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Watching Paint Dry – by Ed Conway

Watching Paint Dry – by Ed Conway

2023-05-23 10:40:03

What follows is, on the floor at the very least, a narrative about paint, which is able to sound terrifically boring however, with out wishing to present the sport away, this isn’t actually simply about paint.

Actually, it’s about the whole lot. Have a look at the world from the vantage level of automobile paint and you start to see numerous strands of the twentieth century storyline unfurling: the early days of mass manufacturing and the fashionable manufacturing facility, the ascent of mass consumption, the rise and fall of financial progress, all over to right this moment’s “productiveness puzzle” economists are attempting to get their heads round.

Truthfully: automobile paint is such an enchanting matter that I’m stunned so little has been written about it. Then once more, one thing comparable goes for lots of the obscure tales from the Materials World, the ebook I’ll be publishing later this 12 months. What follows is a facet story I could not fairly match into the ebook, but when it whets your urge for food, please pre-order a copy – doing so, even some months upfront, makes an unlimited distinction. Within the meantime… right here’s a narrative about automobile paint.

Like most tales in regards to the automobile trade, this one in all probability ought to start with Henry Ford. In any case, one of the crucial well-known issues the godfather of mass manufacturing stated of his most well-known automobile, the Mannequin T, was that the shopper may get it “in any coloration he desires, as long as it’s black”.

Portray the Mannequin T in black alone was a kind of choices that stood for lots greater than a alternative on a color palette. By narrowing his color choice down to 1 and just one, Ford was in a position to streamline the manufacturing course of, dashing up the speed at which automobiles would progress via the crops at Detroit.

Time, in spite of everything, is cash, and the faster you possibly can paint (and dry) a automobile, the earlier you may get it into the fingers of consumers and the earlier it’s out of the best way of the opposite automobiles steaming down the meeting line. And portray a automobile takes time: significantly extra time, because it occurs, than truly making a automobile.

Up till 1914 it took Ford about 12 hours to assemble all of the related components right into a completed automobile. However portray a automobile was time-consuming, particularly again within the first a long time of the twentieth century. Every coat of paint on the Mannequin Ts needed to be brushed or dipped on and allowed to dry earlier than the subsequent layer went on. Whereas the length of meeting was initially measured in hours, the length of portray was measured in days and even weeks. Automobiles would stack up, 1000’s of them, in warehouses because the chemical substances within the paints slowly cured and turned strong.

Little or no consideration is paid to automobile paint, for comprehensible causes. If you consider automobiles you consider the engine with all its transferring components. You consider the physique and the camshaft and the wheels, all of that are a part of the finely tuned mechanism endowing it with motion. The paint appears nearly like an afterthought.

Besides that it’s something however. Paint seems to be an extremely necessary factor of automobile manufacture, partly for the explanations Ford bumped into: for a few years it was the lengthiest of all of the processes in a automobile plant. Lately, the place we use huge ovens to treatment and dry automobile coatings, it’s comfortably essentially the most power intensive and carbon intensive components of creating a automobile.

And it’s partly as a result of automobile coatings additionally serve a fully important position, defending the metallic in a automobile from corrosion and gradual movement disintegration. It’s because of fashionable automobile coating methods that you’re a lot much less more likely to see rust underneath the hoods or door arches of automobiles produced up to now couple of a long time. How? We’ll get to that in a second, however in the intervening time, again to the period of Henry Ford.

Earlier than Ford and the Mannequin T, automobiles got here in all kinds of fantabulous colors. They had been painted in the identical sorts of vibrant coatings as horse-drawn carriages, however one drawback was that these paints would fade quickly, that means you would need to get them repainted recurrently. One other was that the portray would take weeks. So portray was one of many important nuts for Ford to crack if he was going to churn out the amount of automobiles he supposed to.

And he spent a lot of his profession trying to crack that nut. He commissioned chemists to work on the paint formulation, he researched methods of drying the automobiles in gigantic ovens and, as everyone knows, he narrowed down the variety of obtainable colors to 1.

The standard knowledge is that Ford decreed that every one Mannequin Ts must be black as a result of that was the fastest-drying of all colors. Really, this legendary model of historical past isn’t solely correct in accordance with an exhaustive history by Trent Boggess. Furthermore, even in 1909, the identical 12 months that well-known Ford quote dates from in his autobiography, you can nonetheless purchase a Mannequin T in pink, gray, darkish inexperienced or midnight blue. Solely in 1915, when Ford moved to a brand new meeting line, did these colors get changed with black.

It was definitely easier to color all of the automobiles the identical color, and the black paint, made principally of a varnish derived from vegetable sources, gave the impression to be more durable carrying than different colors. A part of the key to this was that the paint additionally contained a form of asphalt. However the asphalt was so darkish it was practically unattainable to show it any color aside from black. So, black it was – partly as a result of maintaining it to 1 color was easier and faster, partly as a result of it was nigh on unattainable to make an asphalt-based paint look something aside from black. Although whereas we’re on the subject it’s price noting that truly there wasn’t a single black paint however 30 several types of black paint: some which might be baked in an oven, others that must dry within the air, some for the metallic components, some for the heel boards, the toe board, the seat bottoms and so forth.

However regardless of all his efforts, regardless of numerous improvements in paint method, regardless of decreasing the portray and drying time from weeks to days, Ford struggled to unravel the paint drawback. It was nonetheless the one greatest hindrance to mass manufacturing effectively into the Twenties. That brings us to the invention of one thing referred to as pyroxylin, or because it was later trademarked, Duco.

Duco was a substance made out of nitrocellulose by the chemists at DuPont. Nitrocellulose had been one of many important elements within the improvement of explosives and, in fact, celluloid film image movie, however arguably its most revolutionary software was in automobile paint. For Duco had superpowers.

It was a lacquer resin which may dry far, far faster than the paints Ford was utilizing. Whereas his paints may take a day or so to dry, Duco may dry in about two hours. Furthermore, in contrast to Ford’s asphalt-heavy paints, Duco might be formulated in lots of fantastic, vibrant colors.

DuPont signed a take care of Common Motors and in 1924 Duco was launched on the corporate’s complete line of automobiles. It was a revolution in two dimensions. First, GM and DuPont had cracked the mass manufacturing nut which had all the time eluded Henry Ford: not did automobiles have to stack up in automobile tons to dry for days at a time: they may roll off the manufacturing line only some hours after being painted. Second, the astounding vary of colors modified the character of automobile consumption.

Certainly, in case you had been searching for a begin date for the period of conspicuous consumption and “deliberate obsolescence”, you can hardly selected a greater second than this one. Below Alfred Sloan, GM shifted the mannequin of automobile advertising. Fashions had been bought on their attractiveness. New colors had been launched annually to wow shoppers. Alongside gradual modifications to automobile options annually, Sloan championed an method of “dynamic obsolescence” which might put strain on shoppers to improve their automobiles routinely slightly than run them into the bottom. Automotive paint, extra particularly Duco, was one of many important vectors on this technique.

Besides that only some years after it was invented, Duco was already outdated. Quickly sufficient chemists developed glycerophthalic resins (or alkyds, as they’re extra generally identified) which had thrice extra strong matter than cellulose lacquers like Duco, that means you can cut back the variety of coats you wanted, and therefore additional minimize the time on the manufacturing line. Ford embraced alkyds within the late Twenties, and so the race between the 2 automobile giants intensified. Whilst they battled it out in showrooms and of their large crops, Ford and GM had been battling it out on the chemical area too.

Which brings us to a very necessary level – an overarching level which echoes via Materials World. The affect of the chemical trade on fashionable merchandise is astoundingly necessary, but it’s one of many least appreciated and most not often informed tales within the fashionable industrial pantheon. We hear a lot in regards to the mechanical engineering which went into steam locomotives and inside combustion engines however far much less in regards to the chemical engineering which allowed automobile producers to maintain their manufacturing strains turning.

But over time advances in paint chemistry allowed automobile producers to drastically cut back the time it takes for paints to dry. The composition of these paints modified drastically too: from elements derived from wooden and crops to molecules extracted from oil and fuel. Automotive paints went from being product of greens to product of petrochemicals, and alongside the best way they grew to become considerably extra hard-wearing and efficient. At this time just about all automobile paints are derived from oil and fuel. And over time the size of time it has taken to color and dry the automobiles has fallen.

Certainly, in case you had been to plot this – time taken to color and dry a automobile versus the date – on a chart, then you definitely get one thing that appears just a little like this:

Observe these numbers are very a lot approximations. It’s a stylised chart!

There are a couple of hanging issues about charts like these. The primary is which you can see how over time people have turn out to be higher and higher at doing issues extra effectively. However the greatest good points typically occur on the very begin. The second is that you just’ve in all probability seen similarly-shaped charts earlier than. Right here, for example, is a chart from Hannah Ritchie (with a slightly extra strong dataset behind it) displaying the evolution of battery costs over time:

You would do one thing comparable with all kinds of various merchandise: the worth of wind generators, of iron and metal nails, of computing energy. One of many important classes which spans Material World, and which has been defined in nice depth by folks like Azeem Azhar, is that over time people get higher and higher at making issues, which tends to deliver the time it takes us to make issues (and for that matter the costs we cost for these issues) additional and additional down.

Maybe by this stage you might be beginning to see why automobile paint is definitely much more fascinating than many may assume: it’s a microcosm of human achievement. But it surely’s fascinating for an additional couple of causes too. The primary is one thing you possibly can’t actually see within the chart above.

Lately just about all automobiles are painted not simply with spray paint (normally utilized by robots) however via a course of referred to as electrodeposition coating. The automobile physique, which has already been coated with one thing referred to as a “phosphate layer” to cowl the bare metal (or aluminium) is hooked up to electrodes which give it a damaging cost and dunked into a shower of positively charged liquid paint. Due to the magic of electrical energy, the epoxy coating within the water attaches itself to each single floor on the automobile physique. As soon as the physique emerges from the ED tank it’s utterly lined in a greeny-grey coat.

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Electrodeposition isn’t the one course of concerned in portray a automobile today. After that the perimeters get sealed with a silicone seam sealer and the physique is sprayed with primer (which additionally helps flatten the metal and enhance the reflection) after which lined with a few high coats which apply the color. However electrodeposition, a method launched within the Nineteen Seventies, has utterly remodeled the character of automobile coatings as a result of it’s far more practical at defending automobiles from rust. This, greater than some other innovation in current historical past, helps clarify why today automobiles are far longer-lasting than their older cousins.

None of that is obvious from the chart above. However even because the time taken to color a automobile has decreased (therefore rising the potential effectivity of carmaking), the high quality of the automobile coating has elevated. Not solely are we getting sooner at making issues, the top merchandise are invariably much better too. One of many the explanation why I so loved the method of researching and writing Materials World is that whereas macroeconomics (my traditional territory) tends to deal with productiveness as an summary power, truly once you get down into the nuts and bolts of how the world works – of how we flip easy substances into unimaginable machines and merchandise – you see productiveness in all places. You see the world turning into a greater, extra environment friendly place. So it’s with automobile paint.

The opposite factor you don’t see within the chart above is that over time, paints have turn out to be cleaner too. Earlier acrylic automobile lacquers produced important quantities of risky natural compounds which had been emitted into the ambiance each through the manufacturing and, slowly, thereafter too. Whereas a lot of the hassle within the early days of automobile paint was all about getting that curve within the chart above down – decreasing the portray and drying time – today way more effort is being expended in attempting to take away solvent use and, on the identical time, attempting to cut back the time automobiles spend in ovens, most of that are nonetheless gas-fired.

This speaks to a different broader sample which you see writ giant in the whole lot from air journey to pc chip manufacture. For a lot of the twentieth century most analysis and improvement was geared toward making issues sooner. However up to now few a long time a lot of that R&D has been devoted to creating issues cleaner. Planes not fly as quick as they as soon as did so as to preserve gas and cut back emissions. What counts as progress in pc chip design and manufacture today is not only velocity however effectivity (in different phrases decreasing relative energy consumption).

Extrapolate this throughout the financial system and maybe you begin to see a difficulty. In case you measure productiveness by way of the velocity at which a automobile plant can churn out automobiles then you definitely may be just a little upset by the progress over the previous couple of a long time. That line within the chart above hasn’t dropped as a lot because it as soon as did. However now contemplate that truly velocity of manufacture isn’t the first purpose anymore. And now contemplate that one thing comparable applies elsewhere too. I’m unsure whether or not this gives any grand resolution or reply to the “productiveness puzzle” economists fret about today. However there might be one thing there. We traded effectivity and cleanliness for velocity, decreasing our power consumption alongside the best way: however do all these qualitative enhancements truly present up within the productiveness knowledge?

What you can see once you learn Materials World is that humankind remains to be making extraordinary technological leaps, however a lot of them are occurring beneath the radar. There are many challenges going through the world, not least local weather change, however as annually goes by there may be tangible proof of progress, if solely you look onerous sufficient.

Even the world of automobile paint will not be standing nonetheless. Lately practically all producers do issues fairly equally. All of them use electrodeposition and most of them use robots to do a lot of the automobile spraying. They’re steadily starting to discover changing their fuel ovens with electrical ones to cut back the carbon emissions at crops.

The following massive factor within the area is a know-how which is able to enable carmakers to “print” paint on their automobiles, nearly like inkjet printers. This may enable them to print customized designs, exact to the millimetre, on their automobiles and – much more importantly – to waste much less ink. Chemical compounds corporations are designing new paints with extra vibrant finishes and fewer VOCs. In the meanwhile most are nonetheless made out of petrochemicals (in different phrases from oil and fuel) however that too is ready to alter within the coming a long time. These are thrilling instances in automobile paint – and the remainder of the Materials World.

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In case you’ve learn this far then first off: thanks for proving my level that automobile paint is considerably extra fascinating than is usually assumed. It’s one among many wormholes I discovered myself disappearing into whereas writing Materials World. Please do share this with anybody you assume may be . And you probably have any ideas/feedback/corrections please do let me know beneath.

Many because of the automobile coatings group at Nissan UK who helped clarify the fashionable technique of automobile paint to me. For extra on the chemical substances trade, Fred Aftalion’s book is an efficient place to start out. A few different fascinating articles:

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