A Shop for All Reasons

A metal fabricator wants to be a one-stop shop, and powder coating plays an important role.

When Dennis Doane started his new metal fabricating endeavor in 2003, he selected the name A-1 Fabricators and Finishers for his Cincinnati-area company. It also helped years later, now that he has added a powder coating line to his repertoire.


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When Dennis Doane started his new metal fabricating endeavor in 2003, he selected the name A-1 Fabricators and Finishers for his Cincinnati-area company.

It was a logical choice, as A-1 Fabricators, Finishers, Assemblers, Design Engineers, Inventory Managers, Machinists, and On-site Welders really doesn’t roll off the tongue or fit nicely on a business card.

It also helped years later, now that  he has added a powder coating line to his repertoire.

The name was key for the company to reflect the fab shop’s commitment to provide as many services as possible to uphold its goal of a tight turnaround on projects—at most 10 days. The past had proven that when certain manufacturing services were outsourced, the subcontractors didn’t hit delivery dates as consistently as desired.

“They’ll get it to me when they’ll get it to me,” Doane says, reflecting on the refrain that ran through his mind when he was forced to work with these other companies.

The other part of the story is that A-1’s customers really weren’t keen on absorbing the cost of having their parts shipped from one facility to another before the final fabrication was completed. Customers were interested in paying only for one-way delivery of product back to them.

To respond to these challenges, A-1 had added to its service offering over the years. When an equipment manufacturer looked to shed its own fabricating services, A-1 stepped in and took over—adding thick plate fabricating to its core business of thin-gauge sheet metal fabrication. When OEM customers looked for cost reductions, A-1 offered to take over inventory responsibilities and institute just-in-time delivery of metal parts to those OEM customers so that they were never short of key components. As nearby manufacturers struggled to find metal fabricators willing to tackle difficult stainless steel and aluminum welding jobs, A-1 stepped in and positioned the business as a welding expert, going so far as to pursue American Welding Society certifications for various positions and materials in gas metal arc and gas tungsten arc welding.

A-1 strengthened its powder coating capability in 2008 when it broke ground on a new, 100,000-sq ft facility in Batavia, OH. The plan called for installation of a conveyorized powder coating system to replace the batch operation that existed at the company’s smaller Williamsburg, Ohio, facility.

Jumping into a much larger powder coating operation is not something metal fabricators should do blindly, says Bruce Bryan, general manager for custom coater Acme Finishing (Elk Grove Village, IL).

“People don’t understand how complex painting and powder coating can be with all of the different substrates; how you clean it; how you hang it; how you get efficiencies; and how you coat it, cure it, and package it,” Bryan says.

A-1 wasn’t a metal fabricator just jumping into powder coating blindly. Company management had a very clear vision of what it wanted in its powder coating line.


A Much Larger and More Efficient Powder Operation

“The reason I built the building was the powder coating line,” Doane says. And for the record, the powder coating line actually was installed before the walls and ceiling were erected on the new building.

Doane was a facility planner for GE before he entered the metal fabricating industry, so he knew a thing or two about where the powder coating line would go. He placed it near the back of the shop so that material could flow naturally through the cutting, forming, and welding areas before hitting the finishing line.

He also knew the line needed to accommodate large components. That explains the powder coating line’s 60-in-wide by 72-in-tall by 12-ft-long part clearance.

As with any good powder coating system, pretreatment of metal parts to be finished is key. A-1 has a five-stage system comprised of an acid etch to remove the laser scale, a rinse, a phosphatization to remove any remaining oil and dirt, another rinse and an antirust sealer. When cleaning compounds and water are circulated out of the system, they are collected into an overflow tank and treated before being released into the municipal sewer system.

From pretreatment, the parts work their way through one of two Global Finishing Solutions powder spray booths, each with two separate stations for manual powder application. With this setup, four separate colors can be applied at one time. Nordson reclaim units collect the powder coating overspray.  If a fifth color is needed, the parts can be powder-coated in a batch booth in the rear of the powder coating area.

Powder coating sprayers typically apply about 2.5–3.5 mils of finish to metal parts. On occasion, however, a customer might request up to 9 mils of a powder coating finish.

The curing oven has 54 ft of conveyor that winds through it. It also has a 5- by 8-ft-tall opening to handle the larger parts, such as frames for all-terrain vehicles.

Because A-1 is running different part sizes through its oven at any given time, the powder coating department typically keeps the curing oven set at 350˚F to ensure curing of the thicker materials, typically topping off at 0.25 in thick. Doane says the line usually runs at about 18 ft per minute. If only thinner gauge material is being run through the line, the curing oven can be dialed down to about 200˚F, he adds.

Once the first cured part for a job comes off the line, an employee scratches the finish and places tape over the altered surface as part of A-1’s quality assurance program. If the powder coating finish comes off with tape during the scratch test, the employee knows to consult the work procedure, listed on a nearby bulletin board, for nonconformance parts.

Doane says the $600,000 investment in A-1’s powder coating line has definitely paid for itself. The line has given the company the ability to accurately cost its powder coating services when quoting, even in the face of skyrocketing natural gas prices. The line is also much more efficient than trying to rely on a simple batch-application operation to keep up with the high-mix, low-volume environment of a job shop.

Doane pointed to a collection of metal cubes, used for product display at a major retail chain, that were awaiting their powder coating finish. He said powder coating a truckload of those 1.5- by 1.5-ft cubes used to take about five days when coated in the batch booths; today the job takes about six hours.

That type of efficiency is needed as A-1 faces competition from companies of all sizes. Doane recalled a story of a nearby mom-and-pop custom coater that was charging $0.05 per part. He knew he couldn’t compete at that price level, but he also knew that entry-level economics weren’t making mom or pop a profit. He was right; the company closed up shop in 2009.


Not Finished Yet

Actually, the tale of that mom-and-pop shop is not unique. Many of A-1’s competitors have scaled back considerably in the face of the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, A-1’s desire to be the one-stop shop for its customers has paid off. Doane said the company has tripled its customer base over the last couple of years and expects to increase sales the next couple of years to match his company’s record annual revenues attained just before the slowdown in 2009.

“Doing your own powder coating means controlling your costs,” he said. “Also, you need to do it to control your own destiny.”

The powder coating line also keeps the shop nice and comfortable during the winter months. Heat from the oven is redirected to heat the entire shop floor—a warmth that only reinforces how important the powder coating line is to A-1’s overall well-being.n

For more information from A-1 Fabricators & Finishers LLC, call 513-724-0383 or visit A1fabricators.com.

Author Dan Davis can be reached at dand@thefabricator.com.