Look, Ma, No Paint
The future finish is a plastic film that's cheap, glossy, and incredibly durable.
By Michael V. Copeland

(Business 2.0) – Imagine a car body that never gets scratched. No more nicks or dings from gravel or wayward shopping carts. No more chipped paint—because, very simply, there is no paint.

Instead, cars will soon be coated with ionomer film, a plastic laminate that can color a vehicle's increasing number of plastic body parts, from bumpers to doors to fenders. A team of industrial behemoths—including DaimlerChrysler, Mayco Plastics, and thermoplastics manufacturer A. Schulman—has pooled its expertise to develop the film, and the companies have high hopes. Compared with paint, the laminate is much cheaper, less likely to fade, and three times more chip-resistant. Says Dennis Smith, a project manager in charge of the new technology at A. Schulman in Akron, Ohio, "We're getting the durability of plastic and the aesthetics of gloss."

But that's easier said than done. The film contains a pigmented layer and is eight times thicker than a standard paint job; engineers had a devil of a time preventing it from wrinkling as it was melted over panels. Plus, it took specialists at Mayco, in Sterling Heights, Mich., five years to get the metallic films to look right.

The laminate's cost advantages are dramatic: DaimlerChrysler estimates that using the film instead of paint will save it as much as $27 per part. That could translate into hundreds of dollars in savings for new-car buyers.

The finish can soon be seen at a Dodge dealer near you, beginning with the bumpers on the 2005 Neon. If the coating lives up to its promise, DaimlerChrysler says the paintless shine could spread across the entire lot. — MICHAEL V. COPELAND