they were 10 or 15 years ago. You don’t get the problems with fading and chalking like you used to. As a result, if we’re repairing a fender or a hood on a fairly new car, the paint that goes on has to match exactly from a color point of view and from a durability point of view. That’s what’s really driving the whole durability issue: the specifications from the car companies."

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BSB: As of February 1999, are the North American paint companies that have utilized the so-called ‘exempt solvents’ on thin ice? Is this a short window of opportunity?

Chemist A: "The solvents that are exempt right now offer different technical issues associated with them. Acetone is an issue from flammability and performance standpoints in topcoats. The popular fluorinated/chlorinated solvent used on the West Coast offers some cost issues as well as waste-disposal issues. As for National Rule compliance, neither one is necessary. On the Southwest Coast, they’re a tool and are being used by everybody. It’s not the preferred way to go, but it’s the best way given the VOC limits we’ve been asked to hit. North America is the only place that allows exempt solvents; European VOC legislation doesn’t. So the products available on the West Coast aren’t really available on a global basis because they offer no global benefits."

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Chemist B: "I think this window will be open for a long time. I think it’s even going to expand. A couple materials that have been classified as exempt are useful to paint. Acetone is one, and the fluorinated/chlorinated benzene product looks promising. Last I heard, there were about 13 others on the list that the EPA was examining. Some of them are useless for paint, but others could prove useful. I expect that at least some of them will get listed as exempt, and that will open the formulating box a little more. I feel this is something that’s going to be here for a very long time."

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BSB: Are we replacing the "devil we know" with the "devil we don’t know" as far as toxicity?

Chemist B: "Apparently not. The EPA has done extensive studies, and the fluorinated/chlorinated solvent isn’t a VOC, isn’t a hazardous air pollutant and isn’t an ozone-depleting substance (ODS). California even seems to like it. The substance has been made for 40 years, and there are no reported issues regarding toxicity.

"We mentioned acetone earlier; it’s an exempt solvent, but it’s too light and it’s got too low a flash point, which presents a safety hazard from a fire point of view."

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BSB: In the first quarter of 1999, what chemistries that have always been usable by chemists are now obsolete?

Chemist A: "As far as low-solids lacquer products, we’ll have to wait and see how that portion of the law is enforced, though they’re allowed for restoring cars. A lot of the low-solids, one-component sealers are, for the most part, obsolete, but those products are becoming a much smaller part of our market as the desire for performance, productivity and everything else keeps increasing. They were sliding anyway."

Chemist B: "The National Rule coming into effect will have a serious impact on some of the older air-dry technologies — certainly nitrocellulose and lacquer technologies, as well as enamel technologies. The use of one-pack technologies is sure to drop off dramatically. You can’t get the durability required, and you can’t get the VOCs down to a tolerable level. A number of countries have introduced VOC rules and limits but nothing like the United States and California right now. California has the most stringent rules in the world. Not only are they the strictest rules, but they’re more strongly enforced than anywhere else in the world."

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BSB: Is that true for refinish as well as for OEMs?

Chemist A: "OEM is a whole different ball game. OEMs have been two-component and using cross-linked thermosets for a long time."

BSB: Are OEMs changing at the same rate as refinish suppliers, or have they already adapted and become secure in their technologies?

Chemist A: "OEMs face environmental issues based, for the most part, on a facility basis. They’re driven by cost; by performance requirements, such as acid-rain resistance and environmental fallout resistance; and, in a lot of cases, by their customers, who are demanding the same thing our customers are demanding — productivity. Not necessarily faster dry or faster cure, but by taking a step out of the process. That type of thing. The same thing drives us both, but we go about it in different ways because of the chemistries and the markets."

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BSB: When we look at individual paint-company offerings, we can see there are many chemical ways to arrive at a paint film: isocyanates, polyoxithane, blocked ketamines, etc. What percentage of a typical paint company’s offerings fall under the heading "proprietary"?

Chemist A: "Everybody uses urethanes, and four or five large companies supply the urethanes. From that standpoint, that resin technology is available to everyone. The proprietary nature of an individual paint company’s product will typically come from the A-component — the polyol resins or other types of resins that may or may not be used. It’ll come from good formulation, the ability to have our tricks of the trade that aren’t readily apparent. That’s true of the major paint companies."

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Chemist B: "I know we have one line of paint that our competitors can’t copy because we have it sealed off with patents. Similarly, technologies are out there that we can’t copy because they’re patent protected. I think this is going to become more important in the future.

"As governments around the world get more concerned about what’s in paint and what goes off into the atmosphere, they’re actually banning and restricting what you can put in paint. And once you do that, you reduce what we call the formulation box. There are fewer and fewer chemicals to work with to get a paint product. As a result, this is going to lead to more novel chemistry from paint manufacturers; this will be patentable chemistry, and it’ll be very valuable to a paint company.

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"Because of the limitations, it’s going to be very difficult for one company to get to the end result if somebody else gets there first. In the last 10 or 11 years, governments have found problems with some of the most basic building blocks of paint as we’ve known them. They’ve been judicious enough not to ban them, but they’re placing strict limitations on their use. The winners in the future will be the companies that have proprietary chemistry."

BSB: Are the urethane resins themselves supplied by a few major companies, or is it the isocyanates that are used to cure the resins?

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Chemist A: "It’s the isocyanates that I’m talking about. All the paint companies have relationships with them; some proprietary relationships, some not."

BSB: Do the fancy new color-shifting pigments coming into play present technical problems to you as a chemist? Is it difficult to fit them into your product offering?

Chemist A: "We haven’t seen it as a technical issue as far as being able to use them; we have the same capability as OEMs. When they put that pigment on a car, we can get it on the car, too.

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"Our issue becomes the size of the mixing set. That’s why you’ve seen the development of the powdered pearls and that type of thing — different ways to achieve the color to get it into the end-user’s hands."

BSB: How much consideration is given by you, the chemist, to the needs of the painter? How are current developments that are changing what you do going to affect shop owners and paint technicians?

Chemist A: "If we do a good job, it’s not going to affect them at all. In fact, it’s going to make their jobs easier. What we’re hearing from our market is, ‘I need to be more productive,’ ‘The product needs to be easier to use,’ ‘It needs to be more consistent.’ That’s what we’re hearing from our distributors and body shops: easy, fast, productive. But fast and productive don’t necessarily mean the same thing."

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BSB: As things develop, are the paint drying and curing processes going to change dramatically for the shop?

Chemist A: "There’s a possibility of that happening, but you have to look at the cost: what a shop owner can afford and what advances it gives him. If he has to spend $50,000 on a piece of equipment and it cures his clear or his finished job 10 minutes faster, is it worth that investment? With the advances we’ve seen in paint technology for air-dry systems, I don’t see a big change on the horizon. But as different chemistries and possibly different cure mechanisms become suited to air-dry, that possibly could happen. Again, you have to look at the cost to the guy using the stuff."

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BSB: Some of the off-the-wall technologies tossed around the industry have actually been around a long time, such as ultraviolet (UV)-cured finishes. They’re currently quite popular in very high-end furniture and musical-instrument applications. Is it applicable technology for vehicle refinishing?

Chemist A: "Possibly. There have been cars in the world painted using UV-cure technology, but there are some obstacles to overcome. UV cure is inhibited by the presence of oxygen; that can be overcome, but it’s difficult. It’s a line-of-sight cure: The paint that gets into nooks and crannies and crevices doesn’t dry or cure more slowly — it doesn’t dry or cure at all.

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"The other thing that becomes a challenge is exterior durability. We tend to use UV absorbers and light stabilizers and all that stuff in our products. You have to be careful with UV absorbers in a UV-cured coating. The technology exists but is it applicable to vehicle refinish? Not today. Will it be in five years? I don’t know."

Chemist B: "What you’re going to see is other ways to actually catalyze refinish coatings, and UV cure could be an important technique. I think you’ll probably see more systems developed that cure not by the application of heat, but by the application of UV radiation. We can do it in the lab. How do you do it and control the speed of cure in the body shop as we know it now? I think there will be a drive to improve the speed of the coatings, and that’s going to change the way work is done in the body shop — and maybe even the configuration of the body shop."

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BSB: How about powder coatings? Will we ever see powder coatings in widespread use in a collision repair shop?

Chemist A: "I haven’t seen that technology even close to getting to air dry — not even the type of forced cure that could be reached by today’s type of equipment. The typical cure temperatures are in the range that would melt tires and fry computer chips. We haven’t seen that resin technology or the process technology advance far enough to get close to refinish yet."

Chemist B: "In terms of powder coatings, we’ve never seen a big future for them because of the application technologies. They don’t lend themselves to the current collision repair facility. And, certainly, the appearance and colors available don’t match what’s needed on the average vehicle; they’re very limited. Powder coatings are important and will probably continue to grow in other segments of the coatings market, but I don’t think we’ll see them in automotive refinish in the next 20 years."

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BSB: How about vapor-cured coatings? That is, applied paint that cures when exposed to a catalyst-laden vapor.

Chemist A: "The vapor-injection cure (VIC) system has been around for quite a while. Considering what we can do today without it, I don’t see where it really provides much of a benefit for the work and equipment associated with it. We can get an extremely quick cure with existing processes. It does provide advantages industrially when you have an assembly-line-type process, but I don’t see the application in refinish."

Chemist B: "I don’t know very much about that technology, but as I look to the future, I don’t really see how it could be applied in a body shop."

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BSB: There’s a short article in the Jan./Feb. 1999 issue of Technology Review published by MIT. It reads:

"In a bid to replace environmentally unfriendly paint with adhesive films … the U.S. Department of Commerce … is funding a project … to test hundreds of materials. … Fluoropolymer film now in advanced testing with Boeing and Lockheed … is proving easier to use than paint … and may soon find its way onto interstate road signs and possibly automobiles."

Any response?

Chemist A: "Yep! It’s being done right now by a couple of OEMs on some small vehicle pieces, like mirror housings. They’re looking at the economics of it, as well as the performance benefits, which would include possible cost benefits over paint application. I think it’s also on some front bumpers of cars at an OEM level, but it’s all at the test level."

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BSB: Is it any threat to the entire paint industry?

Chemist A: "Not tomorrow. There might be some specialty applications for it in the future, but I don’t think it’s the near future. I think issues involving color would make it a challenge to have an entire system using that technology."

Chemist B: "We see that as a threat to coatings. I don’t know what the article went on to say, but companies right now are researching the application of these thin films onto auto parts. We’re not in the films business; we’re in the coatings business and, as a result, we would see that as a threat to the consumption of coatings in the future."

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The Science of Paint
Seems to me that a few of the future technologies we’ve heard about don’t seem practical, while a few of the off-the-wall technologies may just make their way into the refinishing of automobiles.

The idea of patentable paint technology sounds a lot like current advances in medicine and certainly will be something to keep our eyes on. There also seems to be a huge obstacle in keeping color consistent with film technology currently being tested. Unfortunately for film technology, I don’t see the need for precise color matching changing in our lifetime.

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No doubt about it, paint products have undergone a profound change during the past decades, and they’ll continue to evolve as the needs of refinishers continue to change. The important thing is, the paint suppliers and their chemists have you — their customer — in mind. They understand your need to satisfy your customers and are working hard to meet it with new, more advanced product offerings.

Writer Michael Regan is president of The J.J.R. Company in Cleveland, Ohio, and a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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