Painting is, by its nature, a wasteful process. Coatings have a limited shelf life for storage, a limited pot life once mixed and do not achieve 100 percent transfer efficiency — the amount of product on the intended target — when applied. Furthermore, poor application practices can lead to costly rework or premature coating failure.
The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Corrosion Prevention and Control (CPAC) program is keenly aware of these challenges, as the program manages corrosion mitigation and coating operations throughout the world at Corrosion Repair Facilities (CRFs) and Marine Depot Maintenance Centers. These facilities support all platforms of USMC tactical ground and support equipment, extending the lifecycle of weapons systems and avoiding prohibitively high depot maintenance costs, while adhering to varying local waste disposal requirements and volatile organic compound emissions standards.
Starting in 2011, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division partnered with the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Waste Reduction Center’s Spray Technique Analysis and Research for Defense (STAR4D) team in Cedar Falls, in support of the USMC CPAC program. This partnership allowed STAR4D to train painters at CRFs, improve product quality and reduce waste associated with painting processes. Today, the STAR4D Coatings Technician Certification is the only industry training and certification program that focuses specifically on the Chemical Agent Resistant Coating (CARC) system applied to USMC platforms.
To further increase training effectiveness, STAR4D developed the 3D VirtualPaint system. The system utilizes virtual reality simulation technology and comes as a stationary or mobile unit equipped with spray equipment, 3D motion sensors, software interface and virtual reality headset.
“The simulator provides real world experience — how to trigger the paint gun, how you move it and how quickly you move,” Andrew Sheetz said, a materials engineer in Carderock’s Corrosion and Coatings Engineering Branch. “There is an almost indescribable ‘wow’ factor when you put the helmet on and practice painting in a 3D virtual environment. You can select which coating system or color you want to use, and the system collects data to provide feedback on your technique. It will even provide a graded score based on coating transfer efficiency and meeting the target film thickness.”
The 3D VirtualPaint system features a parts library with hundreds of components or entire vehicles to choose from and can simulate each coating type within the CARC system. Trainees must manage the coating application in all three dimensions, where the primary challenges include body position, standoff distance and the finesse required to apply an even coat on non-uniform surfaces. The virtual reality experience allows users to practice techniques in a realistic environment while avoiding the nuances of hazardous waste disposal, safety considerations, surface preparation or environmental impacts that add significant costs to a training event, and generates real-time metrics providing objective quality evidence on applicator performance.
STAR4D deploys their team to each CRF annually to complete new certifications and refresher training for previously certified personnel. Feedback from painters in the field has been extremely positive.
After a 2020 training course for his team, CRF Manager Charles Wolfe, said:
“The 3D system is amazing. It provides instant feedback on the technician’s coating application. It also equates the technicians coating application to a monetary value gain or loss by measuring transfer efficiency of the amount of product hitting and not hitting the intended item. The 3D system is the most valuable part of the training. It is so realistic there is almost no difference than the actual physical application of coatings.”
The Marine Corps Base Hawaii CRF recently experienced a large turnover amongst artisans. After hosting the STAR4D training team, Bill Atwater, a CRF Manager and Quality Assurance Specialist, noted an almost immediate increase in quality.
“I am noticing better coatings applications by the newer painters and the coating thicknesses they are achieving are more consistent,” he said.
The STAR4D Coatings Technician Certification is a three-day course with annual one-day recertification training. The course includes classroom lecture, demonstration and practical application with both the 3D VirtualPaint system and live painting. Courses are offered either at their UNI site or on-location.
The result is better painters and improved product output. STAR4D states that their programs increase transfer efficiency by 25-30 percent. For quality, CRF painters recorded only 27 instances of coatings rework across 10,367 opportunities (4.28 process sigma) over the last two fiscal years; 99.74 percent of coatings are applied correctly the first time.
STAR4D also provides Instructor certifications so that satellite-training sites can be set up to meet the Department of Defense’s (DOD) needs. Carderock received two 3D VirtualPaint systems in spring 2021 — a stationary unit and a mobile unit – and USMC Systems Command is set to purchase the 3D VirtualPaint systems for use at each of its four CRFs and two depots to provide a continuous training and improvement capability.
The next step for Carderock is to draw more awareness to these systems throughout the DOD.
“We are supporting the Marine Corps’ and Carderock’s mission,” Sheetz said. “Now that we have two systems available, one of our first courses of action will be to have classroom sessions with the trainers for the Corrosion and Coatings Engineering Branch. We want to use it to provide familiarization with proper paint application and assist anyone on base who wants to learn how to paint better. The CO [Capt. Todd Hutchison], had an opportunity to see the system during a command tour and we are getting more attention from the Navy as well. With the Navy, we see this product translating to coating applications inside tank and voids to help train painters on what to expect when tackling significantly more complex geometries than they would see in the commercial sector.”