Summer 2022

ABB PixelPaint:
Bringing colour to the factory

With ever-increasing demand from consumers for new levels of customisation and personalisation in the automotive market, automation experts ABB Robotics have launched an innovative new technology that can deliver highly individual, even bespoke paint finishes in a unique process that can also drive cost savings and contribute to a manufacturer’s sustainability targets.

The new PixelPaint system features specially developed paint head with more than 1,000 tiny, individually controlled nozzles like an inkjet printer, mounted on an ABB robot such as the IRB 5500 paint series.

Co-ordinated by the firm’s RobotStudio software, the head tracks very closely to the vehicle body to ensure 100% of the paint is applied to the car with no airborne misting.

The result is zero waste, vastly reduced extraction and filtration requirements, faithful reproduction of precise details, and a consistent application of colour even over large areas, making it ideal for both two-tone paint designs and elaborate graphics.

ABB’s pioneering approach was recognised in 2021 when PixelPaint was awarded the Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Robotics & Automation (IERA) Award for Outstanding Achievements in Commercializing Innovative Robot and Automation Technology.

Reducing process steps and cost
Achieving two-tone paint finishes has been a costly and time-consuming process. Each vehicle must make two separate trips through the paint shop, with the principal paint colour applied and dried before workers can apply extensive masking to the required areas – a process that can require up to 20 skilled employees. After the vehicle has made a repeat trip through the paint shop and received its second colour, workers must again remove the masking materials, doubling the labour-intensive nature of the process. ABB’s PixelPaint does away with all that.

The PixelPaint system features a specially developed paint head with more than 1,000 tiny, individually controlled nozzles like an inkjet printer, mounted on an ABB robot

ABB estimates that masking materials can account for nearly one third of the increased costs of a two-tone paint scheme. However, because the PixelPaint head applies all the paint directly to the body, the requirement to mask off the unaffected areas is eliminated, significantly speeding up the process and removing the need for a second trip through the paint shop. As a result, second colour painting costs are reduced by approximately 60%.

Broadening the customisation options
The technology is well-suited to applying large areas of uniform colour, making it ideal for applying finishes such as a contrasting roof without delaying the line or requiring manual intervention. However, PixelPaint also opens the door to new opportunities.

With the system controlled by ABB’s RobotStudio software, the process is fully automated. That creates the possibility of offering customers the chance to truly personalise their car with intricate, entirely bespoke designs that are unique to them – an industry first.

Influential automotive designer, Ian Callum, responsible for the design of the Aston Martin Vanquish and more recently the ground-breaking Jaguar I-Pace, explained why this might appeal to customers:

“There’s something very special about a car. People get emotionally attached to them and the importance of personalisation is becoming stronger and stronger. In fact, I’m working with customers who want the whole car designed in a bespoke way. So, this paint offering – with all sorts of new levels of individual design for a motor car – is incredible.”

Thanks to its high-resolution paint head, PixelPaint can faithfully reproduce even the most complex designs, whether it’s for the first and only time or the thousandth. In fact, to demonstrate the PixelPaint system, ABB chose to collaborate with two world-renowned artists to create the world’s first robot-painted art car.

Advait Kolarkar, an 8-year-old art prodigy from India whose paintings have already achieved sales over $100,000 with a sell-out exhibition at the age of two, created a swirling, monochromatic design especially for the demonstration.

Meanwhile, Illusorr, a digital collective exploring the boundaries of virtual reality, produced a series of tri-colour geometrical patterns that tested PixelPaint’s ability to reproduce fine details with precision.

Both designs were applied directly to the art car’s body in unprecedented accuracy and without human intervention. The whole process took less than 30 minutes, emphasising PixelPaint’s ability to quickly recreate intricate designs that would have been impossible to reproduce manually.

Each paint head carries a single colour, while two PixelPaint-equipped robots can work in tandem on the same car, speeding up the process further. Together with the base body colour, that enables intricate three-colour designs to be created quickly, as Illusorr’s artwork illustrates.

Paint is supplied to the head under low pressure, which ensures that droplets can be applied in sizes ranging from 20 to 50μm and at a rate of over 1,000 droplets per second. This allows the system to precisely control paint thickness and the degree of overlap, maintaining efficient coverage and achieving maximum accuracy.

The PixelPaint process is fully automated, controlled by ABB’s RobotStudio software

Managing complexity with flexibility
Faced with ambitious targets for mitigating climate change together with huge regional variations in regulations and consumer attitudes, manufacturers are responding by developing platforms and production facilities that accommodate a complex mix of powertrains, from petrol and diesel to hybrid and battery-electric, as well as emerging technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells.

This variability introduces a new level of complexity that extends far beyond the factory walls and throughout the global logistics and supply chains. Added to which, the speed with which market conditions, government incentives, legislation, and even the underlying technology itself can change means that manufacturers must seek to engineer flexibility into their production facilities if they are to respond to this uncertainty.

By unravelling traditional long-line production architectures and deploying dedicated modular cells – arranged alongside the line like leaves on a branch – manufacturers gain the ability to modify or even replace individual cells without incurring financially costly interruptions to production. These zero-loss production changes allow OEMs to start small and scale up key parts of the assembly process by adding or redeploying cells as demands change.

One of the most significant technologies in supporting this flexibility is the switch to more autonomous logistics and material handling in plants, the report suggests, with OEMs increasingly relying on Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) to move materials flexibly.

PixelPaint is a further example of how manufacturers can deploy task-specific automation cells within their facilities, either in response to changing demands or to introduce additional functionality.

But it can also establish a new way to generate income. PixelPaint’s ability to offer a highly individual service to a car maker’s customers creates the potential to capture income from customisation that would otherwise have been lost to the aftersales network.

Creating space for new developments
With vehicle manufacturers already under pressure to integrate battery assembly into EV production lines, space is scarce. By adopting PixelPaint, the paintshop’s footprint on the factory floor can be significantly reduced by eliminating the often-complex return-paths that permit a second pass through the paint booth and removing the need for dedicated work cells where the body can be masked and de-masked by skilled operatives.

“At a time when consumers want greater customised products, ABB’s PixelPaint technology is a game changer – a shining example of the transformative power of intelligent automation,” said Sami Atiya, President, Robotics & Discrete Automation. “It is supremely precise, and extremely efficient, paving the way for more sustainable manufacturing in the factory of the future.”

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