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Thousands of litres go into painting a vehicle

From design through final assembly, developing paint takes 1,100 days

Joe Duarte
Published: January 21, 2018, 10:30 PM
Updated: April 30, 2018, 7:00 PM

Vehicle paint palette

Probably the most personal part of somebody’s vehicle is its colour, but some people may not realize that there’s more to painting a car than just slapping a couple coats of Sherwin-Williams on. It takes thousands of litres, precise applications and a span of three years.

European maker Seat, recently released the background story on its colour development, though the journey also applies to virtually all auto companies around the world.

Robots applying paint in controlled conditions

Starting from idea, each colour has a gestation period of 1,100 days, before it is applied to your vehicle. That means that today’s favourite colours had to be envisioned long before you even thought about what your wardrobe would be like for next season.

Three years ago, a team of designers started working on a range of colours, based on market trends, for a new vehicle. Further, over that span of time, it takes about 1,000 litres of paint to create that new shade.

Creating automotive paints from different hues and additives

“Creating a colour is an inside job. Colours get more sophisticated every day and the demand for customisation is a growing trend,” says Jordi Font from Seat’s Color&Trim department. “In addition to following trends, a lot of intuition also goes into defining a new shade. You have to feel the pulse on the street and run with it.”

Paint mixing is a chemistry experiment, with paint engineers working with a variety of hues and additives to create something unique.

Testing new paints on metal pieces

“By mixing 50 different pigments and metal particles we’ve created nearly 100 variations of the same colour to see which shade is the most suitable,” says Color&Trim team member Carol Gómez, who worked on the paint palette for the Seat Arona, a mini crossover sharing a platform with the Audi A3 and TT, and the Volkswagen Golf and Tiguan, among others.

And so far, all you have is a colour (or many colours), but there’s no guarantee that when it’s applied to a piece of metal or composite that it will look as good as it does on the palette. So, the next step is testing how it looks on a body panel.

Finish quality control by paint inspector - Finish quality control by paint inspector

“We check the depth and subtlety of the shade on plates that are exposed to sunlight and in the shade to make sure that the applied colour matches the one we designed,” says Jesús Guzmán, another Color&Trim department member.

Once the colour tests positively, its off to the paint booth, where robots (84, in Seat’s paint shop) apply roughly two litres of paint to a car in seven coats (at Seat), in a controlled setting at room temperature (between 21 and 25 Celsius). The process takes about six hours per vehicle, and adds about 2.5 kg of weight to the vehicle.

CAT scanning painted bodies for uniformity

The final steps are baking (at 140 Celsius), and quality control both by technology (whereby the vehicles pass through a CAT scanner to check for paint depth, smooth surfaces and impurities) and by the humans (where inspectors actually look at and feel the finished painted panels to check for imperfections).

And once it’s painted to set standards, the vehicle goes off to final assembly.