General Motors is introducing a flame treatment technology that lets paint stick to plastic vehicle parts such as instrument and door panels without using primers that contain solvents and can foul the air. The process, which eliminates the need for an adhesion-promoting primer, is being used on the Chevrolet Cruze, Sonic, and Volt.

The use of solvents in paint primers is an industry-wide challenge. GM is committed to reducing emissions throughout its manufacturing operations and supply chain, so it manages traditional solvents through recycling, conversion to energy and superheating the gases to break them down. However, these are energy-consuming, costly processes.

This flame treatment technology instead uses an energy-efficient, robotic system to create a molecular change to the surface of the plastic, making it bond with the paint. GM evaluated the new technology as a total business case. Not only does it improve efficiency since it’s faster than spraying primer, but the capital expense pays for itself in less than four months.

By using it on the Cruze, for example, GM suppliers:

  • Reduced solid and liquid waste (filters, cleaners, solvents and coatings) from 48 tons a year to less than one.
  • Decreased air pollutants from 810 tons a year to 80 tons a year.
  • Eliminated landfill waste like paint sludge and painted scrap material from 25 tons to nearly zero

GM learned about this technology through Suppliers Partnership for the Environment, a working group of U.S. automakers, their suppliers and the Environmental Protection Agency. Whitmore Lake, Mich.-based supplier FTS Technologies was striving to get its flame treatment technology implemented and approached John Bradburn, GM’s manager of waste-reduction efforts.

“Once I understood the potential of this process, we worked to connect the right GM engineers and our suppliers,” Bradburn explained. “As we strive to design all of our vehicles for the environment, we can create requirements for our suppliers. In this case we were able to provide the enabling technology, making it easier for all of us.”

Russell Brynolf, president of FTS, said: “As engineers and technology developers, we have the capability to improve the environmental footprint of the manufacturing process. Technology drives us forward and it’s encouraging to see companies like GM willing to change a process.”