A key to success for most finishing shops is a good working relationship with their customers. At Central Metal Finishing, Inc. (CMF), North Andover, Massachusetts, this business philosophy is taken one step further by directly involving its process manufacturers in its customer relationships, creating a three-way partnership.
As a result of this philosophy, CMF has become a leading finishing and electroplating facility. The 20-year-old firm excels in selective surface coating applications that incorporate its primary processes, including zinc alloy, electroless nickel, cadmium and chromium. In addition, CMF also offers copper, nickel, zinc, gold, silver, tin, anodizing, electropolishing and passivation processing.
Evidence of CMF's excellence is reflected in the company's numerous industry certifications, including National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program (NADCAP) certification and ISO 9002 and QS 9000 registration. With plant renovation and expansion currently under way, the company is also preparing for the ISO 14000 registration process in 1998, and is laying the groundwork for eventual ISO 9001 registration.
A foundation of excellence. Growing from a 2,000-sq-ft shop in 1977 to its current 23,000-sq-ft state-of-the-art surface finishing facility, CMF has built a strong reputation for meeting the most stringent metal finishing standards of companies in the aerospace, military, commercial aviation, telecommunications, automotive and medical industries.
According to CMF president, Carol Shibles, the high level of quality at which CMF performs is a result of the company's heritage in the finishing industry.
Originally known as Central Industrial Labs (CIL), the company was founded to serve aerospace manufacturers with high-quality finishing processes for stringent, tightly controlled surface applications. "There were 10 customers, all aerospace, and we were very well known in that niche," said Ms. Shibles. "Some people actually thought we were a captive shop."
However, in 1990, with some of its major customers facing military budget cuts that would reach 30 pct, the owners of CMF responded by diversifying into other industries that required its special finishing capabilities.
"CMF wanted to break tradition with the Mom-and-Pop business and address some of the quality aspects of finishing. It knew the aerospace business, but did not know how to use its capabilities in other industries," Ms. Shibles said.
When CMF began exploring the automotive industry, OEM suppliers were moving up to the level of quality management that was already in place at CMF. "When they came to CMF, they found that we had been doing this for years," stated Ms. Shibles.
"We had been documenting all procedures due to military specification requirements. We had been analyzing tanks internally. We have tank analysis on a computer database that goes back 10 years. All of this certainly gave CMF an advantage in presenting its quality capabilities to new customers," Ms. Shibles continued.
A lesson in partnering. To attract a more diverse customer base, CMF officials determined that the company needed to explore new processes that would more readily meet the demands of manufacturers, as well as comply with the mounting requirements of environmental regulatory agencies.
In 1992, the burgeoning development of zinc alloy plating caught the attention of Frank Freitas, CMF's director of technology. "When we first got involved with zinc-nickel alloy plating, it was because we wanted to get a head start on everyone else who might consider using it as a replacement for cadmium plating," Mr. Freitas said.
Initially, CMF tried zinc alloy processes from two chemistry suppliers. Mr. Freitas then began working closely with McGean-Rohco, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, to refine zinc-nickel processes that would meet CMF's requirements for quality and efficiency.
"The ease of operation, simplicity of maintaining the appropriate levels of zinc, nickel and additives, analyzation of the bath and consistent results led us to this process," Mr. Freitas stated.
CMF offers two types of zinc-nickel alloy (ZNA) coatings. The ZNA bath produces a nickel alloy content of 12-18 pct and is accompanied by a special black chromating process. The second, ZNA Lite, offers less than 10 pct nickel in the deposit and is accompanied by a chromate with an iridescent appearance. Typical applications include bearing components, communications connectors and others where a coating that delivers equivalent performance characteristics of cadmium plating is specified by the customer.
Mr. Freitas found the supplier to be a plentiful resource of technical information that he could partner with on any given process or customer application. "On more than one occasion I have contacted the technical staff regarding a specific substrate I was having problems with. The supplier would give me some insight to the problem and send samples of a chemistry that would correct the situation. This made a big difference in my ability to service my customer," Mr. Freitas said.
Because CMF routinely relies on this technical assistance to help its customers commit to new processes or procedures that may not be in an original specification, CMF encourages its customers to independently contact its supplier to confirm that a new process will perform to expectations.
CMF uses its supplier's process chemistries in its other primary plating lines, including electroless nickel, zinc, cadmium and chromium plating.
The more intricate the process, the more intimate the partnering. CMF specializes in selective surface coating applications and intricate masking, which can involve any combination of finishing processes for a range of customer applications.
Since special coating procedures require specialized masking applications, CMF spends a lot of project development time educating and selling customers on new technologies and concepts that go above and beyond the original specification written for the process.
Bearings that require plating to critical dimensions on only one section, power transformer components requiring tolerances of 0.005-0.006 inch between fingers and similarly challenging masking applications are welcomed by CMF.
"What makes us successful in these specialized masking applications is experience. Anyone can cover a surface with tape, but how do you take care of leakage and load slots? How do you take care of an oblong OD?" said Mr. Freitas.
"We know how to achieve exactly what the customer wants. They do not want to worry about having to remove metallics or other coatings that may result from mask leakage. For them, it is not cost effective, and they do not want to create dust from a regulated material. They want to receive a finished good that is ready for production," stated Mr. Freitas.
The combined importance of CMF's masking abilities and precision plating processes is highly evident in its production of torque tube for a major aerospace company.
"The reason for maintaining tight electroless nickel thicknesses on the snubbers and the mag end, with no plating on the splines, ends or inside the tube, is that when a pilot applies torque to an engine, this tube in conjunction with its mate will tell the pilot's instrumentation how well the engine is performing," explained Mr. Freitas.
"The torque tube is a critical component that had to go through an extensive qualification process. We showed the customer how we mask the part. How long we leave them in the plating tank. What the composition of the tank is. Where we take inspection on these parts. How we measure them. How frequently we measure temperature, pH, time and do frequency analysis. The amount of control associated with this product is staggering. The least scratch on one end would ruin it," continued Mr. Freitas.
Dedicated to environmental responsibility. For customers that continue to specify cadmium and chromium coatings on some applications, CMF is able to use these high-risk, EPA-regulated chemicals because of its advanced, plant-wide air ventilation system, stringent handling safety controls and zero-discharge waste treatment system.
Originally developed during its days as an aerospace industry supplier, CMF's zero-discharge waste treatment facility is also categorized by the state of Massachusetts as a fully compliant water recycling facility. It serves two valuable purposes: 1) To make sure that no wastewater is discharged from the plant; and 2) To reclaim and recycle all plating rinse waters, which dramatically reduces the amount of fresh water required to operate the facility's finishing processes.
Although the company has invested about $250,000 in this facility, Mr. Freitas said, "We were lucky to have enough insight to invest in waste treatment technology years ago, when it was not quite as expensive. Today, a small plating shop can easily spend $500,000 to $2 million to upgrade an existing facility."
According to Mr. Freitas, CMF's zero-discharge waste treatment facility also tells potential customers "that they are getting involved with a company who can do its work in an environmentally responsible manner and will not get shut down two months down the road."
CMF's commitment to growth and the future. Since 1990, when Ms. Shibles became the president of CMF, the company's diversification efforts have increased its customer base from 10 to 175 companies and the sales volume has tripled. While CMF's efforts of partnering with both its suppliers and its customers have greatly benefited everyone involved, Ms. Shibles feels that more opportunities exist for CMF to increase its value to its customers and, as a result, expand its customer base.
"While most other finishers concentrate on the operating mode, we are starting to include more and more technical support as part of our package," Ms. Shibles stated. "We have begun with the goal of strengthening the technical knowledge of our customer service people so that they can answer 80 pct of the basic technical questions that come over the phone."
Ms. Shibles considers CMF a team-based organization, with general management, technical operations, quality assurance and customer service supporting each other. "Collectively, it is our goal to give our customers an excellent product, because our customer's success is our success," stated Ms. Shibles.
Through its current partnering philosophy of business, CMF already has taken a big step into customer facilities during the development phase of specific applications. "During this process, we discuss ways to perhaps heat-treat a product a little differently or initiate other procedures that would result in better product consistency. As a result, our company and our customers become more philosophically aligned with respect to managing our business and determining how we will achieve the high quality we both desire," said Ms. Shibles.
According to Ms. Shibles, the next step is, in selected situations, to integrate CMF more deeply into other operations required to complete a customer's product. "We want to network ourselves with many companies involved with our business, heat treaters, tumbling equipment manufacturers and other people associated with what the customer needs to accomplish. We have dubbed this as `manufacturing integration,'" she said.
While all of this may appear to be an overly ambitious agenda for a standard plating shop, CMF officials have become accustomed to setting high goals, primarily because they have become accustomed to the reputation for excellence and business growth that results from achieving their goals