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A part entering the powder coat booth, with red and green pull plugs to protect surfaces that should not be coated.
One of Bobcat's engineers discuss the functionality and benefits of these custom pull plugs with a line worker.
Over the past 50 years, the Bobcat Company has evolved to meet the changing needs of the world. It has become a leading manufacturer of compact industrial, construction and agri-business equipment. In fact, its high-quality compact construction machinery is so well known that even competing brands are often referred to as "Bobcats."
The company has gone through many changes, but one thing hasn't changed since 1947—its commitment to outstanding quality and workmanship. In order to preserve this commitment, the company is constantly searching for ways to improve its products, processes and facilities.
At Bobcat Co.'s production facility in Bismarck, North Dakota continuous improvement is part and parcel of the corporate culture. That means every aspect of production is permanently under review—and one area that was ripe for change was how the finishing process was affecting machined and threaded surfaces.
The Bismarck facility includes in-house finishing areas for electrocoat and powder coat application. Typically, all the exposed surfaces in an assembly are e-coated and many are subsequently powder coated, creating problems with surfaces that are machined to a certain size or designed to support bearings.
As a result, workers were spending time and effort removing the coating from the inside diameters of several bores, which functioned as pivot points on the finished machines. Workers had to physically polish the affected surfaces in order to remove the material, a process that slowed productivity and also affected quality.
Masking with tape or paper (like using masking tape on trim when painting walls) was an obvious solution, yet hostile finishing processes require space-age materials and a tight fit to be effective. Assembly line environments also demand ergonomic solutions—if line workers can't easily install or remove masks, masking would fail.
Bobcat Company performed tests on many masking products, finding very few that could stand up to its harsh processes. It found most masks would significantly shrink in each production cycle resulting in a less-than-optimal mask life. Bobcat Company tried to compensate for the shrinkage by making the plugs oversized, which created significant insertion problems for workers. It was at this stage of the project that Bobcat Company contacted Shercon, a specialist in custom molded masking products.
Meeting the Challenge
Shercon's Senior Design Engineer Ruben Dominguez worked with Bobcat Co. to find an answer to its masking problems, which he outlines, "We [Shercon] designed a hollow pull plug using our Ultrabake™ material to avoid shrinkage issues. This not only increased longevity, but it allowed us to thin the wall thickness a tiny bit, which made insertion a lot easier."
The Ultrabake compound is formulated specifically for masking applications in hostile environments, such as powder coat and electrocoat. It provides great tensile and tear strength and incredible longevity due to its compression set properties (its resistance to acquiring a permanent set after exposure to high temperatures).
Thus, masks made for Bobcat Co. didn't take sets, didn't shrink, installed quickly and lasted. It appeared to be the perfect solution, but first Bobcat Co. needed to test them out with its employees.
New Masks a Hit with Line Workers
In six weeks, Shercon had moved from initial contact to the prototype phase and its initial prototypes found favor on Bobcat Company's production lines—especially with the workers who installed and removed them. The ergonomically designed pull plugs installed quickly and offered excellent protection from corrosives, e-coat and powder coat. The handles also made post-finish removal an easy job. The custom plugs delivered finish-free bores that required no touch-up, improving line speeds and product quality—the exact result that Bobcat Company was looking for.
Bobcat Company was impressed with the company's custom design efforts and worker reception for the new plugs was enthusiastic—to the point where workers were specifically picking Shercon's plugs out of the "plug" pile.
Design Expertise Improves Productivity and Longevity
Shercon's design knowledge also led to other improvements on Bobcat Company's production line masking efforts. For example, Dominguez suggested using two separate plugs to mask a paint process instead of one large plug (which Bobcat Co. had been using).
Another productivity gain was scored with the suggestion of color-coding the masks for faster sorting after each use. This eliminated the guesswork needed—and the mistakes associated with—sorting plugs that appeared similar but weren't.
Shercon's expertise and high-quality products are so valued at Bobcat Company that their relationship continues to grow today, with Shercon's continuous involvement in Bobcat Company's assembly line.
Currently, Shercon supplies the Bismarck facility with several custom masks and several hundred off-the-shelf plugs and masks.
Aiding Shercon's acceptance at Bobcat Company is the incredible longevity of its Ultrabake masks. Bobcat Company was initially expecting 25–50 insertions for each mask, but in fact they're still using masks that are several years old.
Bobcat Company Exploring Use of OEM Product line
In addition to its growing use of precision masking products, Bobcat Company has been exploring the company's "OEM" or Bill of Materials product line. These are custom and off-the-shelf molded parts that don't mask areas during finishing, but remain a part of the finished equipment.
Keith Ennis, Shercon CEO, isn't surprised at his firm's success at Bobcat Co. "We are a solutions-oriented company. Our focus is on engineering great solutions for our customers and on achieving total customer satisfaction. That's why we formulated Ultrabake, and that's why our design staff is so responsive."
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