Car Wrapping Could Go Mainstream With EVs

Protective and effect films have been around a good while in the auto industry. Typically vinyl, they are slapped on new cars out for delivery, used for tinting and fleet decals, and even decking the odd Lamborghini out in a galaxy scene.

There is a new breed of car film technology that’s showing tentative signs of going mainstream. PPG is working with auto OEMs on projects involving a polyurethane-based film that already has a fully-approved topcoat applied to it. In place of a can of paint, the OEM takes delivery of a roll of pre-painted film that can be cut and customised for different applications. Complex and still in its infancy, it’s capturing the imagination of carmakers desperate to cut CO2 emissions.

“It’s like wallpaper for your car,” Roald Johannsen, PPG’s vice president of EMEA Automotive Coatings, said in an interview with chemicalESG.

A car plant’s biggest climate battle is the paint shop. It accounts for 1/3 of the cost of building a greenfield factory and, once up and running, it consumes 2/3 of the energy. Sprayed car-parts are baked in curing ovens reaching 375 degrees Fahrenheit, typically for 20 minutes, while power-hungry ventilation systems run hard in the background. That section is also the top consumer of water.

The coatings industry has to adapt quickly to changing customer demands. I talked to Johannsen at an innovation day in Amsterdam, where PPG showed off a slate of new products, including a retroreflective powder coating and a ghostbusters type backpack for spray-painting deco paint. The painted film technology wasn’t on display or on the schedule but there have been a couple of throwaway comments about it in the industry lately. 3M weren’t available to speak to on this.

There has already been some progress down at the auto paint shop. PPG has worked with the likes of Ferrari on coatings that cure at a lower temperature, and a four wet-process where a sealer, two layers of base coat and a clear coat all get applied before going through one bake cycle, saving on energy costs and emissions.

PPG got into painted films via its acquisition of Wörwag a year ago. The Stuttgart, Germany-based company’s bread and butter was supplying specialized coatings for plastic car parts, but it had been tinkering around with painted substrates for 20 years. One challenge is scaling it up. The application process is quite capital intensive in terms of upfront investment on the sophisticated equipment required. But faced with the pressure to cut CO2 and improve sustainability, carmakers attach a lot more value now to anything that can help in this department. 

Currently, if BMW wants to get a few two-tone minis out of the factory gate, it’s likely that the whole car would be sprayed and cured, then re-routed to the masking station, and then it’s back around to the paint shop for another bake-off. The modern masking operation is super-slick. OEMs have got it down to a fine art with specialist machinery and highly-trained operators. But the clock doesn’t stop ticking. Pre-painted films could be precision applied on the roof instead. There’s zero overspray and no need for masking. Rather than take another turn on the paint-and-bake carousel, the mini could be re-routed to the “film shop.”

It’s easy to get carried away at this point. I imagine someone (rich) ordering an EV with a complex design created by someone famous, with additional hologram functionality built in.

Johannsen is more grounded. 

“You’ve got to see paint films as part of a broader solution for the OEM, it’s not the only solution,” he said. “Today, it’s very much a project-based business and you have to be quite selective in the type of projects that you work on.”

Films would be well-suited if an OEM is designing a new grill or a different coloured roof, but powder or liquid coatings would be the go-to solution elsewhere. We are not at the point when someone can come along and ask for 100 different colors off the tinting system, Johannsen said. “It’s not there yet.”

That’s not to say that things won’t get creative. The world of EVs is expected to be much more bespoke, aesthetically differentiated, customizable and films will play their part in that. 

“I think it has the runway to do that,” Johannsen said. “There’s a lot of capability in tinting systems, combined with wet treatment, and formulated in the right way, it’s absolutely imaginable.”

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