Finishing Services (Ypsilanti, MI) was founded in 1975 as a phosphate coating facility, with emphasis on heavy zinc and manganese phosphate application. Seven years later, with the economy in recession and auto sales weak, the company determined that there was a need to expand the range of coatings offered and installed a highly flexible multi-process line for process development and the plating of small production quantities. That line, which is still operating today, has provided the product and process development capability that has fueled most of Finishing Services’ growth during the past two decades.
Mitchell Marsh, president of Finishing Services, now directs a diversified company that specializes in projects that involve technical coatings, custom fixturing and tight controls. Today, in addition to a fully automated phosphate line capable of processing more than 25,000 lb of product per hour in several different phosphate formulations, the company operates automatic barrel and rack lines for tin-zinc, zinc-nickel, tin and electroless nickel. While phosphate coatings remain a major component of the company’s business, the application of alloy coatings and electroless nickel has provided a substantial portion of its nearly 15% annual growth during the past ten years. Mr. Marsh believes the reason for this growth has been good people who have intuitive skills about their work and a corporate culture that values lean thinking, flexibility and innovation.
“The constant with our company during the past years,” said Mr. Marsh, “is our effort to improve processing methods and processes and to meet the evolving needs of customers.” Finishing Services prototyped several new alloy coatings, which became the company’s growth engine in the 90s. Now, according to Mr. Marsh, the goal is for the auto companies and their suppliers to be hexavalent-chromium free by 2007. “Once again,” he said, “we’re at the forefront, this time with trivalent topcoats and chrome-free conversion coatings.”
The equipment necessary to achieve these objectives is the easiest part. Finishing Services’ founder was, first and foremost, an equipment designer and modifier, with specialized expertise in hydraulics and material handling. “For automated chemistry and replenishment technology, we’ve always relied on the best vendors out there, but equipment was an in-house thing,” said Mr. Marsh. “Building lines and fixturing are what we do, and over the years, this has given us a lot of flexibility.”
Finishing Services also seeks flexibility in its choice of chemistry. “There have always been pressures from some customers to buy from one chemical vendor over another,” said Mr. Marsh, “but we think our competitive advantage has come because we are not tied down by names and hard demands and choose vendors by merit instead.
“In heavy zinc phosphate work, for example, most specifications are not product-based but performance-based, and that’s just the way we think it should be. Phosphate processing is still one of our mainstays, and we believe that it continues to have substantial growth potential. The market has changed over the years, and today our growth in this coating is directed primarily toward specialized formulations and applications.
“We rely heavily on our suppliers to determine what’s ‘guarantee-able’ to our customers,” said Mr. Marsh. “Chemical suppliers are either producers or copy-cats, and only a few understand enough to effectively partner with you. Knowledge, like the coatings themselves, should not be just what you see on the surface.”
When Finishing Services started looking for a zinc phosphate supplier, the possibilities were many—and often just a few tanks away. Two of the largest zinc phosphate suppliers already sold the company other products. A third, Heatbath Corporation (Springfield, MA), had the advantage because it had partnered successfully with Finishing Services on a recent critical project, the outcome of which had proved highly beneficial from both a performance and cost standpoint.
The project’s goal had been to find emulsifiable oil that would exceed automotive salt spray requirements. Heatbath recommended its advanced Lab Oil 100. It met the specifications, offered important advantages in terms of process control and was flexible in how it could be used.
“Tests in our lab showed we could run Lab Oil 100 at higher temperatures and lower concentrations, and get longer bath life and greater consistency. What a combination! Plus, we were able to eliminate one oil tank entirely,” said Mr. Marsh. Finishing Services had previously operated three oil tanks: one each for dry-to-the-touch, medium (72 hr salt spray) and heavy (150+ hr salt spray).
By replacing the old system, the company eliminated one tank. “Now,” said Mr. Marsh, “we run one tank (dry-to-the-touch) for the 72-hour specification, and the heavy oil is used wherever we need more than 150 hours.” (In fact, emulsions of Lab Oil 100 on zinc-phosphated steel have performed in excess of 240 hours of salt spray exposure, per ASTM B-117.) Due to the consistent results obtained with this product, Finishing Services no longer found it necessary to retain parts until completion of the 72-hour salt spray testing cycle, an added benefit that has shortened lead times and is appreciated by all of its customers.
The product is also highly emulsion-stable to alkaline or acid contamination as encountered in phosphating cycles. This is in marked contrast to traditional water-soluble rust preventives, which have very poor stability with alkaline or acid contamination.
Based on the success of Lab Oil 100, Finishing Services began extensive test processing with Heatbath’s zinc phosphate technology. In January of 2000, the decision was made to install Heatbath’s Phos Dip 1263 heavy zinc phosphate.
Phos Dip 1263 was engineered for heavy zinc phosphate coatings of approximately 2000-mg/sq ft on ferrous surfaces. It provides maximum corrosion performance and exceeds all known government, automotive and appliance specifications for zinc phosphate coatings.
Phos Dip 1263 is highly concentrated, has a high tolerance for iron in solution and produces exceptionally consistent results. Sludge formation is minimal, so process downtime and maintenance are less of an operations issue than with conventional zinc phosphates.
Installation of Heatbath’s zinc technology was completed a few months after the installation of Lab Oil 100. “The zinc phosphate line is, by definition, a large capacity operation,” said Mr. Marsh, “so it was extensively tested before we transitioned our customers over to it.” Over time, all of Finishing Services’ performance-based projects were transitioned to the Heatbath chemistry. “With this type of process,” said Mr. Marsh, “you really can’t take chances with the equipment or your chemical supplier. You need vendors who’ll be there when you need tech support and who are able to offer answers in real-time.
“Notably,” he added, “line operators today play a far more visible role than even a few years ago. We often bring the customer to see our operation, so he has the best possible understanding of the process. Customers often meet the operator running the parts, creating an expanded level of interaction that’s new and positive. It helps when the operator has ‘ownership’ of his work.”
Finishing Services workers are extensively cross-trained in an effort to further expand flexibility for the company, the workers and the customers. That kind of cooperation has also produced better customer service and a customer base that spans from New York State to areas west of Chicago. “We’ve proven that the disadvantages of shipping and distance can be overcome by high quality, and exceptional service,” said Mr. Marsh.
Today, the company’s plan is to grow its zinc phosphate business, to evolve new applications for phosphates, and to expand replacement alternatives for hex chrome. It is also modifying one of its barrel automatics, doubling the capacity of its wastewater filter press and making other upgrades.
“The recent business climate, which has disadvantaged some, has been great for us,” said Mr. Marsh. “The reason is that, when industry activity slows, buyers have the time and the motivation to look for ways to save costs and evaluate new products. It’s the perfect environment for us. There are more buyers willing to listen and consider alternative processes than you’ll ever find in one of those ‘so-called’ great years!
“And when times do get better across-the-board, we believe customers will do what they did after the last business downturn: stay with the supplier who’s proven that he and his vendors have what it takes to get the job done.”