Tim Knavish, senior vice president of automotive coatings for PPG, has two young daughters who like to remind him that “Nobody but you cares about paint, Dad.” It hasn’t dampened his zest for the subject.
“We actually take a little bit of offense when somebody says, ‘It’s as boring as watching paint dry.' Because that’s what we do,” he enthuses.
Knavish and his colleague, Ray Schappert, PPG’s global director of product management, put the high shine on automotive coatings in an interview at the Detroit auto show in January. Here are some of the nuggets they shared.
Smart coatings for automobiles and infrastructure could help self-driving cars “read” the location of buildings and overpasses. “As the autonomous vehicle drives down the road and looks at all these things in its surroundings, there are ways we can use that coating to reflect better and communicate better with the car,” says Knavish, who used to run PPG’s protective coatings business—creating paints for bridges, roads, tunnels and structural steel on the side of highways.
The right coating on a bridge, or road sign, or road marking for instance, could bounce a signal back from the car’s sensors more efficiently. “It’s not maybe as cool and sexy as some of the electronic stuff that’s being developed, but for us in the paint industry, it is,” he adds. “Now it’s not just about how does it look, how does it protect the steel and how long does it last? Now it’s also about how does it perform a function with all the electronics in the car?”
A paint shop is the highest energy and water user and highest waste generator in an automotive assembly plant. Cars usually get five layers of coating; the challenge for researchers is to find ways to either eliminate one of those layers or cut down on the drying/baking process.
In the self-driving realm, the LIDAR (light sensors) that read nearby infrastructure and cars doesn’t reflect as well off of dark colors as it does light colors. “That’s a big problem for the industry, especially with people who like to drive their metallic black Mercedes,” says Knavish. “So we’re working with third parties, universities and laboratories to develop formulating solutions around that.”
The right coating could help autonomous vehicle sensors work better in snow, rainstorms, sleet, slush and mud. The million-dollar question for coatings people, says Knavish, is: “Can you coat the lenses of those sensors in a way that makes them self-cleaning, or make them so they don’t get as obstructed?” A coating could prevent sensors from fogging up, “or if you get muddy water splashing on a sensor that’s on a bumper, the coating can be hydrophobic” and the mud “sheet right off so the lens remains functional.”
Ask a roomful of coatings people what the back and forth is like with car companies to get just the right hue, and they’ll all laugh knowingly. “Every year we do a color show and try to provide them with our view of where the color space is going to be moving in three to five years,” says Schappert. “The cycle time is four years from concept to actual production, so we have to figure out what’s going to be a popular color for them to design. So we give their design engineers our view—they have their view, they do research also—and many times they’ll say ‘We like that color, but well, we like that a little bluer’ or ‘Boy, if it had a bit more yellow in it.’ So we’re going back and forth with them maybe five to 10 times optimizing the color to appeal to the demographic that vehicle is intended for.”
Getting just the right red can be the difference between selling a few or a whole lot of cars. Take Rouge Flamme, for instance. For Renault, the “vibrant, lively, high-chroma” red clearcoat bumped up red cars’ share of total European sales from 5% to 25%.
Automotive coatings have a role in lightweighting. Car floors typically have sound-absorbent pads underneath the carpeting. Coatings—“lightweight liquid applied products”—can do the soundproofing with less weight. And lighter-weight aluminum-bodied cars require a different pre-coating than steel-framed cars.
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