Proprietary processes propel company’s growth
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Finishing of fluid power components is one of the main applications for Nimet’s Nituff anodizing process.
As finishing job shops go, Nimet Industries Inc. (South Bend, IN) is a bit unusual. Guy Ellis, VP, can tick off several ways the company is different than your average finishing shop.
“For starters, we’re very diverse in terms of customer base—our largest customer is less than 10% of sales, so we’re not tied to any one customer,” Ellis says. “Many finishing shops have one or two large customers that make up the majority of their business.”
The diversity extends even to the types of industries customers represent, he adds. “Less than 10% of our business is automotive,” Ellis explains. “Roughly 30% is medical, fluid power’s another 20% or so, special machines and other industrial equipment’s another 20%, and then there’s everything else. The advantage for us is, if one industry segment is down it’s hardly a blip in our sales. We really try to diversify as much as we can to minimize the impact of business cycles on our company.”
Ellis sees such diversity in customer base and industries served as real strengths for Nimet, a 75-employee job shop housed in a 60,000 sq ft plant near South Bend’s airport. “That is something we do consciously, and we even take it into account sometimes when we quote a project,” he says. “If it looks like a job will take up too much of our capacity, we won’t quote it as competitively as some companies might. For example, if we were looking at a customer that would represent 40-50% of sales, we would probably walk away from it. Anything above 20% we really scrutinize to try to make sure it makes sense for us.”
Some might say the company occasionally carries this philosophy to the extreme, once refusing work from a major automaker on grounds that the job—coating thrust washers for a transmission application—would monopolize too much shop time and company focus. “It was a very large project,” Ellis recalls. “They were asking us all kinds of in-depth questions, and we basically walked away from it. It didn’t make sense to us. They were surprised. I don’t think they had ever had a potential supplier say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”
Nimet also differs from many finishing shops in that its customers come from all over the country. “Many finishing shops are located relatively close to their large customers,” Ellis says. “Very little of our work comes from very close to our facility geographically. We receive parts from Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin, Minnesota—all over the country.”
Ellis believes this is due to the effectiveness of Nimet’s proprietary finishing processes. The first is Nituff, a PTFE-impregnated hard anodize finish that is also available dyed black. The second is NiCoTef, a co-deposition of nickel and PTFE. More information on both finishes is in the sidebar accompanying this article.
“Nituff was developed in the early 1970s, when we had a large customer that made packaging equipment, one-of-a-kind machines for food and drug packaging,” Ellis recalls. “The customer was using us for hard-coat anodizing, but they were looking for a finish that would have a lower coefficient of friction than conventional hard-coat. Our company founders developed a way to use Teflon (PTFE) to do that on hard-coat anodize parts.”
Nimet soon was producing the PTFE-impregnated anodize finish for other companies. “One of the next applications was in the fluid power industry,” Ellis says. “The reputation spread from there, and we eventually licensed the technology to a company in Switzerland that was making fluid power components. There are five licensees now.”
Nimet developed NiCoTef in response to customers who wanted finish properties similar to those provided by Nituff for parts fabricated from other materials. “Other customers wanted the same kind of finish for bronze, steel, stainless, or other substrates besides aluminum,” Ellis explains. “We worked with some suppliers of electroless nickel chemistry to develop a Teflon co-deposition process. That’s the other significant proprietary process we have right now.”
But Nimet is developing a third proprietary technology that potentially could have a greater impact than either of the other two finishes.
“We are currently working with a technology we recently licensed from a company in The Netherlands for a simultaneous multi-color anodizing process,” Ellis says. “In many applications, designers would love to have multi-colors applied to their aluminum parts. Right now, you can do that with paint, but paint is susceptible to chipping or wear or whatever. “But imagine a multi-color aluminum part with an anodize coating that’s part of the components and won’t come off.
According to Ellis, the computer-driven process allows simultaneous application of multiple colors of dyes to a Type II clear anodize part. “The colors become part of the anodize coating, so even if the part wears the color is going to be there,” he explains.
Nimet is working on refinements to the process, Ellis says. “We have some stuff we’ve come up with in-house, and we hope to have the software soon to implement them. Our equipment is already superior, and the software will allow us to take that next step forward.”
The process will allow photographic reproduction of images in an anodize finish, as well as matching of exact colors in, for example, company logos. “That’s not easy,” Ellis explains. “Clear anodize looks clear, but it’s not—it’s really light gray. So there’s some technology and some expertise involved with what color you put on the anodize—and what color you put on 7075 aluminum alloy, which colors differently than 6061 alloy, which colors differently than 2024 and other alloys. And then you’re talking about multiple colors that can be matched.”
Nimet sees a multitude of possible applications for the multi-color anodize capability. An example might be economically marking a component with a part number, serial number, bar code and the manufacturers logo all in different colors.
All of Nimet’s anodizing business is on aluminum. “There’s a really wide variety of alloys and applications, but it’s all aluminum,” Ellis says. “The largest portion of our work is hard-coat anodizing with or without Nituff. We do a smaller amount of Type II clear or dyed anodize, and then there are our other processes.”
Parts are anodized on either a manual or automatic line depending on the job and the day’s production schedule. The company’s other processes include an electroless nickel line for application of NiCoTef, and a handful of very small lines for chromate, dry film application and other processes. Larger parts and jobs that won’t work on the automatic line go to the manual operation, but Nimet really focuses on relatively small parts and small lot sizes.
“We don’t do big parts,” Ellis says. “We largely work with smaller components for industrial equipment. We don’t do architectural parts, for example. And, we don’t tend to be high-volume. If we get in a 20,000-piece order, that’s a big order. More often, it’s quantities are like 500 of this and 100 of that.”
According to Ellis, Nimet’s computer system currently contains 60,000 job part numbers. “Last year we did work for roughly 1,000 customers,” he says. “There are probably 3,000 that we consider active—that means in the last two years we’ve either done work for them or quoted jobs for them. We get anywhere from 100 to 200 line items per day, and we average about 3.5 days from the time an order is received until it’s shipped.”
Keeping tabs on all those jobs requires good planning and a computerized production tracking system with more than 50 PCs scattered throughout the shop. “At Nimet, quality and planning are kind of synonymous,” Ellis says. “The quality department develops a computerized process plan for every job. The plan includes run times, tank temperatures, amperages, ramps, which tanks it goes into, which tanks it skips.”
The system is based on third-party production management software that Nimet tweaked to fit its business. When a job is released from planning and hits the shop floor, workers scan a barcode that travels with the parts to download the process plan to their computer terminal. On the line, they read the barcode and the process plan is downloaded to the line control.
According to engineer Steve Greve, process plans have a line for each operation parts will undergo in the shop. “Plans include a line for masking, a line for racking, a line for anodizing, a line for unracking, and a line for final finishing and packing,” he says. “Each of those is entered into the production management system and can be referenced just by pulling up the work order number.
“The process plan is written sequentially, and when it leaves planning it shows up on the screen at the first processing station that needs it,” he continues. “That person will see information that’s specific only to their job. Someone who’s doing masking, for example, doesn’t have to worry about seeing information needed for racking. All they see is their instructions.”
Workers enter data on their portion of the job as they work on it. The real-time system enables managers to track how long each department works on a job, as well as quality parameters—how many parts were reworked, scrapped, lost. Production personnel and supervisors are compensated based on those numbers.
The system also allows any worker to see precisely where parts are in the process. “If a customer calls to ask about their parts, the answer might be, ‘There are 100 in masking, 100 in racking, 75 in the tanks, six in final finish, and we haven’t started the rest,’” Greve says. “Any employee can get all that information with just a few keystrokes.”
Nimet’s automated anodizing line is one-of-a-kind, having been designed by the company’s president James Abbott.
The out-and-back automated line features a total of 36 tanks. The first half of the line is taken up with pre-cleaning, cleaning and anodizing processes. The second half includes PTFE impregnation for Nituff parts, dyeing and sealing operations.
Nimet knows that many other companies offer Teflon-impregnated anodize and electroless nickel processes. But Ellis says the company has found its niche and continues to improve its processes.
“For example, we recently added a processing step that will improve the Nituff coating,” he says. “It’s actually a pre-process that makes the aluminum surface much smoother, resulting in a much lower coefficient of friction. So it will provide a smoother, slicker surface than what you’d get from normal Nituff.”
So why do customers from all over the U.S. pay to have their parts shipped to Nimet rather than having them processed nearby? “We’d like to think that it’s because our finishes outperform what the local guys are doing,” Ellis says. “I don’t know what the local guys are doing. I know what we do and I know our niche, and I know people send us parts from all over.
“And that’s the advice I’d give to any metal finisher: pick a niche and go after it. A lot of companies try to be all things to all people, and we think that’s a mistake,” he concludes.