Business owners across most industries are all in one way or another seeking the solution to a single conundrum – how to do things faster without incurring further costs?
Time is money is a well-used cliché because it is true, and the automotive aftermarket is no exception. In fact, since the Covid pandemic struck nearly 18 months ago and margins have been squeezed ever tighter, the balancing act between greater efficiency and economic reality has become wafer thin.
Nothing illustrates that better than the world of paint, where drying times – which vary wildly according to product – have a direct impact on profit.
It is always about speed and manufacturers are always striving to develop a product that is not only quick and durable but also affordable. The closest they have come so far is ultraviolet (UV) paint, which at least ticks the first two boxes.
The speed benefits of UVs are undeniable. A UV primer can be cured in three minutes and can be sanded straight away. This compares well to a high advanced primer, which requires five minutes curing time and a further five minutes to cool down before it can be sanded.
However, the cost of curing I00% of the time is not cheap, with UV-primed cures as much as four times the price of quick curing primers. While some of the larger body shops may be able to absorb this, the chances are most smaller sites will not.
So, until manufacturers find a way of reducing prices, the chances are that UVs will make good business sense for mobile repairers, for whom time is critical with changeable weather, but very few others.
UVs were first launched a few years ago and everyone thought that was where the industry would go, but everything comes down to price. The possibility is that it will go down the mobile repairer route and manufacturers are starting to look at other quick curing products using new resins that are nearly as quick and much cheaper.
With the rise of electric vehicles, this could change everything. EVs are changing the repair landscape. There are about 250 000 on UK roads and this figure could rise to a million a year from 2025 onwards. These vehicles have to be baked at lower temperatures in the spray booth.
Manufacturers can adjust certain clearcoats to allow them to be baked at a lower temperature although they will need to be baked for longer in that case. UVs don’t need any heat. So, the more EVs join the market, the more the time gap between UVs and “normal” paint become.
Paint manufacturers are already moving to address this by developing primers that can be cured for the same amount of time at a lower temperature.
BASF are investing a lot into the exciting areas of cold cure, with three different grey shades of UV primers in their biomass range, alongside a brand new UV putty. With the reduced curing temperatures and other ambient cure options they can protect the part from higher temperatures and not compromise on the safety of the bonding process used in construction. This is critical because as an industry the integrity of the repair has to be ensured.
Another area of activity at the moment is the solid content within resins. However, the issue of solid content is both contentious and confusing.
Essentially the more solid content within clearcoats and less solvent the better and more glossy the finish will be. Consequently, body shops pay more for ultra-high solid clear coats than they do for high solid clear coats or medium clearcoats. However, the confusion arises because of a lack of clarity around the definitions of each category.
The paints are measured against VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) standards, but these standards differ depending on whether they’re being applied to industrial or commercial finishes. That means a clearcoat could be VOC compliant for industrial use but not for commercial use.
We have to remember that there is no set definition for these categories and that allows for variation between manufacturers. So, while a manufacturer might say it is VOC compliant it might not be compliant for the right category. A lot of body shops think they are using high solid clearcoats when actually they are medium solids. This is probably the biggest issue.
Is there a bigger issue than skills training? That is debatable. With EVs joining the car parc, the “line-of-sight’ challenges posed to paint technicians for these autonomous vehicles as well as the high chroma colours from vehicle manufacturers, which results in more three-stage systems being applied in the repair process, making it more complex, the demand for updated skill sets have never been greater.
The pandemic has also put training on the back burner. It has hampered the progress and unfortunately some apprentices have not been able to remain within the business, and with the lockdowns preventing some places from training and offering education to people wanting to grow their skills, it has only compounded the issue.
As restrictions gradually lift, training programmes have restarted to give painters the opportunity to re-engage and enhance their learning of the latest repair processes because that is how we address the skills shortage.
Alongside the need to nurture and develop fresh talent, what else is happening? While the automotive industry can hardly be accused of standing still, in some ways innovation within the paint sector has hit a logjam.
This part of the industry is at a speed bump because how far can you push the boundaries within a clearcoat? How much can you improve its performance? For paint to make the jump forward we need new innovation in additives and resins. Perhaps the immediate steps forward come not so much in the areas of performance and quality and speed, but rather in terms of environmental impacts. Paint by its very nature is never going to be eco-friendly but as consumer and regulatory priorities shift, every manufacturer has to pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Sustainability is at the heart of everything that the industry does and our current and incoming innovations are geared towards achieving the 2050 goals. We have already developed the renewable biomass clearcoat solutions and we have reduced our VOC content by 41%. It doesn’t end here. By constantly working on new manufacturing processes that are as sustainable as possible, we are always re-evaluating – how else we can affect change?