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Plastics Decorating Magazine
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Global Trends in Automotive Electronics Plastic Decoration
by Paul Uglum
In looking at global trends in plastics decoration for automotive
electronics, I will review three topics. First, I will examine general global
design trends in cockpit electronics. Second, I will present my observations on
global manufacturing capability in automotive plastic decoration. And finally I
will discuss what we, as an industry, need to do to address the issues raised by
our rapidly changing market.
Global Design Trends
As we look at packaging and decorating trends over the past decade, there has
been a movement with receivers, switches and air controls towards paint and
laser decoration rather than in-mold decoration and multi-shot molding. This
trend occurred in all regions. Although the reasons are varied, the desire for
appearance harmony and design flexibility appear to be major factors.
Over the same decade the size and shape of radio packaging has also changed. The
worldwide trend has been towards larger and more complex packaging. Typical
package size has changed from single DIN to double DIN to oversized trim plates.
In Europe, where theft was a problem, detachable trim plates were common on
single DIN radios. With the increased size of trim plates, detachable trim
features and other antitheft strategies have replaced this practice. There also
has been a movement away from using trim to frame electronics to flush mounted
In addition, there appears to be two design directions for receivers. One is to
use the same design in all vehicles and provide differentiation by color. Some
North American OEM’s use a common radio family. With a common design they are
able to split the business between several interchangeable suppliers.
Appearances range from black with white graphics to satin nickel with black
graphics. The other design direction is to create a unique radio for each
vehicle or group of vehicles. European and Far East OEM’s tend to pursue this
direction. Their products range from the single DIN radios with styling similar
to aftermarket to double DIN and unique package sizes with oversized trim
plates. The advantage to this strategy is the ability to uniquely style each
vehicle interior. Depending upon volume, multiple sources can be used for each
type or level of device.
Most recently, suppliers in the Far East have moved towards integrated center
stacks, which contain flat panel displays, air vents, receivers and HVAC
controls in a common trim plate. Some of these center stacks are one piece and
others are divided into two parts. In all cases they are flush mounted. Since
this approach started with high-end vehicles, complex designs requiring masking
and painting with more than one color were the first to be introduced. Many
examples of this form of design execution are found in high-end Japanese
vehicles. These vehicles demonstrate the trend towards metallic appearances
combining metallic paints, metal flake paints, solid colors and chrome details
in the same trim plate. They also show the trend in up level HVAC controls
towards graphics in the center of the knobs.
Similar designs are showing up in less expensive vehicles as well. Some mid
range Japanese vehicles have an integrated radio and air control that are very
well executed. They incorporate metallic and non-metallic paint, chrome rings,
and very well executed knob feel. As we look at the dollars spent on appearance,
the designs coming out of Japan are by far the most complex and expensive. What
are the advantages of these designs? First the integrated center stack is a
single device, which is easy to install. Since it is purchased from a single
source, there are no appearance issues resulting from the choice of different
materials or processes. This design direction allows a single source to design
the controls, so that button and knob feel issues are minimized. Because this is
not the lowest cost option, it is too soon to determine how broadly this trend
will be adopted.
Various efforts at design flexibility and customization continue. In a recent
article in Ward’s Auto World, the concept of making switches and controls
re-configurable with respect to both position and function was discussed.
Although this is not yet available, we are seeing more concepts targeted at
providing the ability to customize vehicle interiors. Instrument clusters
available this Fall will allow the customer to select from multiple backlit
colors. One North American vehicle had replaceable trim features, which allowed
the owner to select any of several in-mold finishes it wants as interior trim.
Some automotive manufacturers are experimenting with short run customization,
making a small percent of the production run in unique colors.
The implication for the decorating industry is that no one strategy will work
for everyone. Volumes will remain large for those OEM’s using a common design
across many vehicles. However, these large volumes will be split between several
tier one manufacturers. New designs and trends towards smaller production runs
of more models will mean an increase in the number of lower volume programs.
Design and manufacturing flexibility will be required to be successful.
Just as design is going in more than one direction, finishes are likewise going
in several directions. Each of these directions has advantages and challenges.
The use of metallic colors in various forms will continue to multiply in
automotive interiors. In Europe, some of the richest appearances are achieved
with three layer paint systems. Because these are costly and difficult to paint,
there has been a push to develop more one-layer paint systems. Silver colors are
currently popular worldwide. To achieve acceptable contrast, the graphics are
made by lasering to clear plastic, which creates a black graphic appearance when
the button is not lit. The contrast is good during both daylight and at night.
Unfortunately at dawn and dusk, the contrast between paint and graphic tends to
disappear making the graphics harder to read. One solution as demonstrated in
recent Japanese vehicles is lasering the graphics in such a way as to leave a
black edge around the graphic. This increases the contrast at dawn and dusk,
making the graphic easier to read under all conditions.
The most common metallic finishes used by Far East OEM’s are metal flake paints,
which consist of metal flakes distributed in a dark background color. They are
widely used in both high-end and low-end vehicles. One of the most significant
problems with this paint is that the appearance is influenced by process
variability. The distribution of metal flake between knobs, buttons and trim
plates in the same device can vary widely. This is not a characteristic that is
easy to measure. Limit samples, agreed upon with your customers, should be the
minimum level of control required.
Soft feel and low gloss paints using two component polyurethane chemistries are
more common in Europe than elsewhere. One of the difficulties with soft feel
paints is that there is no clear standard for what constitutes soft feel or a
consistent way to measure this characteristic. Some commercial soft feel paints
do not retain their initial appearance and feel over time. This reduction in
properties can be due to aging or the tendency of soft feel paints to pick up
dust, resulting in repeated cleanings. Recently, there has been movement towards
a semi-rigid soft feel paint to improve the long-term aesthetics of the painted
High gloss black interior features are also available on some European and Far
East vehicles. Very high gloss black buttons and details have appeared on both
high- and low-end European vehicles. For painted high gloss appearances,
solvent-borne paints are needed and the parts tend to show the slightest defect.
As a result, clean rooms are necessary to be successful in painting high gloss
finishes. Although most OEM’s allow the use of both solvent- and water-borne
paints, there are some exceptions. Several European OEM’s are specifying
water-borne paints for future programs. In North America, some OEM’s require
solvent-borne paint for specific colors or glosses. In Asia, solvent-borne
paints are the most commonly used.
European automotive manufacturers often specify which paints and plastics must
be used. In general, this system works well for most colors and finishes,
because all suppliers use the same paint. It does not work as well on metal
flake paints, which are more easily influenced by processing methods. There have
been instances when non-laserable paints have been specified for all interior
components including buttons and trim plates with lasered graphics. It is not
always safe to assume that because a paint and plastic combination has been
specified by your customer that it will work in production, let alone with your
manufacturing equipment. The best strategy to deal with this process is to
conduct trials as early in the product development cycle as possible. This
allows the confirmation that the paint and plastic combination work as expected
in your process.
The trend towards the use of chrome also has returned, starting with chrome
rings on instrument clusters and has progressed to the use of chrome details and
knobs. There are minor differences in the use of chrome. The Europeans tend to
use more of a matted chrome look and the North Americans and those in the Far
East tend to use a bright chrome finish. Some high-end European designs have
used actual metal knobs and trim plates.
Although paint has been emphasized to this point, this does not indicate that
you will not see in-mold decoration in its various forms on trim around the
center stack or in electronics packaging. Appearances such as brushed aluminum
and high-tech patterns only can be achieved with in-mold techniques. Lower
volumes, higher cost and the required design compromises have slowed the use of
in-mold decoration in automotive electronics. The demand is still there and
depending upon design direction, the use of these technologies will increase.
Whether it is called interior quality, craftsmanship or design excellence, there
is a distinct trend focusing on higher standards for interior automotive
components. This focus takes several forms. One of them is a focus on fit and
finish, with very tight dimensions. High expectations concerning the
concentricity and feel of knobs, tight button spacing and tight button radii are
appearing in all regions. Consistency of appearance across the interior and
uniform back lighting are all aspects of this trend. For the plastics industry,
this means ever-tightening tolerances and increasing expectations.
Another worldwide trend is an increased focus on interior finish performance. A
perfect appearance will not satisfy customers if it is not durable and does not
retain its appearance over time. For our industry, this most often takes the
form of increased durability standards on coating performance. Some of this is
because changes in the chemistry of paints have allowed new failure modes. For
some time, there has been anecdotal evidence that one potential failure mode of
some urethane paints is moisture or humidity attack. This has given rise to some
very long humidity test cycles in some European specifications. Some OEM’s have
humidity tests as long as 900 hours, others have added additional humidity
(hydrolysis) tests to the latest versions of their specifications.
Of interest in both North America and Europe has been the chemical resistance of
paint. A number of years ago, the formula of Windex was changed to make it a
more effective cleaner and inadvertently a more effective automotive paint
remover. Since then the widespread use of alcohol based waterless hand cleaners
has increased, allowing better hygiene and removing various automotive interior
paints when spilled. We have found that several commercial hand creams can also
be very aggressive. The most recent European test specifications now include
specific hand creams in their test protocol. Sunscreen testing has been added to
North American specifications. Most recently, several paint failures in both
North America and Europe have been traced to contact with air fresheners, which
are designed to attach to automotive air vents.
It is a never-ending race to stay ahead of commercial products. As a result, it
is not enough to merely rely on customer specifications. Doing this is like
driving forward while looking in the rear view mirror. As an industry we need to
be more focused on anticipating and preventing these failures.
The China Effect
Over the past few years, we’ve read much about the growing concern for the loss
of manufacturing jobs to China. In the field of plastic decoration, a large part
of this is because customers have moved manufacturing to China. So what is the
Chinese plastic decoration capability? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
Chinese plastic decoration capacity seems to be focused primarily on consumer
electronics and communications. As a result, there is capacity to support large
products such as television sets and small products such as cell phones and
PDA’s. Manufacturing capabilities include painting metallic paints and clear
coats. They have extensive in-mold experience in both the insert-molded films
and ink transfer methods.
In addition to the domestic automotive electronics market, there is some
capacity supporting automotive aftermarket radios. Many of these use metallic
paints, but the quality standards tend to be lower for these products than for
OEM’s in other regions. Since VW is the most established OEM, many of the
European paint manufactures and equipment manufacturers have followed their
customers to China. Now, Japanese and North American paints also are available
in this region.
With the growth in the Chinese automotive market, there is more interest in
automotive electronics manufacturing. Domestic automotive manufacturing has
increased to 2.32 million vehicles in 2003 - up from 1.34 million in 2002 with
VW being the largest single OEM. Although total production is much smaller than
in Europe or North America, the rate of growth is very high. The rate of
investment in expanded plastics decoration capacity also is very high. Clean
rooms appear to be far more common in China than either North America or Europe.
Painting operations tend to be new and are focused on painting small parts such
as cell phones. Many operations have both multi-booth chain-on-edge paint
machines and horizontal reciprocating paint gun machines of the type found in
Europe. The work force is well trained and disciplined.
There are two weaknesses in China’s current manufacturing capability. One is
that the vast majority of the paints used in China are solvent-borne. Their
plants tend to lack the temperature and humidity control necessary to
successfully paint water-borne paints. This will make it difficult to make
product for customers with these requirements. The other is that, although laser
ablation is used in China, it is not very well developed or understood. Typical
operations have one, to at most three, lasers. In large part, this is because up
until now, there has not been much need for lasered graphics. This is changing
as the domestic automotive market increases and as designs become more complex.
So then how do we compete with China? One factor already working in our favor is
that decorated plastics do not travel well. It is much better to purchase
decorated plastics from manufacturing locations that are close to where the
product will be used. The costs for shipping, tariffs, damage and the amount of
material in the pipeline, if the design changes or a problem occurs, make long
distance shipping problematic. These and many other hidden costs in transporting
decorated plastic over long distances make it desirable to decorate plastics in
the region in which it will be consumed.
Low cost, high quality, and fast delivery are the measures of our success as
manufacturers. I agree with recent articles that claim we need to compete on
innovation, our greatest strength, rather than on our greatest weakness which is
cost. I would go further. We need to focus on innovation in our processes and
manufacturing technology, which are harder to copy, rather than on design, which
is easier to copy.
We also need to renew our focus on engineering tools, such as six sigma and lean
engineering techniques. Plastic decorating in both China and Europe do not tend
to be lean operations. Changeover times are excessive and the size of buffers
are quite large. Also as an industry, regardless of region, we have not
consistently used the tools available to us to improve our processes. PFMEA’s
are viewed as a requirement for PPAP rather than a tool to improve the process.
Gauges are assumed good rather than demonstrated to be capable. Capability
studies are poorly done or do not measure the correct characteristics. If we
want to succeed we must use the tools available to us to optimize our processes.
Finally, we need to keep up to date on the latest advances in our field.
Meetings like the recent SPE Decorating & Assembly Division Topical Conference
in Michigan are an excellent way to keep up-to-date on the latest advances. If
you are not a member of a professional society, become a member; attend the
meetings; and read the journals. If you have the opportunity to benchmark other
manufactures, do so. Many innovations in manufacturing are available to us, but
we cannot implement them if we do not know about them.
Paul Uglum is Technology Advocate for Decorating Plastics for Delphi
Electronics and Safety. Delphi has a global footprint with manufacturing in
North and South America, Europe and Asia. As well as manufacturing globally,
Delphi delivers product to customers in all major automotive markets throughout
the world. For information visit: www.delphi.com.