The first thing you notice when you pick up a new car is the gleaming paint job. And to the naked eye, it may seem perfect.
But the reality is, no two cars ever receive the exact same colour or coating. In fact, the process is so intricate that the defect rate is significant, with some estimates as high as 25 per cent. That means parts are often pulled off the line or repainted, causing paint specialists to work in a constant cycle of problem solving and making the paint shop one of the highest polluters in the automotive supply chain due to increased emissions and waste.
Now a Toronto start-up is making great strides in solving the issue. Mazlite’s first-of-its-kind technology — an advanced spray monitoring platform that combines sensors and analytics to deliver high quality coatings — works in real time to detect slight changes in the automotive spraying process. For the first time, paint shops have the visibility they need to prevent problems before they occur on the production line.
“The whole colour matching and environmental aspect to painting new cars is extremely complex and yet, it’s taken for granted,” said Amirreza Amighi, Mazlite CEO and co-founder.
Production line colour challenges range from mismatched hues when plastic and metal car parts are combined, to defects in materials or dirty nozzles, and human or robotic errors. Mazlite is tackling these issues by applying a scientific lens, tapping into the cutting-edge expertise of student researchers hired through Mitacs, a national innovation organization that helps solve business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions.
Currently, quality control typically occurs after a paint job is finished. Mazlite’s intelligent, cloud-based sensors are ground-breaking because they work like an automated inspector, measuring spray patterns every few minutes on the line to ensure the coating thickness is correct. The sensors also continually monitor paint materials to avoid defects due to changes in colour or poor finishes. The system provides alerts to notify employees and pinpoint exactly what went wrong when a problem does occur.
By automating the process, Mazlite is also helping to solve the challenge of an aging paint shop workforce. Car paint specialists accustomed to current, manually intensive processes are retiring and it can be difficult to attract newcomers to the field, explained Amighi.
“When they see our advanced technology, it excites them,” he said. “We’re helping the paint shop to be more environmentally friendly, we’re increasing quality, and by adding smart sensors, we’re making it possible to introduce newer, cooler colour choices to consumers down the road,” he added, explaining that the reason most cars are white, black or red is that those are currently the easiest colours “to get right” at the moment.
Mazlite is currently working with several OEMs and tier one and tier two suppliers to the automotive industry to advance its technology and plans to have its first full-scale implementation under way by the end of next year.
Interns key to advancing technology
Mitacs’ internships are critical to keeping the company’s momentum going, the co-founders say, by allowing them to hire the niche expertise they need to solve technical challenges. Mitacs intern Khalil Sidawi, a UofT Post Doc, for example, is currently applying his specialized knowledge of automotive paints.
“He’s a super star,” said Cameron Dallas, Mazlite CTO and co-founder, adding that as a startup, it would be difficult to afford Sidawi and other interns’ expertise without the support of a paid internship. “With Mitacs’ support, for example, we’ve brought Khalil in to work on innovation challenges directly related to commercialization. It has been extremely helpful in innovating and speeding up the commercialization process,” Dallas said.
With a talented team committed to innovating, Amighi explained that there’s a reason Henry Ford is quoted as saying that customers can have a car painted any colour they want, as long as it is black.
“There’s a great deal of science that goes into making car colours that look cool and are long lasting,” he said. “We’re working to help manufacturers get it right the first time.”