By Ros Macdonald

New automated paint technologies are being put to good use in manufacturing, quickly and seamlessly painting complex designs on automobiles. This is just one of many robotic processes that have time and cost saving potential in both manufacturing and collision repairs. The technology has yet to trickle down to the collision repair sector, but it opens up interesting prospects for the future of their paint departments. Automated paint suggests a possible strategy for shops to streamline the painting process, and for patrons to customize their vehicle during repair.

Automated paint robots function similarly to an inkjet printer, spraying jets of ink as small as half a millimetre in thickness, and creating precise edges as the paint hits the vehicle. The robots can paint in two tones and create crisp edges without any tape or stencils.

Painting by hand requires masking around each paint colour and allowing it to dry in between, to ensure the colours don’t bleed into each other. With automated painting, there is no masking or overspray – the unwanted drifting paint that can end up on the car or in the painting room. According to Brad Kruhlak, Technical Manager of AkzoNobel, “…robotic paint application provides consistent quality and a high transfer efficiency, thereby reducing waste”. By automating the paint process, manufacturers save major costs not just on masking materials, but also the solvents, razor blades and rubbing compounds traditionally used to remove excess paint on the vehicle and in the workspace. Robotic paint application also reduces energy costs and lowers the carbon footprint. Since automation eliminates the paint separation process, the amount of air ventilation required is also lowered.

These cost saving implications will turn heads in the repair sector, raising the question of whether robotic painting will expand beyond just manufacturing.

Any shop would be delighted to save on time, materials, and energy costs. “If the technology is adapted to the collision repair environment, it could accelerate the process and help remove any human error”, says Kruhlak. The quality and consistency of paint application could be optimized, and the robots would never need sick days! Additionally, car owners could also choose custom designs — a potential upsell point for repair shops.

Painters in collision repair facilities might wonder if a future where paint is applied automatically could threaten their employment. After all, the implementation of industrial robots has eliminated jobs in industries across the board, from manufacturers to cashiers. However, Kruhlak maintains, “There will still be a need for someone to run this equipment so we feel that there won’t be less of a need for painters but more so that painters may need to learn a new skillset.” In that case, the new technology could simply create opportunities for painters to add new tools to their repertoire.

Implementing automated paint technologies and preparing the staff in a repair shop would require renovating the entire paint department. “The initial cost would be significant, including the added cost to retrofit to any existing equipment” says Kruhlak. Automated paint technologies would need to advance to a point where this kind of upheaval would be worthwhile before they start making waves in repair facilities. At the moment, there are significant limits to what the robots can do in a repair context.

The complexity of the repair process creates a lot of variables in painting that are best handled by a human painter. “A painter makes a lot of decisions on the fly, such as colour match, blending, masking, whether there is enough room for a blend, etc., which underscores the need for human intervention during the painting process,” says Kruhlak.

Additionally, unlike manufacturing, collision repair facilities are dealing with almost infinite models of automobiles — handling huge variations in height, width, and age. Automatic painting might not be able to adapt as easily to every individual model that comes through the shop.

It could be some time before automatic paint equipment can adapt to all the unique needs of a damaged vehicle. In original equipment manufacturing, all parts must be made alike — which underscores the usefulness of automation. When it comes to collision repair on the other hand, personnel are known for their ability to think on the fly and adapt to the needs of every vehicle. After all, no two collisions are exactly the same. Whether automated paint looms in the future of the collision repair sector hinges on whether robotic processes can achieve the same level of flexibility that makes collision repair teams so effective. According to Kruhlak, “The reputation and performance of a collision repair facility will remain paramount.

Automated or not, the results of the repair must be to pre-accident condition or better.”



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