Underneath the surface of paint technology

Tristan Young

04 Nov 2021

Paint. It’s just the colour of your car, isn’t it? Delve deeper and you’ll find that paint technology is moving just as fast as the rest of vehicle development resulting in host of new options.

Back in the day, special paint finishes were limited to the Max Power brigade because they had to be applied by specialists and couldn’t be applied in mass-production car factories.

Over the past 20 years, however, paint technology has moved on and you can now order much more specialist finishes on your new car. Just look at what BMW and Mercedes are offering on their vehicles.

BMW has had a run on frosted, or frozen, paints which, as their name suggests, look like they’re either covered in frost and are basically matt colours.

From even further back, Mercedes has offered customers the choice of any colour under its ‘Designo’ programme, including chromaflair paint on the 2004 SL55 AMG. More recently it has offered matt greys on its AMG range.

With these developments at the manufacturing level, bodyshops that carry out repair work after bumps and scrapes need to also be able to handle work on the new paints.

Rob Lagendijk, R&D director at paint expert AkzoNobel, explains: “The constant introduction of new vehicle makes and models means it is even more important to keep up to speed with new colour trends. Bodyshops need to be able to retrieve a colour for any vehicle, of any age, anywhere in the world, with total accuracy. The rise of electric vehicles - is also adding further levels of complexity to the repair process as they require specialists trained in dealing with high-voltage technologies.”

Green paint

The increasing need to have a lower environmental footprint is also hitting the car paint industry.

You may not realise, but making the paint itself if only part of the story in terms of going green. For many years there’s been legislation to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals in paint. But typically paint is ‘baked’ onto a car to dry it and fix it in position.

Paint manufacturers are now working on car finishes that need shorter drying times at lower temperatures.

Lagendijk explains: “Achieving faster drying times at lower temperatures has been a key focus for some time. R&D in this space has accelerated significantly in recent years, especially around the use of UV and ambient curing [baking] technology. The ability for a product to dry more rapidly has an obvious knock-on effect in terms of productivity and faster throughput which in a busy bodyshop can translate into significant additional revenues.

“To this can be added the further advantages gained by lower energy costs, and the work that is going in to creating products with a longer life to further reduce unnecessary waste and cost.”

As well as reducing drying temperatures and times, paint companies are also looking to reduce harmful chemicals in paint.

“Increasing the solid content of [paints] helps improve coverage and reduce emission levels, and this too is a major advantage for those seeking to gain the competitive edge and meet their future sustainability targets,” says Lagendijk.

“In other areas, manufacturers have been developing more bio-based coating technologies.

“Scientists are actively working on ways of exchanging raw materials for ‘greener’ alternatives, but in such a way that the coating’s binding properties are not affected.”

He added that a breakthrough innovation was announced in December 2020 which saw traditional oil-based compounds replaced by bio-based substances. These new paints require just UV light, oxygen and renewable raw materials and don’t need baking.

Lagendijk says: “Although the work is still at a relatively early stage, experts predict that the first of this new generation of products could be on the market within the next five years.”

Tech paint

Alongside the need for new look paints and ecologically sound paints, there is a third trend.

As cars are increasingly using sensors to detect what’s around them, paints can help, according to Lagendijk.

“It is worth highlighting in terms of the characteristics of future coatings, and that is in relation to e-mobility and autonomous driving. Radar is playing an important role in shaping future transportation needs, and the transparency of the coating for radar signals is critical to ensuring that a vehicle’s sensors perform without any interference. Similarly, the future introduction of lidar (which works on the same principle as radar but uses light from a laser) will also require coatings to be able to reflect light sufficiently to enhance effectiveness of future road safety systems.”

Take this to a logical extreme and you could either have stealth cars or, more practically (and likely), cars that show up better to other cars and are therefore less likely to be involved in an accident and less likely to need their paintwork repaired.

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Tristan Young

04 Nov 2021