A thick brown mixture is being spread onto a polyester film on one of the paint film lines at Soliant LLC.
On another line, a silver color is heading into the overhead drying lines.
Or is it gray?
``Is this lunar mist?'' asked Soliant President Jerry Patton.
``No, that's arctic dawn,'' said Jeff Bailey, vice president of operations. ``This is lunar mist over here.'' He walked over to one of the dozens of rolls of Fluorex thermoplastic paint film that will go out to automotive suppliers across North America and eventually end up on one of nearly 20 different car and truck models sold.
It's easy to get confused. In all, the company turns out more than 30 varieties of silver and gray for its customers from its Lancaster base, with varying hues named everything from brilliant silver to moon silver to pewter metallic to silver pearl and even a ``light tarnished silver.''
With a current production pallet of 140 colors - and a business history that has seen it produce and match more than 1,200 different hues - Soliant knows colors.
Now automakers are taking increased notice and using Soliant's paint film on an increasing number of models. They are even pushing suppliers to adopt the technology and use it on parts that are thermoformed, injection molded and extruded.
``As the film spotlight has gotten brighter, all the Tier-1 [suppliers] are coming up and saying that we need to be a part of this. We need that capability to make that part with film,'' Patton said during a Dec. 6 interview.
And although the auto industry has heard hype for years about film replacing traditionally painted parts, its potential now is playing out in reality.
Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s North American manufacturing group has become Soliant's biggest user, putting its film onto injection molded parts used on its Odyssey minivan, the Pilot sport utility vehicle and the Acura TL.
Toyota Motor Corp. uses Soliant's paint film on three different exterior trim parts on its Avalon sedan.
General Motors Corp. even announced plans to build a supplier network that can produce thick-sheet thermoformed parts in high volumes using the film. Durakon Industries Inc. will make an estimated 250,000 rocker panels in 12 different colors for GM's Lucerne sedan.
GM even is taking film and thermoforming to a new level of complexity, using them for bumper fascia on the Denali sport utility vehicle.
``More and more today, we can go into a parking lot and say: There's film, there's film, there's film,'' said John Cupstid, Soliant sales and marketing director.
While there are competitors in the paint film marketplace, Soliant has some advantages. It can be used on a variety of thermoplastics - including polypropylene, ABS and polycarbonate.
It can match every color that automakers want, can be used in a variety of processing methods and the company has a 20-year history with automakers that helps to aid its access into the industry.
``We're not married to a specific chemistry. We're not trying to sell you a specific resin,'' Soliant's Patton said. ``We could use film on a glass-filled polypropylene, which is cheap.''
Soliant's future was not as clear four years ago. In 2002, the operation was a side project for London-based packaging company Rexam plc, first winning business selling its Fluorex paint film to automakers for metal parts, then making the switch over to film for plastic in 1986.
While the division was making headway with key automakers like Honda and Toyota, Rexam wanted to sell its noncore holdings. When one potential sale fell through, Patton and the management group decided to take their own action.
They sought a management buyout and went looking for a financial backer. They found Dayton, Ohio-based Ernie Green Industries Inc.
Ernie Green and EGI co-founder Sam Morgan had a good reputation, were already auto suppliers and understood the benefits of replacing a traditional paint shop because EGI has its own in-house, traditional painting facilities.
``When I first saw this, at that time I thought this was space-age stuff,'' Morgan said. ``And part of our reasoning was that Honda really likes it, and Honda doesn't make many mistakes.''
EGI bought a controlling interest to create Soliant, leaving the expertise of running the business and creating new colors and technology in management's hands.
``They understood the potential far better than the others did,'' Patton said. ``This has been a great, great marriage.''
With Soliant's future settled, the firm could push forward to create a demand for its product.
Patton does not expect film to replace paint on every part or on every car, but it has places where it works well, he said. Film has some obvious benefits, including allowing molders to avoid the hassles and cost of building a painting operation. But he noted that molders that already have invested heavily in paint lines are not likely to champion a competing product.
So Soliant put an emphasis on one issue it knew would make automakers pay attention: cost.
``What we're trying to do is educate the industry so that we can lower the system costs of making a given part,'' Patton said. ``We're not necessarily saying what the film will cost and what the resin will cost, but how you put all those together so that you end up at the end of the day with what really matters.
``It's cost. Everybody wants to make parts cheaper.''
GM has cited the savings in tooling and faster development time for thermoformed parts using film as part of its interest in establishing a part supply base.
``Once the [automakers] started saying that they were going to use film - when they started issuing quotes saying that this or that rocker panel will be in film - it was set,'' Patton said. ``Then you've got the big molders who are saying they need to understand this. They need to be a player.''
Morgan credited Patton and his team with playing matchmaker between carmakers and molders, laying the groundwork needed to create a manufacturing base using the film.
Soliant now runs two production lines in Lancaster, with 92 employees. Each color begins with a mixture about the thickness of mayonnaise, using many of the same additives as traditional paints to ensure a proper match, Bailey said. The mixture is placed on the polyester substrate carrier, then dried, laminated and stored in 60-inch rolls, each with about 900 feet of usable paint.
There is room for another line in the existing building, and space to expand if demand takes off. Soliant does not have any production outside Lancaster, but film is easy to ship, Patton said.
Even as the company prepares for what it expects to be a sales-growth spurt, technology director Quan Song and his crew are looking at what will come next.
The team is preparing a film that can mimic highly polished chrome rather than paint, and looking at new chemical combinations for a film better suited to the consumer electronics industry or other possible customers.
Soliant's Fluorex was designed to stand up to weather extremes for 20 years. A cell phone doesn't need that high-end protection, Song noted, but molders making those parts may be interested in a lower-cost film that would be suited for three to five years' use.
``One of the advantages we have of being a small company is that all of the decision makers are in this room,'' Patton said. ``If we want to do something, we can do it.''