Virtual Paint Training

Sept. 5, 2014
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.

“The benefit of using VirtualPaint in training is that we are able to show immediate results that you wouldn’t see in the spray booth. Factors like transfer efficiency and film thickness can be viewed and analyzed immediately without waiting for coatings to cure,” says Jeremiah Treloar, STAR4D instructor.

The VirtualPaint was developed by the IWRC, as was another technology called the LaserPaint. LaserPaint is a small spray gun attachment which helps technicians determine their gun-to-part distance, maintain control, and consistently apply the appropriate spray pattern overlap.

Once technicians have gone through classroom and virtual training, they take what they have learned and practice spraying actual coatings in the booth to work on technique. Here, technicians are not only able to use actual coatings and parts, but they also are able to learn the proper setup of equipment.

Simply comparing pre- and post-test data, STAR4D instructors have seen countless instances of improvements by students over the years. “Every painter who comes through our training tells us they learned something whether it be from the spray technique training to VirtualPaint practice. What really matters, though, is taking what they learned and applying it to their day-to-day jobs. That is where the improvements will happen,” says Rick Klein, STAR4D program manager at the IWRC.

Three requirements to passing the STAR4D certification are: first, technicians must pass a written evaluation with at least an 80 percent score. Then a passing score of 75 percent on VirtualPaint training lessons is required, and finally the ability to apply primer and topcoat to manufacturer recommended specifications. The certification lasts for one year before recertification is required.

Environmental implications

Aside from improving a facility’s product line, painter training can also have a great impact on the environmental implications of the coating process, with the biggest being the reduction of air emissions generated by reducing the amount of overspray from spray painting operations.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) are very hazardous to the technician’s health and the environment. Being able to reduce these emissions not only means a more environmentally friendly process, but could help facilities with regulatory requirements and permits.

Improving the overall process and reducing the amount of material used also has other effects on the environment. Fewer spray booth filters end up in the landfill and fewer wasted coatings need to be disposed of reducing the cost of hazardous waste disposal. Increasing the spray painter’s efficiency to be less wasteful and more environmentally friendly not only benefits the technicians and environment, but can also save money for the company.

Branching out from military

STAR4D has worked with Air Force facilities like the 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City, IA; Pensacola Air Force Base in FL; Air National Guard facilities like the 1109th AVCRAD in Connecticut; the 181st Fighter Wing in Indiana; and more than 25 Coast Guard Air Stations. The Inter-American Air Forces Academy at Lackland Air Force Base and Robins Air Force Base have even become two of the nine total STAR4D satellite sites located across the country. The satellite sites have certified instructors on-site in order to conduct STAR4D certifications without having their employees travel to the Iowa facility for certification or recertification.

The STAR4D satellite site located at Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) at Lackland Air Force Base has reported significant progress through coating consumption decreases by 50 percent, cutting hazardous waste by 75 percent, and lowering VOC emissions by 80 percent.

STAR4D has also certified spray technicians from numerous companies in the aerospace industry. With the development of the Aerospace Coatings Technician Certification, STAR4D hopes to be able to branch out and expand the training reach. “A number of maintenance repair operations have expressed interest in becoming STAR4D satellite sites,” says Klein.

A well-trained spray technician is critical to improving operations and the only way for a spray technician to become proficient is to practice their skills. Often, a few simple changes in spray technique can produce significant results. Spray painting is like any trade, there are constant improvements to the materials and processes and keeping up with the industry and new technologies is essential.

What began as a small program providing painter training assistance to automotive refinishing shops across the country became what the STAR4D program is now – a national program focused on providing training and certification for the spray application work force.

Lea Schellhorn graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in marketing. She is the marketing coordinator for the Iowa Waste Reduction Center. Ms. Schellhorn can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, please visit