Virtual Paint Training

New technology provides educational, environmental, and financial benefits.


One of the pivotal factors in aerospace maintenance is maintaining an efficient coating process. Coatings serve a variety of aesthetic, functional, and protective purposes. Incorrect application of these coatings most often degrades the protective quality of the coating resulting in failures such as corrosion, rust, and adhesion problems that are damaging, expensive to repair, and potentially dangerous.

Spray technicians have the greatest impact on ensuring correct application to avoid these consequences. However, in most facilities, little if any formal training is provided to technicians. Typically, these technicians learn through trial and error or by watching their peers. This lack of standardized training has led to a significant gap in the knowledge and skills of technicians today.

Technicians not only need to have a fundamental knowledge of coatings, but they must also be able to effectively spray coatings in a manner that achieves quality, lowers cost, and reduces the environmental impact. Training meets these needs by helping technicians understand the painting process, hone their painting skills, and essentially result in a better end product.

The STAR4D program

Training and research in the paint and coatings industry has long been a focus at the Iowa Waste Reduction Center (IWRC) at the University of Northern Iowa located in Cedar Falls, IA. Over the last 17 years, the IWRC has made great efforts to work with many industries including auto body, manufacturing, aerospace, and military to show that despite the wasteful nature of spray painting, improving the knowledge, technique, and technology provided to spray technicians can greatly enhance the efficiency of the operation.

In 1994, STAR (Spray Technique Analysis and Research) was developed. While aimed at the automotive refinishing industry, the program was developed as a result of the realization that a large amount of hazardous waste is generated through the painting process and studies done by the IWRC found that training on proper spray gun setup and spray technique could drastically reduce the amount of hazardous waste generated and lessen the environmental impact. The findings not only relate to automotive, but all industries that conduct spray painting operations.

From the STAR program, the IWRC then developed Spray Technique Analysis and Research for Defense (STAR4D) in 2003 aimed at the same guiding principles but targeting military finishing. Technicians from paint facilities all over the country and as far away as Japan have gone through STAR4D certification to learn advanced spray techniques and gain the necessary knowledge and skills to improve quality. While the STAR4D program has primarily focused on military facilities, the recent development of the Aerospace Coatings Technician Certification has opened up the program to other nondefense coating facilities.

The certification program

The three-day training certification focuses on a mix of classroom, virtual training, and hands-on practice in the spray booth. In the classroom, technicians are introduced to topics such as surface preparation, coatings knowledge, and equipment setup. Aside from classroom, technicians also go through training using the VirtualPaint.

Training requirements such as a paint booth, PPE, safety equipment, and coatings are no longer necessary using this virtual reality system. Spray technicians are able to use a real spray gun which has been instrumented to allow technicians to control flow rate and fan size as though they were in the spray booth. Software on the computer tracks the spray pattern which is shown on the screen. The software tracks many variables such as transfer efficiency, thicknesses, and amount of paint sprayed. Once the technician has sprayed the part, they can switch the system to accumulation mode which visually shows them the thickness of the paint they sprayed — green is within the target mil thickness, blue is too light, and red is too heavy.

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