Inside their factories, airframers have made a lot of progress in materials, tools and processes that speed up assembly, but not so much in one labor-intensive area: painting the airplane.

Color Craft, a graphics specialist in Tukwila, Wash., a neighbor of Boeing's widebody headquarters in Everett, is tackling one time-consuming part of that task at the end of the painting process. That is when paint crews use stencils and decals to apply the logos and branding markers that airlines want and the warning and notice labels that regulators require. Ten are required by the FAA on the aircraft's exterior, and each one is hand-applied.

Color Craft's 03 Aircraft Marketing Technology enables a one-step “paint-to-paint” application of virtually any image, and in minutes rather than hours, says President Doug Stewart. Even though certification of the 03 process is still being completed, Boeing paint crews report it already is drawing attention from airlines.

“It's more durable than decals, lasts as long as paint, and images can be as complex as you like,” says William Postl, manager of exterior livery designs at Teague, Boeing's longtime design consultants. “Most of all, it could be placed on the largest billboards in the world.”

When most people look at an airliner they see only its distinctive livery, the branding image that airlines want us to see. But a closer look reveals distinct warning and notice labels scattered on its fuselage, wings and nacelles. Some are even posted inside the cabin. They serve a variety of purposes, from pointing passengers or rescue crews to the locations of release mechanisms for emergency exits, to reminding ground handlers how to properly load fuel. They warn of the danger of getting too close to engine inlets or exhaust, and of the harm to the aircraft of stepping in the wrong place on a wing.

The decals or logos have two main drawbacks. They take a long time to apply, about an hour for a basic stencil text and 12 hr. or more for a painted stencil logo. They also degrade with continued exposure to ultraviolet radiation and ozone. Loss of a simple logo is a cosmetic blemish, but FAA regulations are unforgiving about a worn warning sign: It must be replaced. That creates yet-another task for airline crews in overnight maintenance, lest they have to pull aircraft from revenue service to replace a missing safety decal.

Stewart describes Color Craft's 03 technology only in general terms because it is proprietary. But others call it a hybrid between a stencil and a decal. The painter works with a pre-printed, color-rich image that is transferred directly onto the aircraft surface, such as the American flag shown (left photo). After the transfer, the image sets up for a few minutes before a protective clear coat is sprayed over it (right photo). The transfer medium and surrounding masking area are then peeled away.

The technology allows a one-step full-color transfer, even of subtle color variations that are difficult to achieve in basic stenciling. Stewart expects airlines to use stenciling for basic stripes, but for more imaginative liveries, he sees 03 coming into play. In addition, surface areas long off-limits, such as the inboard winglet surfaces where airflow is too severe for decals to last, will open up.

Color Craft assumes original decals will be applied to protect aircraft when their base coat is still tacky. “You could wait for the paint to dry,” Stewart says. “But nobody wants to wait.” As a result, 03's transfer medium allows the base coat to breathe to prevent out gassing from creating bubbles in the image.

Color Craft has just 12 employees but its roots are in a larger, 64-year-old commercial job-shop printing business that began developing specialty applications for Boeing in the 1990s. Stewart bought the aviation division two years ago. While its 03 technology finds its footing, the company continues its core business of aircraft stencil and decal work, serving Boeing, airlines, cabin interior suppliers and design specialists such as Teague. One customer, Associated Painters of Spokane, Wash., is being acquired by Leading Edge Aviation Services of Costa Mesa, Calif., which describes itself as the industry's largest independent aircraft painter.

As much as the 03 process may open the imagination, Stewart says the basics will keep him in business. “The most fun is to create the big graphics, but our bread-and-butter work are the mandatory markers.”

Watch video of Color Craft's 03 process on our Things With Wings blog: