Reflections on Buick Verano’s Shiny Paint Job

Innovative paint process improves gloss and durability while reducing environmental impact
Apr 21, 2015 6:35 PM ET


Just as residential and commercial paint manufacturers are thinking more about environmental impact, GM is reimagining its paint shops to reduce its carbon footprint and increase customer satisfaction with the looks of their new ride.

First, a primer in paint.

Did you know that nearly 70 percent of the energy required to put a car together in a plant is in the paint process? Why?  A car has three layers of paint – the base coat, the color and metallic coat, and the clear coat.  It typically takes up to 2.5 megawatt hours of energy to paint a vehicle. To put that into perspective, that’s enough electricity to power a U.S. home for nine weeks.

We focus quite a bit of attention on paint shops to reduce this energy, lessen the carbon load and provide a high-quality vehicle.

Starting in 2011, Orion Assembly, home of the Buick Verano, pioneered the use of a water-based “three-wet” paint process in the United States in a new paint shop. This process eliminated the need for a primer bake oven, normally used between the primer and color-coating layers. The result: three layers of paint applied — primer, color and clear coat one after another while still wet — before the vehicle takes a single trip through the oven. This plant now only uses about 1 megawatt hours of energy to paint each vehicle, less than half the energy used in the system that it replaced.

We’re optimizing every aspect of the paint process to use less electrical and thermal energy. We’re maximizing process control and stability. The outcome of our efforts is a shiny and durable finish with less environmental impact.

Appearance and durability

So how does this translate into value for the new Buick customer? The surface texture of the car will be high-gloss and un-textured due to three layers of wet paint going on in sequence before being baked. You should be able to see your reflection in it.

Our clear coat also enhances overall durability. Everyday nuisances like tree sap, bird droppings and water spots can leave a mark on any clear coat, but a vehicle like the Verano is more resistant to such factors because of the paint process. The stronger chemical bond of our two-component clear coat makes the surface harder to chip, scratch or damage – good news when you’re driving down the highway during pothole season.

Less environmental impact

We’ve been using the three-wet process for the last four years, and continue to roll it out at other facilities. In fact, we’re installing new three-wet paint shops at our Fairfax, Kansas and Flint, Michigan plants in the U.S., as well as two assembly facilities in China—SGM Wuhan and SGM Norsom.

One unconventional way we tackle further energy reductions is by participating in the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corp program.

Jon Beck, our EDF Climate Corps Fellow from 2013, helped us save $1 million per year through various energy-saving project ideas. Some of his recommendations continue to be implemented, including adjustments to paint shop ventilation systems and reductions in pumping power.

At Orion Assembly, an addition of 12 variable-speed drives on pumps that optimize the flow of fluids during various steps of the painting process helped reduce electricity use by 148 megawatt hours per year. This smart investment will reduce operating costs by $118,000 annually while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But, back to our customer. Whenever we can reduce energy costs in the manufacturing process, it lowers the cost of the vehicle for our customers, or enables us to add in more features.

The big picture

Energy reductions continue to occur at Orion Assembly as we optimize our manufacturing processes throughout the building. The site earned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR(R) Challenge for Industry and is designated a Clean Corporate Citizen by the State of Michigan. It also got off of coal entirely three years ago. Two thirds of the plant’s energy consumption is renewable energy generated through landfill gas, and a 350-kilowatt solar array on its grounds generates electricity that powers the grid.

It’s not just about offering customers a shiny, fuel-efficient car; it’s about building it in a responsible way that conserves energy and resources from the start.