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Plastics Decorating Magazine 
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Global Trends in Automotive Electronics Plastic Decoration
by Paul Uglum

Special Report

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 products.

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.

Finishing Trends
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 parts.

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: