Volume 15, Issue 6 - November/December 2011


The Evolution of Paint Protection Film
The Strange Turns in PPF’s Path to Stardom
by Katie Hodge

Paint protection film has come a long way from its days of protecting military helicopter blades and the high-end vehicle market is reaping the benefits.

Every once in a while a product comes along that seems to surprise everyone. Paint protection film is one such surprising product. Its origin is fascinating and the evolution of the product is impressive. Much of the industry has yet to discover what the product is really capable of and how it might change the way manufacturers and dealers produce and sell. It’s also become an add-on profit center for many window film dealers.

A Look Back
The United States is engulfed in a war on the other side of the world. On the home front, industries are working hard to invent and produce new technologies to protect soldiers fighting abroad and the equipment they use. Helicopter maintenance engineers dealt with constant sand abrasion on the blades of the aircraft. They were looking for a solution to protect these master machines. Enter paint protection film. Years later, the product was reformulated and introduced into the automotive market to protect vehicles from the wear and tear of the road.

“The first films were thicker and less compliant,” says Kathy Lam, marketing manager for the automotive division of 3M. “Their purpose was to help keep helicopter blades from eroding in the harsh, sandy environments to which they were exposed. Because the blades were flatter and less complex than automotive surfaces, they didn’t demand a highly flexible, conformable film.”

Paint protection films originally entered the automotive industry to protect the vulnerable parts of an automobile’s finish.

“Urethane film evolved from an OEM part to an aftermarket accessory, which was great for the car dealers to provide an upsell opportunity,” says Mark Gershenson, global automotive segment director for LLumar. “The car dealers and the film dealers grabbed this opportunity to sell paint protection film as an accessory on the leading edges of the car, the rocker panels, the side view mirrors, the door steps and the door edges.”

As paint protection film garnered interest with car dealers, the areas on which film can be applied increased.

“As the car dealer saw more and more opportunity to up-sell, the applications became larger and more complex, even covering the whole hood,” says Gershenson. “A lot of the companies began focusing on the designs for the computer cut patterns to make the installation more efficient and precise. This seemed to open up the floodgates for numerous entries into the market.”

“Automotive film utilizes a clear coat for superior weathering and durability. This is important for automotive applications because the film needs to maintain its visual appearance over the life of the application,” says Lam.

These days paint protection film is a viable force in the fight against vehicle damage. Consumers see the value in protecting their cars as much as possible in order to get the best trade-in value later.

“Today, 3M paint protection films are still designed to protect against abrasion and weathering, but the automotive formulations are thinner and far more flexible and compliant than the original version,” says Lam. “The characteristics of both the adhesive and the film enable it to adhere to complex curves and shapes typical in today’s automotive applications.”

Paint protection film has made improvements across the board in durability, aesthetics and in the ease of installation.

“The product has evolved in terms of the conformability to stretch to the shape and curves of the car,” says Gershenson. “Performance of the adhesive system has also been a big advancement. The adhesive system needs to allow the product to be re-positioned, yet have a strong enough bond to keep it there for the length of the product. It also needs to be able to come off of the car without leaving a lot of residue or damaging the paint job.”

Installers have seen improvements over the years as well, noting that the ease of installation and coloration of the film has made dramatic strides.

“When it first came out there was a lot of orange peel,” says Ryan Tounsley, division manager for Protective Film Solutions with locations in Scottsdale, Ariz. and Orange County, Calif. “The orange peel is still there, but it is pretty close to the level of orange peel that is in factory paint. The stretchability or ease of install has probably tripled. It’s still very tough to install, but not how it used to be.”

“They have gotten more inventive,” says Timothy Davidson, owner of Contour Tinting in Chantilly, Va. “When I started they only had a four mil and now they have moved it to an eight mil. It’s much clearer and doesn’t have a lot of orange peel in it like it used to.”

In addition, the texture of the film has come a long way from its early days. A smoother film has made printing and installing films easier.

“The smoothness of the surface of the product has been an area of improvement that has done two things,” says Gershenson. “It allows the product to perform better through the computer cut plotter systems without sticking or jamming. Also, the smoother it is the less chance it will be scratched during the installation. And finally, wider widths of film create these no-seam installs.”

Film’s Fortune
Having improved so quickly over such a concentrated time, the future of paint protection film seems to be open. With other industries featuring protective films, such as the electronics and medical industries and the military, the automotive market is just a part of the protective film industry—and it’s a part with great potential.

“The penetration rate of cars with paint protection film is extremely low so as an industry we have a long way to go to achieve similar penetration rates to window film and other aftermarket accessories,” says Gershenson. “To achieve this it’s going to take a lot of marketing, product improvements and setting the expectations for performance.”

Manufacturers will need to continue to work on the product to make a more desirable product each year. While installers are happy with the growth and the products they look forward to the product of the future as well.

“If paint protection film could eliminate discoloration it would be ideal,” says Tounsley. “Over time the color of paint protection film on a car, particularly a white car, does change.”

“If they are looking to advance the product in the future, continuing to make it easier to stretch and improve the adhesive on the film would be two key areas,” says Davidson. “When you go around corners it would make installation easier if the film were to attach faster.”

However, installers are quick to compliment the product and manufacturers on a stellar job so far.

“The old black vinyl bras that everyone used to put on their cars to protect from rock chips were a huge pain,” says Tounsley. “This product really is the way to fix that problem.”

“They really have done a great job with the product that we have available to us now,” says Davidson.

In addition to product improvements some within the industry think success depends on continued expansion both within the United States and beyond.

“In a lot of developing countries it has been cheaper to re-paint a car than to invest in protecting the finish and that is due to the lack of environmental and health regulations around painting cars in these counties,” says Gershenson. “However, as these countries continue to develop and these regulations are enforced the cost of re-painting will increase thus creating more demand for paint protection film. There are a lot of opportunities for this product in those areas.”

However, the industry will need to make changes to keep up with growth.

“Additional installers,” says Lam when asked what the paint protection film industry needs. “[We need] trained professionals that can help spread the word about a virtually invisible protect. We need more people to go into the business and tap into a market that has huge potential.”

With so much opportunity, the paint protection industry’s success relies on its ability to evolve—something the industry has already proven they can do.

Katie Hodge is the editor of Window Film magazine. She can be reached at khodge@glass.com or follow her on twitter @windowfilmmag.

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