Across the United States, many large companies are returning to core competencies to do what they do best. However, some smaller companies—especially in the contract coating industry—have expanded their offerings, growing their business by meeting the needs of their current clients and widening their customer base.
Until fairly recently, platers and painters realized most, if not all, of the expansion possibilities within their respective finishing realms. Platers would add more tanks and, thereby, more metals to their repertoires. Many paint shops, meanwhile, have added powder coating to their resumes over the last two decades. Now, however, powder coaters and platers alike have begun turning to electrocoating as another way to offer more processes to more customers.
The Need for “E”
Burkard Industries of Clinton Township, Michigan, installed its first powder coating line in 1988, and later added two more powder systems to meet rising demand for their coating services. In order to expand its business in the automotive industry, the Detroit-area finisher invested in an electrocoating system in 2003—and a large building addition to house it.
The addition of e-coat has allowed Burkard to become a one-stop shop for some of its existing customers whose products require both electrocoating primer and powder topcoat. New automotive e-coat clients have expanded the customer base, and some of those have moved powder jobs to Burkard, as well. The company is currently expanding its reach throughout the Midwest and into Canada, and is actively recruiting companies outside of the automotive sphere with its electrocoat primer/powder topcoat combination.
Another Michigan coating shop with a heavy automotive industry clientele is Freedom Finishing of Benton Harbor. Freedom started as a small powder coater in 1988, and grew quickly enough to move into its present, larger building by 1992.
As was the case with many coaters who served the automotive industry, their Tier 1 and 2 automotive parts customers began to demand e-coat because the big three automakers required it in their specifications. Freedom ordered an electrocoating system to meet its customers’ needs. Unfortunately, it came online in October of 2001. The economic slowdown following 9/11 severely taxed the company’s customers and dried up many possibilities for business from new sources.
But thanks in part to the expanded services offerings made possible by E-Coat, Freedom Finishing has weathered the storm and today runs a heavy schedule of automotive parts through their plant. “Even though the economy is still sputtering, we are confident because we feel we have the best E-Coat system in the market and with our suppliers behind us we feel we have been given the opportunity of a lifetime,” says Gloria Ender, co-owner of Freedom Finishing.
The B. L. Downey Company—one of Chicagoland’s largest and longest-running powder coating job shops— began fluidized bed coating in 1956. The company installed one of the first U.S. electrostatic powder systems at its Broadview, Illinois facility in 1962. In the mid-90s it became clear to owner Bernard Downey that automobile companies were beginning to demand electrocoating on all underbody parts manufactured by their suppliers. A switch was also being made from plating to e-coat on many parts. When Chicago-area stampers made known that a significant volume of work would be available for his business, Downey made his move.
Since 1996, the B. L. Downey Company has installed five electrocoating systems as its sales mushroomed—making it one of the largest e-coaters in the United States. Several of the company’s previous powder customers took advantage of Downey’s new process to shift e-coat jobs over to it, and its reputation and capacity continues to attract further business.
Plating shops are also turning to e-coat to expand their business, regarding it as similar to their current processes. In fact, CAPSCO, Inc. of Greenville, South Carolina added electrocoating to their repertoire back in 1994 by converting a return-type hoist plating system into a low throughput e-coat machine.
The impetus behind the equipment conversion came from one of CAPSCO’s biggest customers, who had a part that needed the even, all-over corrosion resistance offered by e-coat. Over time, demand outstripped capacity on the makeshift system—compelling the company to purchase a new high-capacity electrocoating system.
Since its e-coat system went into production in 1998, Sammy Huffman, owner of CAPSCO, estimates that the company has added 25-30 new customers over a broad spectrum, with about half involved in the automotive industry and the other half divided between industrial and agricultural concerns. “About 25% of our work is now e-coat related,” he says. “We could never have realized it at the time of the installation, but a lot of the work that used to be plated is now being done with electrocoat.”
Like CAPSCO, Blue Grass Plating—a Richmond, Kentucky plating shop since 1969—made the addition of electrocoat a priority as some of its automotive customers either switched from plating to e-coat as a primary coating or specified e-coat over zinc plate on high wear parts like latches and door strikers.
David Cornelison, president of Blue Grass Plating, felt that e-coat would be easier to control than powder coating, because the process is quite similar to plating. “We see a lot of similarities, especially in terms of the basics,” he said. “Cleaning and rinsing are importantaspects of each process, and can be performed in much the same way.”
Since adding e-coat in 2001, Blue Grass Plating has added new customers —including quite a few from the automotive industry —and coaxed new e-coat business out of some of their plating customers. There are many underbody parts now coated with black oxide that may someday receive epoxy e-coat, should auto manufacturer specifications be upgraded. This would mean a huge surge of new electrocoat business for shops like Blue Grass nationwide. “When we first considered adding E-Coat, we were told by a lot of people that it wouldn’t work,” says Cornelison. “But we’ve had nothing but great success.” Today, the company runs its e-coat line on all three shifts as well as weekends, and is currently exploring the possibility of investing in a second line.
Taking the Plunge
Reluctance by smaller shops to pursue electrocoating can often be traced to startup costs. Whereas a powder or liquid spray coater can get going with a simple batch system, e-coaters face the higher initial price of immersion tanks, rectifier, complex pretreatment process, high quality water generation and automated conveyor.
Tru-Tone Powder Coating of Addison, Illinois took a big leap when it added e-coat to its operations in 2001. Started in the late 1970s, Tru-Tone had been applying powderfor 15 years, but felt that e-coat was the finish of the future. Owners Greg and Laurie Klemenswicz saw that the addition of e-coat would also help to position them as a one stop shop for current customers —allowing them to have primer and topcoat applied without shipping between two different coaters.
Tru-Tone’s programmed hoist system brought in that consolidation work from powder coating customers, but they have found it more difficult to coax in new customers strictly for high volume electrocoating, given their recent entry into the industry. To date, they are not seeing as much business in the e-coat/powder topcoat combination as they expected, although they have made some inroads with automotive tier suppliers seeking an e-coat shop for smaller part runs.
Meanwhile, a few OEMs have taken matters into their own hands, adding electrocoat to their captive painting departments. Often, this opportunity is taken during consolidation of existing facilities or the construction of a new plant.
Cequent Towing Products is the new parent company formed by the combination of Reese and Draw-Tite—two long time manufacturers of truck and trailer hitches and towing systems. When building a new 375,000-sq-ft headquarters in Goshen, Indiana during 2002, the decision was made to upgrade the finishing capabilities of their operation with electrocoating. The new black epoxy finish greatly increased the corrosion resistance of Cequent’s towing products, compared to their previous electrostatic spray coating. Electrocoat gives Cequent the tough corrosion protection that automotive manufacturers specify for their own automotive underbody parts.
At Knapheide Manufacturing, a Quincy, Illinois maker of service truck and platform/stake truck bodies, the reason for a new electrocoat line was, ultimately, a natural disaster. Knapheide’s location on the west bank of the Mississippi River was flooded out for the second time in 1993, leading the company to begin a move to higher ground on the other side of town. The new 400,000- sq -ft facility was completed in 1996, with manufacturing ramping up over the course of the following year.
Operations Manager Jim Barnett led a Knapheide team that took the opportunity to upgrade from their HVLP liquid spray finish by adding a cream colored electrocoat primer. The truck bodies now receive the primer (over a zinc phosphate conversion coating) prior to topcoating in different colors by distributors. Meanwhile, the HVLP is still used on some smaller parts.
The immersion electrocoat process gets into all the nooks and crannies of Knapheide’s products, greatly enhancing their resistance to corrosion. In fact, extensive testing was performed to study air release and process solution drainage from the truck bodies during the early stages of system construction. Some manufacturing modifications were made, adding holes to the products at certain locations to facilitate faster drainage and prevent rapid bath contamination from solution carryover.
Knapheide saw that the best way to improve the quality of their products was to greatly increase corrosion resistance and long lasting appearance through electrocoating. Barnett notes that their thinking at the time was that adding electrocoat would keep them ahead of their competitors.
Adjusting to the Trend
For DuPont Performance Coatings, a supplier of electrocoatings, the majority of new e-coat systems in the past year have been systems that are added to shops that did not previously use electrocoat. This trend has been rising over the past two years. Manufacturers are making products that require a range of coatings and they will look for coaters that can supply all of their needs. The days of shipping parts from shop to shop for multiple coatings are ending primarily because transportation costs are becoming too expensive. Coaters that can offer multiple coating options for their customers will have the best chance to maintain or gain business.
The influx of “New E-Coaters” into the market has posed two main problems for e-coat suppliers: service and multi-layer coating. As new players enter the market they need strong support from their vendors to compete as they learn the e-coat process. This increase in service is coming at a time when some e-coat suppliers are reducing infrastructure to improve costs. Shops that will be applying multi-layers need to make sure that the e-coat will work with the topcoats. The shops now have a stronger reliance on suppliers to work together or switch to a vendor that supplies all the coatings from a single source. Some vendors can supply all the coatings, but they are from different divisions, which make it seem like different companies.
Different coaters have different reasons for adding e-coat. Contract shops generate new revenue streams with electrocoating by better meeting the needs of their old customers while expanding their client base and becoming a single stop for a wider variety of coating options. OEMs are turning to inhouse electrocoating to improve their products—and many companies who outsource their coating operations are beginning to specify electrocoating, as well, making it an essential element in the highest quality finishes available today.
At Burkard Industries, E-Coat was brought in to complement existing powder coating systems in order to meet the rising demand for the company’s coating services.
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