Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Ford Motor Co. and U-Haul International Inc. have begun field-testing the auto maker’s unique 3-wet painting process, as customers of the rent-a-truck service take delivery of E-Series vans painted with the new method.

The revolutionary process, which has been under development since 2002 by Ford and its three main paint suppliers – PPG Industries Inc., BASF Corp. and DuPont Automotive – is designed to reduce the cost associated with automotive paint application, as well as lessen its effects on the environment.

Ford’s Avon Lake, OH, assembly plant is spearheading the project in a traditional paint booth modified to accommodate the 3-wet process.

Most auto makers today use a painting process that involves five steps, with the first being the application of an anti-corrosion phosphate coat.

From there, the vehicle goes through a spray-coating process, which includes a standalone primer booth.

During the final steps, the vehicle goes to the enamel booth, where a color coat, base coat and clear coat are applied. Between each coat, the vehicle is dried and then finished off in a final drying oven.

The 3-wet process effectively combines the primer and enamel booths, reducing the footprint of the paint booth by some 25% and shaving 15%-20% off the time it takes to paint a vehicle, Ford says.

The new method is more energy efficient and produces fewer volatile organic compounds and carbon-dioxide emissions. It also requires about 10 fewer employees to operate than a traditional paint booth.

Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s vice president-North American manufacturing, is expected to credit the technology for helping the auto maker reach its goal of environmental leadership during his speech today at the automotive Management Briefing Seminars here.

“When you look at it, our long-term strategy and vision is to lead in environmental technologies and manufacturing processes,” Hinrichs tells Ward’s. “To be out in front leading with this new process is good for the environment and great for our customers. It fits into our vision of being an environmental leader.”

How to combine the two booths was the tricky part in developing the process, he says. It took Ford researchers at the auto maker’s Dearborn, MI-based Scientific Research Laboratory years to formulate the additives to make the process possible.

The 3-wet system utilizes a high-solids-based paint foundation that contains more color pigment, therefore requiring less paint to cover a vehicle. The process allows three layers of wet paint to be applied one on top of another and baked once, eliminating the need for a paint oven between coats.

“What we’re doing is spraying the prime layer, air flashing it, adding the base-coat layer, air flashing it, and then finally adding the clear-coat layer,” Mary Ellen Rosenberger, paint manager, tells Ward’s during a recent visit to Ford’s Avon Lake plant.

“So what you have is a prime, base and clear – wet on wet on wet – without any dehydration or low-temperature ovens; just air flash,” she says.

To eliminate an oven, Ford and its supplier partners had to devise a way to keep the various layers from dripping between applications. To defy gravity, so-called “reality-control agents” were developed, says Timothy P. Weingartz, senior technical specialist-global paint engineering.

“Additives that were put into our pigments and newly developed resins accommodate the system so you can put on all three wet layers,” Weingartz says at the plant.

“When you put it through the application spray equipment, it acts like a low-viscosity liquid – more like water,” he says. “And when it hits the side of the vehicle, it bodies up, and that’s where it defies gravity. It actually forms a wet matrix, so that it helps stop it from sliding down the side of the car.”

Vehicles that have undergone the process have been subjected to extensive testing, Weingartz says, adding that so far the results have been spectacular. Trials were conducted in the U.S, as well as in Genk, Belgium, and the Asia/Pacific region.

Not only does the process produce a paint job that is equal or superior to those using traditional methods, it also is proving more resistant to chips and scratches, two main concerns among consumers.

“All of our testing to date shows there is absolutely no compromise (between 3-wet and traditional processes),” Weingartz says. “We’ve measured some improvements in appearance and the durability is equivalent to anything in the industry.”

Although the 3-wet process has undergone more than nine months of testing at the hands of Ford and its supplier partners, the ultimate test will be if the paint jobs can withstand the rigorous work load of a U-Haul rental truck.

Dean Cermeli, director-truck and trailer product at U-Haul, says his company will issue quarterly reports on the trucks as they travel around the U.S.

“We’re very excited to be a partner with Ford on this joint venture,” Cermeli tells Ward’s in a phone interview. “Anything relating to sustainability and environment, we want to be on the bandwagon. It’s an important issue.

“We’re going to evaluate the painting process with Ford as (the moving vans) go through all thermal cycles,” he says. “That’s the nice part of U-Haul. The vans could be in New York one week and California the next. So we’ll see the type of abuse this type of paint will get. We’re looking for them to have a real-world durability test.

“Our timeline right now is to move into first-quarter 2008 as a commercial process, so ’08 vehicles will have this process,” Weingartz tells Ward’s.

“We’re transitioning and using this data right now to continue to move forward with the process for all Ford vehicles. Eventually it will be global.”

bpope@wardsauto.com