"You can have a Model T in any color, as long as it's black."  The automotive world has come a long way since Henry Ford made this statement while introducing the revolutionary Model T Ford in 1908.  Today, paint color and quality both play major roles in car-buying decisions.

However, automotive paint is not just about looks. It is also the vehicle's first line of defense against scratches, abrasions and parking-lot dings.  Over the years, automotive paint has greatly improved, and more recent breakthroughs have boosted the quality of paint application, while also reducing its environmental impact. And plastics are playing an integral role in making this new technology possible.

Chemists have developed a colored plastic paint film that adheres directly to vehicle body frames and panels. The process saves time and energy compared to the traditional multi-layer application of liquid paint. Using paint films also reduces by 98 percent the emissions that are typically associated with traditional automotive paint processes.

Here's how it works:

Plastic body-color film, a thick plastic sheet of color, is applied by thermo-forming the material to an automobile part, such as a hood or fender.  The film is made by feeding a sheet of paint film, which looks like a giant roll of kitchen wrap 60 inches wide and 15,000 feet long, through a mechanism that resembles a printing press. This machine applies a clear coat, followed by a pigmented layer of colored paint and then an adhesive layer that bonds the film to the part when it is molded.  The base film is then stripped away, leaving a flexible, durable, high-gloss coating.  The resulting product is a higher quality color adhered directly to your vehicle's body that can be matched to any color in the rainbow; it can even be infused with metal flakes for a chrome-like finish.

Because the color is built into the color film, small scratches and dings do not show up as readily as they would with traditional paint. In fact, plastic paint film is equivalent to 15 coats of traditional automotive paint. The film is sealed with a thick clear coat, further protecting it from wear and tear. Plastic paint film is resistant to UV fading and retains a showroom shine longer than traditional paint. Additionally, the film can be applied to automotive parts through a variety of processes, including a low-VOC adhesive, which allows this innovative technology to be easily adapted to many different types of manufacturers. 

So when can we expect to see this technology in action? Well, the future is now. While mainstream adoption is still on the horizon, independent companies are already performing this process, though in limited-scope applications.  Major automakers are applying this technology on parts that see the most wear and tear, like doors, bumpers and panels. 

Companies such as Soliant Paint Film are currently working with GM, Chrysler and Saab to use this technology in various automotive paint applications, from fascias to skid plates and rocker panels.  In time, mass adoption could lead to a very significant emission and energy savings -- something we can all get behind.

For more information on how plastics are helping to make today's cars greener, safer and better designed, check out http://www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/c/today-in-plastics/cars-trucks/.



Jim Kolb is Senior Automotive Programs Director at the American Chemistry Council.