The Sport of Fast Color Change

10 tips that could transform your powder coating color-change team…


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NASCAR races can be won or lost by fractions of a second in the pits. These crews fuel the car, change tires and tweak the suspension in less time than we can unscrew our gas cap. It doesn’t happen by accident.

Neither does a fast color change.

Does this analogy sound far-fetched? It’s not. There’s a lot in common between a top-notch pit crew and a good color-change team: the right tools, right training, plenty of practice and a team spirit that recognizes every job, no matter how seemingly simple, needs to happen at precisely the right time.

How well equipped and trained is your color-change pit crew?

While it’s important to invest in the coating horsepower that a modern powder coating system can offer—equipped with “go fast” features like easier-to-change-colors booth systems, powder-resistant composite canopies, recipe-driven controls and automated feed centers—high tech gear ultimately relies on the talent and training of the people who use it.

We’ve surveyed some winning powder-coating teams for tips and advice for the race to reduce color-change time—from start to finish.

Sure, there’s a wide range of powder coating systems used today—from simple spray-to-waste booths, to sophisticated cyclone- and cartridge-collector installations using roll-on/off designs. Regardless of the equipment used, many of the principles behind a fast color change, especially those related to the people, tools and training of operators, is universal.

1. Start with the right team

Watching a good rapid color change is like watching a well-executed sport play unfold. Each player knows where he needs to be without any discussion. Most quick color changes will require a minimum of two operators on a side-collector system, or one to two operators on a cyclone system to clock fast under-10-minute times. Some customers may “blitz” the effort with more operators. “It’s too common for plants to think of these paint operators as entry level, low-wage, unskilled positions. That’s a big mistake,” says Dave Heth of Cost-Effective Powder Coatings (Northeast, PA). “When you think of how much revenue a busy paint line represents, it’s easy to justify staffing it with a crack team that takes pride in the job and is well paid.” Cost-Effective Powder Coatings changes colors in less than 10 minutes several times a day with a team that’s been in place and working well together for years.

2. Have a game plan

What limits color-change time is risk of contamination. So smart teams work with their production schedulers and lead line people to make sure certain families of colors and powders run together—light-colored powder with other light-colored powders, dark powders with other dark powders. Some schedulers avoid mixing different powder resin types. For example, polyesters shouldn’t run too close to epoxy coatings, since risk of contamination is greater.

“Difficult colors, like a bright orange or green, require more color-change time and should be scheduled appropriately. A larger gap can be left on the conveyor line between families of powder or tough-to-change colors,” explains Joe Hasbro, paint line supervisor at Cost-Effective.

3. Get the right equipment

Like the surgeon who asks—while reaching—for a scalpel, the color-change crew needs the proper tools to be ready and in place at the proper time to change colors in the fastest time. Air lines with extended nozzles and wands that can reach the most remote corners of the booth should be readily accessible with plenty of air power. And the proper squeegees, vacuum and other equipment can save valuable time.

The tools used to clean a powder booth also need to be right for the job. Nothing abrasive should ever be used to clean the booth surfaces since scratches—even those not easily visible to the eye—become places for powder to collect, making easy wipe down difficult. “Buying a cheap rubber squeegee from a discount store instead of a powder squeegee from your booth supplier means smeared powder and a worn-out canopy,” says Daniel Meheren, who oversees operation of several fast-color-change lines at Borroughs Corporation (Kalamazoo, MI).

“New booth material, like our Apogee™ composite canopy, is designed so powder doesn’t stick to it. While that means less ‘elbow grease’ during color change, we still take care to protect the canopy during cleanup,” says Meheren.

4. Sharp uniforms

Lint-free clothing and booties are the right garb for cleaning a powder booth. This type of clothing prevents contamination and protects the booth from accidental scratches and wear. Loose jewelry, pocket rivets and other sharp items should be covered to prevent damage to the booth surface.

5. Practice, practice, practice

Professional football teams don’t wait for the two-minute warning to practice their no-huddle offense; they practice it all week long. You can’t expect to be fast, efficient and thorough without practice.

The best plants practice color change during slow production periods. One plant uses color-change procedures even for projects that are spray-to-waste jobs—just to gain valuable practice time.

Without benchmarking however, practice loses its value. So use a stopwatch to record performance during practice sessions. Some plants use a video camera to tape color changes and then view it to identify ways for improvement. Like a coach reviewing game films, even a winning formula can be fine-tuned for better performance.

6. Set a goal and keep score.

Whether it’s losing weight, saving money or virtually any challenge—experts all agree that written, well-defined goals lead to the best results. Do you have a goal for color change? Is it 10 minutes? Nine? You need to “raise the bar” on color-change times to achieve more productivity.

One goal is to make downtime “downright annoying,” says Mike Martin, Nordson CSR, who has seen several plans designed to minimize downtime. “One customer uses a loud buzzer, while another customer switches on fast-paced, jarring music when the conveyor line is stopped.” Different approaches, but the same idea—to motivate the players and keep things moving.

7. Study the playbook

The color-change procedure must be committed to in writing. Good plants provide a step-by-step description of each operator’s job along with digital photos or video of each task.

“Traditionally, there’s a lot of turnover on paint lines,” says Doug Denhoff, Yamaha Motors’ senior paint engineer. “I asked myself, ‘What would happen if we lost our best painter tomorrow?’ And then realized we’d better make sure we keep track of what we’re learning.” Are your procedures documented or stored only in the heads of your people?

Changing colors also means changing a lot of electrical and air settings. “Before we switched to our iControl® system which uses recipes, we had to set a lot of parameters manually,” explains Dave Heth. “It’s important to develop a controls format that’s uniform and easy to read.” Some customers have even gone so far as to develop masks that fit over the controls and are printed with arrows that point to the right settings. Anything that’s fast and foolproof is worth a trial run.

8. Don’t get hosed

“An investment in extra hoses for families of colors is a good investment,” says Ken Webber, Nordson FSR. “A set of hoses for light colors, one for dark colors and even specific hoses for certain tough-to-change colors can shift valuable seconds off the color-change clock to production.” For cartridge-style systems, it’s common to have an entire color-change kit complete with filter and set of color-coded hoses for each color sprayed. For systems that use foam “pigs” to clean out powder delivery lines, a dedicated set of pigs is part of the color-change kit.

9. Put on your game face

“We created an atmosphere for good color change—literally,” explains Randy Peterson, production manager for Bush Hog, where four color-change booths fill a nearly spotless clean room in its Telford, TN plant making agricultural tractors and loaders in a range of colors. A bright, clean, environmentally controlled powder room makes fast color change easier, since powder can be stored near the booth. Controlling airflow is also critical to color change. Powder from the booth shouldn’t be all over the plant—and contaminants from other operations don’t belong in the powder booth.

The best solution is a brick-and-mortar solution (or at least sheetrock). Physically isolating the powder system minimizes the potential for contamination. Since powder is hygroscopic, it absorbs water from humid air making it difficult to fluidize. An HVAC system that maintains optimum temperature and optimum relative humidity permits storage of powder near the booth—in good condition.

Some operators have found that they can purchase plastic totes for powder that are faster to use than the shipping containers by the powder manufacturer. Yet one problem with the faster totes is the powder in them is more prone to water absorption. A well-controlled environment can solve this problem and also facilitate quicker delivery containers.

A well-designed powder room allows ample access to the booth for cleanup and provides organized storage space for tools where they are needed.

10. Get a coach

Good suppliers, like good players, bring new ideas to the team. Since their equipment is used in a wide range of applications, powder equipment suppliers often have accumulated a database of knowledge on best practices. This expertise can contribute significantly to a solid game plan, accelerating the pace up the steep learning curve, while avoiding unforeseen pitfalls that could steer the operation in the wrong direction.

“It’s a good idea to test-drive a system before you buy,” says Webber. “Many customers have spent hours in our customer test lab facility watching technicians do color changes—and many have come there to practice it themselves firsthand before buying their own booth.”

So what's your game plan for faster color change and a better powder coating operation? Winning performance is a play-by-play process. And with the proper planning, preparation, players and practice in place, your powder coating operation can be a winner all the way.


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