Airplane manufacturer Airbus is facing a legal dispute, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, over a paint issue affecting some of its passenger jets.

It’s an issue that an Early Charm portfolio company is poised to help manufacturers prevent – but we’ll get to that.

Flawed paint may seem like a relatively small problem when thinking about what it takes to produce an entire jet airplane. But it’s one that can threaten the safety, performance, and lifespan of several kinds of vehicles. It can also cause manufacturers to lose millions during, and potentially well after, production.

A timely example lies in an ongoing rift between Airbus and Qatar Airways. The airline grounded several Airbus A350 jets over concerns about peeling and pock-marked paint that left sections of the planes’ fuselages exposed. Reuters and others reported Qatar Airways was seeking over $600 million in damages from Airbus, to compensate for the losses it sustained in taking these flawed planes out of service. The dispute has also since escalated, with the cancelling of a $6 billion contract between Qatar Airways and Airbus for 50 new passenger jets.

Paint problems are exceedingly common among the makers of planes and other vehicles. Major car manufacturers, including the likes of Honda, Lexus, and Tesla, have also faced paint-related problems in recent years. Some companies have had to issue mass recalls over paint flaws on certain car models, while others have shelled out thousands to fund post-production repairs.

These defects can cause problems beyond just ruining the aesthetics of a vehicle. On cars, chipping paint could lead to rust issues that can shorten the useful lifespan of the vehicle. And on planes, defects could actually affect aircraft performance or safety. Coatings on planes can serve to seal critical surface junctions, reduce ice buildup, and even reduce the radar signature of military aircraft.

So what if companies like Airbus or Tesla could “see” any issues that may cause paint flaws before a plane or a car is sold? They could quickly identify the root cause of the problems, and fix them during initial production. In turn, they could likely save millions, or even hundreds of millions, not to mention avoiding dings to their market reputation.

That capability is exactly what Early Charm company, Perphora, is aiming to offer the industry. The startup is developing a technology using an infrared scanning technique, called optical coherence tomography (OCT), that can look beneath the many layers of paints and coatings applied to a vehicle. It can detect hidden defects that could cause chipping, peeling, or other damage over time, and characterize them so they can be addressed as quickly as possible.

Manufacturers already perform paint quality inspections to the best of their abilities, using human inspectors and expensive camera systems. But the OCT tech would allow them to also see potential problems – like microbubbles or fibers caught in the paint – that may not be visible to a camera or to the naked eye.

In a case like Airbus’, manufacturers could have used Perphora’s OCT technology to scan the paint defects on the A350 jets as they started cropping up. It would have allowed them to see what was going on within the flawed layers of paint that was causing it to peel and chip. Perhora’s tech could also be useful in preventing that kind of coating issue from happening in the first place. A manufacturer could use it to take sample scans of a plane’s surfaces, to check for any defects, and make sure that all coating and paint layers are adhering properly during production.

The fact is, no one wants to travel in a pock-marked plane or a rusty car. Perphora hopes to help assuage those cosmetic concerns for consumers – and for manufacturers, to help prevent some of those pesky hundred million-dollar losses and lawsuits.

Author: Morgan Eichensehr
Bio: Morgan Eichensehr is a technical writer for Early Charm. She tells the stories behind the science being done at the venture studio’s portfolio companies.