Xenon (Armada Township, MI) is new to the world of hard coating, a process that clearcoats plastic substrates with a scratch and chemical resistant coating. However, its founders have been involved in the industry for quite some time. Mike Hagman, operations manager at Xenon, helped develop hardcoatings for several coating manufacturers, and James Fisher, vice president sales and marketing, worked his way up through several injection molding companies.
While Mr. Hagman and Mr. Fisher relied on their years of experience at other manufacturing facilities, they also relied heavily on their own ideas and vision to take a unique approach to starting Xenon. At the time the two got together to start their own company, they sought to finance the company through venture capitalists, but the Internet craze was at its peak. With every venture capitalist penny being thrown at every Internet idea that came by, Mr. Hagman and Mr. Fisher had to look for alternative sources of funding. After some thorough searching, the pair had found a couple of government programs that could provide them the initial capital they would need to get started.
At the same time they were searching for capital, Mr. Hagman and Mr. Fisher began networking with suppliers so that they could tap into their core competencies, whether it was coatings or system design, to create the most innovative system possible. "Instead of having an adversarial relationship with our suppliers, we looked at them as our customer base," stated Mr. Hagman. In other words, the supplier is visiting lots of different finishers and sees firsthand many unique applications and approaches to finishing. By treating its suppliers as customers, Mr. Hagman felt that Xenon could tap into its suppliers' expertise.
One such supplier that Xenon has relied on heavily is Thierica, Inc. Mr. Hagman and Mr. Fisher conceptually knew what they wanted from their finishing system, but they relied on the expertise of Thierica's engineers to take that concept and make it a functional, efficient finishing line.
Because many hardcoating applications involve the transmission or reflection of light, the final coating must be defect free. Hence, the application system and environment are critical to the success of the process. Xenon has two Class 100 cleanroom spraying chambers, each with a Fanuc P-120 robot. The robots are served by indexing tables with four zones-load, spray, dead and unload. The two robots are fitted with Graco spray guns. Because hardcoatings are harsh on equipment, the spray guns have specially designed needles that will withstand hundreds of thousands of cycles without needing to be replaced. All of the application equipment, in fact the entire line, is housed in a Class 1000 cleanroom.
The robotic systems provide Xenon with the typical advantages-repeatability, accuracy, reduced personnel, etc. But, it's the two identical spraying chambers that are of more significance to Xenon. This setup allows the shop to easily spray multiple coatings, which is valuable since one customer may prefer one coating to another. More noteworthy is that the identical systems provide Xenon with a level of redundancy that is key to getting the automotive business that makes up the bulk of current hardcoating applications.
For a startup, there is an even more significant advantage though, and that is prototyping. Since most startups don't run at full capacity from the get go, Xenon has one chamber dedicated to production and another to prototyping. "Most people that do this type of work don't like to fool with prototyping," according to Mr. Fisher. "Prototypers have problems finding a source. They almost have to beg to get it done. But, we're in a position where we can do it. Sometimes you prototype a job and you end up with limited or long-range production. It has given us tremendous exposure to a variety of customers."
Of course, Xenon's plans are to eventually fill both spray chambers with production work, but the company will still actively pursue prototyping because it is an effective way to market its services.
Although it is a seemingly simple piece of equipment, a great deal of thought went into designing the conveyor system. A typical hardcoating line might have 250 ft of conveyor, but at Xenon the conveyor is only 50 ft long. There is a separate chain-on-edge conveyor for the spray chambers and the curing process as well as multiple breaks in each conveyor system.
Hardcoating requires most parts to be masked. So, parts are loaded into the masks for spraying, but the parts are then transferred to pallets with "field goal posts" for curing. These field goal posts are adjustable to suit a variety of parts, and they have rubber grommets on them to prevent scratching.
How does this conveyor setup benefit Xenon? For starters, the shorter line length is more user friendly for line workers. Also, since Xenon is set up for high production, the shorter line length helps them reduce their tooling costs. If the tooling or masks are spaced out evenly over the length of the conveyor, you will have less tooling on a 50-ft line compared to a 250-ft line. "They literally will have three to four times the amount of fixtures necessary," stated Mr. Hagman.
The conveyor setup reduces rejects as well. Due to their surface tension, wet hardcoatings will not adhere to cured hardcoatings. With one conveyor for painting and another for curing, the coating that is sprayed on the tooling and fixtures remains wet since they are not sent through the cure oven, which prevents flaking and, ultimately, rejects.
Also, the multiple breaks add flexibility to the process. "There's actually 11 different conveyors that go through our IR and UV ovens," explained Mr. Hagman. "We can stop the pallets at any of these points. This allows us to control our volume throughput, our dose of IR and our UV heat. This is where you have your greatest flexibility in processing different coatings."
The Control System
Since finishers are continually being hit from customers with demands for lower prices, having control of your application system allows you to manage your costs more efficiently. Xenon uses an automated control system from EnDiSys. There is one system for each spray chamber that keeps a variety of variables-such as fan pressure, atomizing air, fluid delivery-within a set range. "It automatically calibrates on the points we set. The computer system controls down to 0.2 cc of how many cc's we put on every part. It eliminates a lot of the guesswork," said Mr. Hagman.
The control system is accessible from the Internet as well. This allows Mr. Hagman and Mr. Fisher to monitor the finishing line from their desks or homes. "When we go to a third shift, if someone doesn't know what the problem is, everybody can take a look at it from home and make the necessary adjustments over the Internet. It's very easy to use," acknowledged Mr. Hagman.
Having developed hard coatings for several companies, Mr. Hagman knows that there are certain parameters that can vary within a stated range when a coating is purchased from a manufacturer. Because of the precision required in many hard coating applications, Xenon mixes all of its own coatings using graduate cylinders. "You could buy a hard coat, and it could be 30-40% solids any time you buy it," explained Mr. Hagman. "So, if you're spraying it one week at 30% solids and the next week it's 38% solids, you've got a real problem. You're throwing money away, and your process is all over. If you don't start with the basis of the viscosity of your paint, then you have no control over the fluid metering of your system."
Even though it's a new company, Xenon has been able to rely on its own experience as well as the knowledge of its suppliers to get off to a successful start. In fact, without the strong relationships with its suppliers, Xenon would just be a concept in the mind of its two founders. "Thierica and EnDiSys have been excellent to work with," affirmed Mr. Hagman. "We knew what we wanted, and they put it together so it would work. Their follow-up was excellent. If we have a problem, they respond to it. Quite frankly, they'll get all our business. That's the kind of relationship we have with them."