Color-Shifting as an Emerging Opportunity in the Automotive Sector

Recent n-tech Research industry analysis suggests that in 2015 around $73 million will be spent on color-shifting exterior surfaces.  Color-shifting paints can be expensive and we have seen a high-quality paint job using a color shifting paint quoted $12,000.

We are also seeing a growing interest in color-shifting automotive surfaces; a trend that we think will take the market for color-shifting automotive exterior surfaces to over $475 million by 2020.  n-tech believes another $120 million in revenues from color-shifting automotive interiors is possible in the same timeframe

Color Shifting for Fun and Profit:  Evolution of an Automotive Market

The trend towards color-shifting automotive surfaces has traditionally been focused on the high-performance car sector where just about everything is customized anyway.  One McLaren car is reported to have reflections of orange and red in broad daylight and reflect mainly blue and purple at night. Another case in point is a Lamborghini whereby the black exterior briefly reveals a U.S. stars-and-stripes motif and the face of Captain America!

These one offs may be fun for their owners, but McLarens and Lamborghinis are produced in tiny quantities.  We think it is unlikely that major coatings companies will see enough money in this part of the automotive market to devote extensive financial or marketing resources to it.

However, what is interesting is that there currently appears to be a progression from color sifting surfaces in cars that few people will ever own  (McLarens and Lamborghinis) to luxury cars that are widely owned.

As “proof” of this transformation, we note that some Range Rovers and MGs have used color-shifting paint in the U.K.  And in the US, Lincoln (Ford’s luxury brand) has just started to use color-shifting ChromaFlair coatings for topcoats.  That the color-shifting trend will move further down market is hinted at by the 2014 Ford Taurus SHO, which offered an emerald green exterior paint coating, which, when viewed from a few feet away seemed to change across the hood from bright green to deeper emerald to nearly black. It’s not clear, however, whether this was if the paint actually included some color-shifting pigments.

Drivers for Color-Shifting Cars

All of the above-cited trends represent marketing push by the carmakers.  While we have yet to see compelling evidence that customers are demanding color-shifting coated cars, nonetheless, car firms and their suppliers didn’t get big by misjudging what concepts customers will buy into. It is interesting what these companies say they believe will turn customers on to color-shifting exteriors.

A new aesthetics: In the automotive market, manufacturers always have competed for customers on the basis of aesthetics.  But the aesthetic appeal of cars has changed significantly over the years.

One view of what might happen next is a new aesthetic emerging into which color-shifting coatings will fit well.  Reading between the lines it seems that this aesthetic will be more exuberant than what went before. Thus Lincoln reports in a product brochure on its use of ChromaFlair technology, that “the paint appears to dance.”

Possibility for mass customization: One important trend that product designers (in the automotive business and elsewhere) claim is emerging is “mass customization.”

Mass customization is the idea that products will be manufactured and then highly tailored to meet the needs and tastes of specific customers, perhaps using new fabrication techniques – especially 3D printing.  BASF has said that – based on its own studies of car colors consumers are increasingly valuing individualization.  Color shifting could fit nicely into this trend.

Moving indoors: Yet another emerging opportunity for color-shifting surfaces in the automotive industry is for interiors.

The “big name” in this sector of the color-shifting surface business is Johnson Controls, which has been working on smart surfaces that change the color of a car’s interior at the touch of a button. But there are others.  The U.K. fashion designers The Unseen are mainly in the color-shifting clothing business but claim have been approached by “representatives from luxury car companies” interested in their technology.

Risks and Technology

In the final analysis color-shifting automotive surfaces are a fashion market and fashion markets are inevitably risky, because fashions can change fast.  According to many the current fashion for unobtrusive color on cars was the product of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

There is no way to avoid such risks altogether, but n-tech does think that technology will be something of a help in reducing risk.  Today most color-shifting paints are based on coatings that contain reflecting metal flakes.  But n-tech believes that there are some interesting developments in color-shifting automotive surfaces that may make color shifting more compelling to car customers and increase the size of the addressable market.

Paramagnetic paint:  Paramagnetic paint is supposed to change the color of a car’s exterior instantly and this might help to expand the market for color-shifting surfaces by (1) making the color changing effect dramatic enough that it would attract new customers, (2) enable color shifting to expand its addressable market into the camouflage space.

At least, this would be the case if paramagnetic paint were a real product.  One company, LiCoat, is trying to raise finance for a paint product of this kind.  But there are a lot of impressive videos of color changing cars on YouTube that supposedly use paramagnetic paint and turn out to be hoaxes.  Nonetheless, paramagnetic paint can be considered a thought experiment of how color-shifting paint might expand its usefulness from where it is now.

LEDs and Light guides:  Another technological route to color changing is by using semiconductor lighting of some kind; LEDs or OLEDs, especially.

This is the approach that is being taken by Johnson Controls, which is developing illuminated patterns on fabric surfaces interwoven with light guides, and backlit perforated leather to allow light to shine through in desired patterns. This firm has put out a call for technology citing “a thin, formable, state of the art, light technology that allows programming desired colors and light intensities.”

Color-shifting interior surfaces for automobiles, as we have already suggested, is a potentially market expanding opportunity for color-shifting technology.  However, it can’t use the flake-based paints that we discussed above, so what Johnson Controls is doing can be seen as taking color shifting to the “next stage” in terms of opening up the market.

Broad-spectrum color shifting: NanoEnergia, has promoted its Alpha Nano Paints which it says are controlled using a low-grade magnetic field to arrange colloidal nanocrystals to reflect light. The claim is that this coating can reproduce the full spectrum of colors, and can change to a specific color in about a second.

Broad-spectrum color shifting of the kind suggested by this product could also lead to expanding the color-shifting market opportunity.

Cars, Color and the Future

Despite these developments there are still plenty of innovations that are needed if color shifting is to become mainstream in automobiles surfaces.  Most people want to see a nice shine on their car. Yet with today’s color-shifting paints it is impossible to achieve a showroom-quality gloss. Also, even the most professional of color shifting paint jobs seldom turn out exactly as planned.

Such problems will have to be solved if the color-shifting automotive surface market is ever to reach the size that we predicted at the beginning of this article.  However, n-tech believes that based both technological progress to date and apparent automotive fashion trends, color-shifting surfaces for the automotive segment is an important opportunity going forward.

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