Deep within the automotive world lies a special niche of jokes about high-margin dealership add-ons like TruCoat, and one of my favorites, dentless paint removal. That last absurdity represents the sleazy stereotype of dealers trying to whack customers with everything that can make extra money, but surely it would never happen, right? Well, a patent application filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office suggests that GM is trying to make dentless paint removal real using lasers for the purposes of customization.
The patent application describes this manner of modding as “A method of customizing a vehicle body includes inputting a selected customized embellishment to a laser controller, directing a beam of the laser onto the surface of the vehicle body, and guiding the beam of the laser with the laser controller to impart the selected customized embellishment to the surface.” Translation? GM wants to laser-etch cars by selectively burning off a layer of paint.
Anyone who’s lived in a place where rust exists will see a problem with this plan immediately. Etching all the way down to the bare metal is an open invitation for the tinworm to come party, and going down to the primer is still an issue because primer absorbs moisture if it isn’t sealed.
Of course, GM has a solution, but it means that each new car run through this system would require at least two vastly different color coats, each with full coverage. Needless to say, this is an expensive proposition. It would theoretically require more time in the paint shop, more paint on the car, and may have greater effects than just finish should it be implemented. Put too much paint on a panel, and shut lines might not fit right, for example.
Laser technology is also expensive, so there’s a possibility that this tech just won’t be cost-competitive. I’d imagine a sizable investment would be required by dealerships to bring laser-engraving into the mainstream, and that’s before we consider whether or not anyone would even want to personalize a car in this manner.
Part of the reason why so many people like wraps is because they aren’t permanent. So long as the paint underneath is in good shape prior to wrapping, proper wrapping procedures are followed, and the wrap isn’t left on beyond the vinyl’s lifespan, a wrap is reversible. Buy whatever color’s on the lot so you don’t have to wait, wrap over it with something fun, then return to the original resale-friendly color when you’re ready for a change or just want to sell. While it’s hard to get vinyl to lay and shine up like paint, companies like Inozetek are now producing high-gloss, very smooth finishes that give off a great impression.
In contrast, laser-engraving your car is permanent, or at least it’s permanent until some serious paintwork can be done. That’s a big ding on resale value compared to popular easily-removable cosmetic modifications. So why does GM think this laser business could take off? According to the patent application, “An ability to personalize the vehicle at a point of purchase would reduce costs, allow the embellishments to be better integrated into the vehicle finish, and eliminate loss of access to the vehicle as the embellishments will be completed at the time of delivery.”
It seems like GM wants to offer a competitor to wrapping without considering why vinyl-based vehicle wraps are popular in the first place. Laser-engraved paint is certainly a neat idea, but I just don’t see it having enough spread to justify the cost since it’s not an easily-reversible process. Back to the drawing board on this one, I think.
[Editor’s Note: I don’t know if I’d be as dismissive as Thomas is here; the idea that your dealer may have this machine and when you order your new car you can pick from pre-made designs or, even better, upload a set of your own (this should be possible, and if the dimensions and parameters and file formats are known, there could be a whole sub-industry where people can buy files for a given design) and then they have a very personalized car ready for them when they go get it. Technically, existing cars could take advantage of this too, though without a contrasting color layer below the outermost paint layer, they’d need to go down to bare metal and, presumably, clearcoat afterwards.
Still, I think there could be something fun here, executed properly. Of course, it’s GM, so that’s, you know, hardly guaranteed. – JT]
(Photo credits, GM, USPTO, Inozetek)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.