Betting It All on Plating Automation

National Plating made an all or nothing decision . . .

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Two years ago, National Plating Corp.was a small plater in the highly competitive Cleveland area when young Mark Palik, National's third-generation owner, made an all or nothing multimillion-dollar bet on a new highly automated zinc-chloride barrel line. He wanted to take on the area's high-volume platers in the automotive and fastener fields and their rock-bottom prices.

Mark's grandfather, John Palik, started the company in 1946 as a copper, nickel and chromium plating shop. He was aggressive, building the company up to a peak of 60 employees by the late '50s. Active in the industry, John won national awards and was the first president of the National Association of Metal Finishers. He retired in 1970, selling the company to his son Dave who was active in the business. Unlike John, however, Dave was more cautious and decided to downsize the business. He traded off the semi-automatic chromium line for a 10-station cyanide-based zinc barrel line. He was quite content being a much smaller shop with steady, profitable work and fewer frustrations.

By the mid '80s, things were changing. The plating industry was challenged by EPA requirements and the need for expensive waste treatment improvements. Dave Palik had had enough. He did not want to adjust to all these changes; he'd rather sell the company and find a quieter life-style.

When Mark, then a 20-year-old photographer working in California, heard about his father's desire to get out of the business, he decided to give it a shot. "I told him I would come back here and try it for at least the summer," he laughed, "and here I am, eleven years later!"

NATIONAL PLATING'S big line can turn out 20,000 lbs of parts in an hour.

When Mark took over National Plating in 1987, it was time to either commit to big improvements or risk losing the business. For the Palik family, each generation had reacted to its times, applied its own philosophy and been successful in its own way.

It was a small shop at that time, with about eight employees. Mark's plan was clear: respond to this challenge and clean up its act. He immediately began to expand the business and within two years had tripled sales. Today, it employs 40 people.

How did he finance these early expansions? "Hard work," is his quick answer. "We've always had handy people and our own welders. It is not rocket science to build a plating tank. We even built a few of our own barrels at one time. Building your own equipment is a distinct advantage, not something many can do."

The big leap forward. The decision to launch the new line was made two years ago. Business was good, and Mark again wanted to expand. Cost efficiency was the key philosophy behind this major move. "Where prices are going in this industry, it doesn't make sense for anybody with conventional equipment to tackle large volumes of work. We needed to build a line that was so productive and cost efficient that I could run work at the going rate."

MARK PALIK checks the coating thickness using equipment capable of measurements within approximately 1%.

Like the movie Field of Dreams, Mark's theory was "If you build it, they will come." When people asked, however, if he had lined up work for this new line, he had to admit that he had not, but he did have two or three big accounts in mind. "There was no doubt in my mind that when we showed them we could turn massive volumes quickly with better QC and SPC levels than they were getting, they would at least give us an opportunity to be a second source," he explained. "That's all we would need to earn more of their business."

Has it worked? "Yes," he replied with a grin. "Although it was not as easyas I thought it would be." He knew that even with the ups and downs of demand in this business, any plater doing automotive work would have to meet that industry's tough ISO and QS 9000 requirements with the QC and SPC his company had in place.

He was right. This has helped attract new business. "Since we jumped on the large-volume bandwagon, our volume has increased over 300%, sales have doubled, and we were just getting started! We are running the line at about three-fourths capacity now and expect to hit full capacity by year's end. I do not know of any barrel plating line that is more productive."

Because the company did much of the work itself, Mr. Palik pointed out that the investment was probably half what it would have cost had it been engineered and installed by an outside firm. "Although there's no other U.S. barrel line quite like this," he said. "I visited a similarly automated one in Canada that cost more than $4 million."

Another philosophy Mark Palik has always employed is no third shift, even at the busiest of times. He feels that operating around the clock seven days a week cannot be done without sacrificing quality. "We run two shifts five days a week," he said, "eight to twelve hours per shift, depending on how busy we are, and always have available capacity. If we get too busy while running two twelves, we'll just run a Saturday and get caught up."

Features of the new line. Here are the key features that make this new zinc plating line unique and efficient:

  • Rectification: The line has individual rectification for each plating station. "This gives us the versatility to plate one barrel at 1,000 amps," Mr. Palik explained, "and follow it up with a 100-amp load, thus tailoring plating current to the surface area of the part in each barrel."
  • Stainless tanks: Another major commitment was to use only stainless steel tanks rather than lined steel tanks. A major initial expense, yes, but one that pays off in reliability and ease of maintenance in the end.
  • Automatic hoists: Four automatic high-speed hoists were designed and built in-house. They cost about $20,000 each to build, which was a big savings over having to buy them outside.
  • Barrel automation: With automated barrel handling, the results are consistent cycle to cycle, not varying shift to shift. "Our chromates are constantly on conductivity meters with pumps automatically controlling concentration," he noted. "It is the same every time: concentration, submersion time and end result. On a manual line, you can have an operator counting out the submersion timing and being either faster or slower than the guy on the next shift." The barrels have automatic locking doors. Operators load the barrel and when it turns in one direction, the door locks closed. After processing, turn the barrel the other way, and the door opens and the barrel dumps. This is much faster than standard barrel doors that require manually removing four or five clamps from the door each time you load and unload.
  • Solution processing: Maintaining bath chemistry is the key to quality control, and here Mr. Palik relies on statistical process control methods and constant monitoring, including daily testing of metal content and chemistry levels. "We use SPC to constantly maintain all chemistry levels," he said. "Everything is charted on the computer. If we got some blistering on a part we ran two months ago, for example, we can go back to our SPC charts and see exactly where our chemistry levels were the day we ran it." Pavco Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, is the main proprietary chemical supplier, and has been instrumental in providing technical support. "Once a week the supplier does an analysis of basically everything we do daily, including a check on the proprietary chemicals, which we cannot do. It can also troubleshoot any problems with its much more sophisticated analytical equipment."
    BELT DRYER handles parts carefully.
  • Thickness testing: Three on-line eddy current testers monitor coating thickness within approximately 5%. This is supplemented by an X-ray test machine that can measure coatings to within approximately 1% on the more complicated surfaces, like parts with threads.
  • Ventilation: Ventilation is another area of emphasis. "We've spent a lot on ventilation," Mr. Palik recalled. "It is not just having adequate exhausting, you also need to be bringing in more fresh air than you exhaust. We have a big air-makeup unit on our roof, pumping air in and pumping it out. That was a code requirement for us to move into this building. Another was that not only did our chemical storage rooms have to be sprinkled with fire doors, but everything in the building had to be fully sprinkled."
  • Drying: Here Mr. Palik committed to a belt dryer for his new plating line. Why? "Easier part handling and more pounds per hour than a centrifugal dryer," he replied. "It is less labor intensive and less chance of any violent motion harming the parts. In centrifugal dryers, sometimes parts can kick out, rattle around and get distorted."
  • Baking and post treatment: Post treatments offered include all the usual plus black chromate, olive drab, bright dipping, lacquer and wax. The new line also offers full capacity baking to help relieve any hydrogen embrittlement of heat-treated parts induced in the plating process.

Help up the learning curve. "You can be two lifetimes in this business and still get stumped. When we do, our supplier can come in with sophisticated equipment, tear apart the plating chemistry and find out what is in the bath that is causing an unusual problem. With our own lab, we are pretty self-sufficient for the day-to-day things, but every once in a while oil or something a new customer is using can cause problems. Many companies are cutting costs by using recycled oil in their manufacturing process. We have probably the best cleaning system around, but can still get something crazy in there now and then. You can bandage many problems by simply throwing in brighteners, but we would much rather analyze the problem and correct it."

AUTOMATED barrels move down the zinc plating line.

Those plating shops serving the auto industry are facing a requirement that all Tier Two suppliers be ISO 9000 registered by year's end. Mark Palik sees that, too, as an opportunity. "We plan to be registered by then," he says. "We're half-way there already."

Although plating demand in the Cleveland area has slacked off since he committed to this new line, Mr. Palik remains optimistic. Once he convinced a few big-volume customers that his small shop was moving into the big time, it didn't take long for the news to spread. "People started talking about the line and the job we were doing for them," he recalled. "Soon people I had called months ago started calling back. Our reputation started paying off."

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