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Although the manufacturers are fierce competitors, a Dodge Neon, Lincoln Town Car and Chevrolet Lumina all traveled down the same assembly plant paint line. This line is at the Ford assembly plant in Wixom, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. The companies have come together to leverage their strength in an unexpected way. Together, they have built and are managing a $20 million, 36,000 sq ft test facility.

Why are they doing this? The automakers, under their United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) umbrella organization, want to be able to use environmentally friendly powder coatings as the clear coating on new vehicles. Currently, powder is only used as a primer coat.

However, the big three could not just "get together." There were anti-trust barriers that had to be removed. Also, there were monetary considerations. How much money and man-hours would each contribute to the project? Once the details were ironed out, the LEPC formed.

The Low Emissions Paint Consortium (LEPC) is one of 12 consortia under USCAR's umbrella. In 1993, the consortium was developed to tackle the technical challenge of researching, developing and ultimately implementing paint-related technologies to reduce or eliminate emissions from automotive systems. USCAR aims to accelerate the availability of low-emissions painting technology to create a cleaner environment, while remaining competitive in world markets.

The powder coating facility aims to reduce or eliminate ozone-forming gases released into the atmosphere when applying liquid-based clear coat paint. Additionally, overspray from liquid coatings is collected as waste sludge and landfilled. The overspray from powder coating is reclaimed and recycled. The line has huge hoppers for collecting and recycling the powders.

The vehicles painted now will not end up as complete vehicles for consumer purchase. Instead, the bodies, fenders, hoods and trunk-lids, are used in tests where they are sprayed with powder coatings, cleaned off and repainted. This test process is repeated over and over at up to assembly line speeds using different powder coating formulations and application equipment.

Flexibility was incorporated into the line since a variety of vehicles from each of the big three would be painted on the line. The line accommodates all vehicles except the extremely large vehicles, such as Econoline vans.

"Since the 1960's, hydrocarbon emissions from the domestic automakers' painting processes have been reduced 80 pct," stated Ernie McLaughlin, Chrysler's lead representative to USCAR's paint consortium. "Chrysler, Ford and GM did this separately. Now we are working together to achieve further improvements quickly and at lower costs. But who would have ever thought it would involve a project of such magnitude?"

The environmental benefit of using powder coating is that the overspray can be captured, filtered, reconditioned, mixed with new powder and applied to subsequent vehicles coming down the line. By contrast, overspray from liquid paints used in today's assembly plants is collected and hauled off to landfills. Furthermore, unlike conventional liquid paint, powder coating does not release solvents when applied.

Rather than reducing emissions by adding expensive controls that add no value to the vehicle, engineers agreed it would be better to change the paint materials and eliminate pollution at the source.

The USCAR prove-out facility at Wixom represents a big step in clear coat powder coating development, according to Ford's Rich Pearson. "The transition from lab to assembly plant is too great with this technology. We have to learn how to deal with tons of powder a day." That is why the three companies built the facility, so researchers could approximate the conditions of a production paint line, something laboratories cannot do.

There are major technical and economic hurdles to overcome, but if the tests prove successful, the revolutionary technology could eventually be used in automotive assembly plants worldwide. Many already use powder coating for primers, but using powder coating for the clear coat is more difficult because it is the final layer applied to a vehicle and therefore must provide a more lustrous and resilient surface than the primer coat. The challenge for the USCAR engineers and technicians at Wixom is to do this affordably.

One problem is repairability in the field. How can these clear powder coatings be repaired once they are damaged in an accident or by scratching? If the automobiles are repaired using liquid clear coats, questions of film thickness, color matching and curing become a consideration.

Some fenders, hoods and trunk lids are sprayed with rotary atomizers or by hand. Robotics will be added as part of the consortium's test of all types of application equipment. After coating, one out of 25 vehicles flash off and move on to an oven where it is cured at 325F.

The paint room is maintained at 68F plus or minus 2F and 50% humidity plus or minus 5%.

Some complete bodies also will be sprayed, cured and assembled into production vehicles that will be put into test fleets. As part of testing, parts are exposed to extreme heat, humidity and cold weather conditions for extended periods.

This ambitious project could not be undertaken by the automotive manufacturers alone. More than 40 suppliers are participating in the project with materials, equipment and facilities.

When ABB Paint Finishing, Inc. was asked to help build an experimental paint facility for USCAR's paint consortium, it didn't expect to be working with other paint technology suppliers. But that is exactly what happened.

As joint research efforts between the domestic automakers continue, other research partners are learning that collaboration means changing old ways of doing business to help advance industry initiatives to better respond to the needs of consumers, society and the environment.

At the Wixom project site, ABB is helping to develop an environmentally friendly clear powder coating process. Rich Pearson said, "Suppliers involved with USCAR efforts now have to look beyond their own walls. Years ago, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors learned to change the way we thought about cooperating with our competitors. Now suppliers working with us are learning to do the same."

Suppliers of both material and application equipment worked together from the beginning. Normally, suppliers work independently to meet the domestic automakers' specifications. For this project, the technologies are being jointly developed with the involvement of paint materials, facilities and equipment suppliers. This cooperation required a systems approach for the design and implementation of the clear powder coating facility.

Other suppliers include ITW-Ransburg; Siebert Powder Coatings; and ABB. According to Tom Meschievitz, GM's lead representative working on the project, "The Wixom clear coating powder prove-out facility allows us to send one message to the supply base: This is a problem for all of us. We need combined efforts to resolve it."

The facility is a $20 million addition to the existing Ford Wixom plant. It opened in 1996 to study ways to reduce or eliminate emissions from paint sources during the application of automotive clear coating.

The big three, Ford, Chrysler and GM, signed a 12-year agreement concerning the test facility that runs until 2005. Even after they are able to make clear powder coating production ready, it will take at least two years to actually implement it.