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Ford impresses self with paint process
Ford is expanding its 3-Wet paint process to four more plants, which begs the question: what the heck is 3-Wet?
Posted April 17, 2013
Ford recently conveyed that it had re-invented the wheel and cured cancer. No, not really. Just car paint. And the application of it. It's all very impressive but tempered by the fact that Ford is verily screaming "yay us!" without any semblance of irony. It's as if no one will sing Ford's praises, so the company has stepped up, cleared its throat and done it themselves.

Not that they don't deserve credit for this particular thing they're patting themselves on the back for: the 3-Wet paint process they implemented back in 2007 in their Ohio assembly plant. Now, they're planning to expand the process into four more plants in 2013: one in Michigan, one in Missouri, one in China, and one in Spain.

Why should they get credit for the 3-Wet process? It's noteworthy for being technologically advanced in two ways. First, it uses "high-solids solvent-borne technology" in formulating the paint. That means the paint itself contains fewer solvents, which yields a concentrated pigment and resin blend that releases fewer volatile organic compounds.

Second, as its name implies, it can be applied in three layers (primer, base and clear coat) without waiting for each layer to dry before applying the next. That's important because before the standard process requires a stand-alone primer application and dedicated oven, as well as significant amounts of time and labor spent on drying each layer. Because the 3-Wet process allows the layers to be applied one after the other, with only an air flash in between, it saves the electricity that used to be needed to power the massive circulation of air through the paint booths and the natural gas that was used in the heating of the air and of the ovens. By Ford's calculations, this reduces CO2 emissions by 20-25 percent and emissions of volatile organic compounds by 10 percent.

The technology here really is pretty cool: in order to create a process that didn't require oven-drying for each layer, the developers had to create "gravity-defying" agents that could be incorporated into the paint. Somewhat counter-intuitively, they had to make the paint behave more like a low-viscosity liquid (like water)—yet also "body up" on the side of the car. The high-solids formulation is also important here—with a higher concentration of color pigment, less paint is required to cover the car, meaning less paint to drip.

The process also yields a 20-25 percent savings in process time, and it must also cut down on the labor that was formerly required for all of these lengthy procedures. Yet one thing you won't hear about in any of these press releases or descriptions of the technology is the cost savings that, you'd think, would accompany significant reductions in process time and labor. That's probably because companies don't like to mention that they're saving money on something unless they're intending to "pass their savings along to you." It doesn't appear that Ford has any such intent... or they would have said "yay us" about it.

I don't mean to begrudge Ford its satisfaction in its technology here. It's an important accomplishment, yes. The chemicals involved appear to be less damaging to the environment than what was in use before, and it uses less energy, so... good. Less damage to the environment is definitely better than more damage, so good on them.

And I certainly don't begrudge them the right to brag about it. If they didn't, dozens of hardworking PR people would be out of a job, and nobody wants to see that. And seriously, I've said in this space before that ideally, marketing is doing something great and then letting everyone know about it—so if Ford is excited about its 3-Wet technology, by all means, tell the world.

But I feel like the whole it's-all-for-the-environment thing is a bit cynical. Ford is a for-profit company. If they find more efficient, cheaper, less garbage-creating ways of doing what they do, isn't that pretty much their job? Are we really supposed to give them the Rachel Carson Memorial Environmentalist of the Year Award for saving energy and using less destructive chemicals?

I'm all for doing well by doing good and vice versa. And sure, yay you, Ford. But you could hear my "yay you" a little better if your "Yay Us" wasn't quite so loud.
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