Our plating company has recently undergone a change in management. The new management team is really interested in instituting good process control and creating a plating environment that is professional and price-competitive with “off-shore” plating companies. Since our company has previously operated in a “we have always done it this way” environment, implementing this change in philosophy is not going to be easy. Do you have any comments/suggestions on how to go about making this change? B. B.
Your question is a good one and one of my favorite topics! In my travels around the plating world, I have seen many shops that operate in the mode you describe. This approach to electroplating may have been okay in the 1950’s but sure doesn’t cut it in 2003. In my opinion, one of the major reasons U. S. plating shops are losing out to locations like Mexico and China is that many of these shops have not seen the light regarding process control.
To start out, do some reading about process control. No, you do not have to study tomes on statistics, six-sigma or lean manufacturing but read up on some of the benefits of process control. A very readable paper on the benefits of process control can be found at the Metalast International web site: www.metalast.com/index2.html. (Disclosure – Mr. Kushner is a consultant for Metalast International.) This paper briefly discusses why process control is a good investment for the electroplating shop. You can also find a number of good articles by visiting www.pfonline.com.
Once you have an understanding of what process control is all about, you can prepare a program to start down the road of process control. Here are a number of things that must be addressed when doing this:
- Control of your plating bath chemistry. Do you really know what is in that plating bath and what the concentrations of these components are? Taking a sample and analyzing it when the plating bath is not functioning properly is not plating bath control. Taking samples and analyzing them on a regular scheduled basis is much better. Doing the testing in-house is better yet. Storing this information in a consistent manner is better yet.
- Control of the physical condition of the plating bath. Monitor such things as bath temperature, bath pH, conductivity, current, voltage and liquid level. Also, as part of this process, the operation of heating and cooling systems, pumps and filters must be monitored.
- Written procedures for plating processes. Do your operators and process engineers really know what the standard process procedure is for each of your plating lines or do they rely on the “old-timer” who has been plating for 40 years and always manages to “save the day” but never records or writes down anything. One day the old timer will retire and your processes will be toast. Write up the processes and have them available at all times. If changes are made record these changes.
- Preventive Maintenance Programs. This is probably one of the most neglected areas of the plating process. Many shops only perform maintenance when something breaks or stop operating. Equipment used in manufacturing of most any type of product must be maintained. Plating equipment is no different.
Notice that nothing has been said about computer automation. That’s because you can implement a good process control system using manual controls. It won’t have lots of bells and whistles, but it will certainly move you into a more modern mode of operation. A process control system implemented in this manner can be at least partially automated as you become more comfortable with your manual system. And always remember no matter how sophisticated your system may be, somebody has to understand how it works. Computers do hiccup on a fairly frequent basis, and monitors will clog, burnout or stop functioning at unexpected moments.