Turning Off the Lights on VOCs

Milwaukee, WI-based Visa Lighting develops unique and attractive light fixtures for a variety of applications, ranging in size from relatively small wall sconces to the lights inside Yankee Stadium and Miller Park. Not content to be merely a successful company, Visa recently made a commitment to eliminate VOCs from the finishing processes it uses. Here’s how the company is doing it…


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Remember the kid back in high-school that really had his act together? You know, the one who in addition to earning solid A’s, somehow managed to excel at athletics and was involved with a half-dozen extracurricular organizations, all without breaking a sweat? Ever wonder what happened to that kid? Standing in the halls of Milwaukee, WI-based Visa Lighting — a leading manufacturer of high-end light fixtures — one wonders if that kid didn’t end up working here. For if today’s companies could somehow be compared to yesterday’s high-schoolers, Visa Lighting would very much be that kid.

This is a company that knows lighting. Established in 1915 as “Moe Bridges Lighting,” renamed in 1943 as “The Lighthouse,” and finally under its current name of “Visa” in 1963, the business has seen two owners retire, passing the company’s legacy on to the next generation of management. The company started as a manufacturer of ecumenical lighting for religious structures. In the last twenty years, it has significantly broadened its product offering to well beyond church fixtures. Visa now offers a wide range of products that are used in institutional, commercial, educational, and custom residential environments.

In 1981, Visa Lighting was purchased by Wayne C. Oldenburg. At the time, Visa Lighting sold roughly $450,000 per year, with just six employees. Today, the company employs more than 125 people and ships more each day than it produced in a month in 1981, a fitting testament to the business acumen of Mr. Oldenburg and his staff.

Not content to be just a successful company, management at Visa has made a commitment to eliminate VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from its finishing operations. Via the use of new technology, internal training and strong relationships with its suppliers, Visa is remarkably close to making that concept a reality. In comparison to 1981, the company’s total current VOC use is significantly lower, while gross product volume is 60 times greater.

All Fixtures Great and Small

One of the differences between Visa and many other manufacturers is the variety of parts it produces. Whereas many companies manufacture a single product in maybe two or three sizes, Visa offers a product line consisting of thousands of different products, in a wide array of sizes. During the last two years alone, the company has released more than 100 new products, and its product catalog —at 400 pages—weighs as much as a small laptop computer.

Among the fixtures that Visa produces are wall sconces, ceiling-mounted fixtures, table lamps, pendant-mounted fixtures, and outdoor luminaries. In addition to the products found within the pages of its catalog, Visa has performed contract work for large projects, such as manufacturing lighting fixtures for Yankee Stadium and Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers.

But variety extends well beyond the size and shape of the parts finished. Not only does Visa work with a diversity of substrates—aluminum, brass copper, bronze, mild steel, stainless steel and acrylics, to name a few—it also must deal with different types of surfaces: brushed, polished and paint-prepped.

Because some light fixtures have different applications (e.g. indoor vs. outdoor), they demand the use of different finishes. Powder is the weapon of choice for most outdoor fixtures, as well as some indoor pieces. Paint is typically used on fixtures designed for indoors. Depending on the part, Visa uses either liquid waterbased paint (solid colors) or low VOC solvent-based (metallic colors and clearcoats). The company also uses some specialty toners (satin nickel, stain chrome, brass antique) and a process called “chemical verdigris” treatment applied to copper.

Creative Powder Coating Solutions

Due to its durability and availability in a wide range of colors and textures, powder coating is used for all of the painted outdoor fixtures that Visa manufactures. Using powder coatings, Visa is able to simulate a variety of different finishes, ranging from solid colors to metallics to textured finishes, such as hammertones.


Powder is supplied by Protech Chemicals Ltd. of Quebec, Canada. Although Visa manufactures more than 100,000 fixtures per year, the average lot size may be anywhere between 6 and 1,000. As a result, the company needed to develop a relationship with a supplier that would be willing to work with the company when it came to developing custom colors for small runs.

“Protech has been very good about developing what we need, specifically for what we need,” said Jim Valdes, Manufacturing Engineer for Visa’s Process Implementation Team. “We probably do 110 custom colors a year, and they’ve done a great job of running them through their facility in small quantities.”

Because Visa does so many small runs, it decided to develop its own powder quick-change plenum. Using electronic controls and gun assemblies—supplied by Nordson —Visa developed a system that resembles something like a switchboard, with each node on the board leading to a different hopper. When the operator is ready to change colors, he simply disconnects the hose, cleans it, and reconnects to the new connection. Thanks to the system, color changes are done in seconds, as opposed to the 15-20 minutes that it would take to clean out a hopper. Since there are few small fluidized powder hoppers available on the market, Visa also built its own 15-lb versions in order to better accommodate the smaller lot sizes.

Reducing VOCs… And Improving Quality

The area where Visa has made perhaps the largest commitment to eliminating VOCs is paint. Although many of the company’s products are powder coated, liquid paint still plays a critical role, especially on interior fixtures that use metallic, solid color and clearcoat finishes.

The biggest change Visa made to its paint line was to replace the high VOC liquid coatings with low VOC liquid coatings. For assistance, the company turned to G.J. Nikolas & Co., Inc., G.J., which supplies Visa with its liquid low VOC clearcoat and metallic paints.

The turnover ran smoothly mainly due to the fact that all the departments worked together. Designers, sprayers/production, and purchasing all had a hand in the turnover and if something didn’t work at first on one end, they would find out why. Visa was completely open to suggestions in its production line to integrate the Nikolas low VOC product.

In addition to being low VOC, the liquid coatings offer other advantages. In the case of the clearcoat, it lends a clarity when applied over brass, bronze and aluminum, allowing the metal’s qualities to show through. The clearcoat also lends itself to easy repair and touch-up.

It’s also important to note that, while reducing VOCs, Visa has also been able to improve quality and performance of its liquid coatings. “When I first started (four years ago) we had very low performing fixtures,” said Mr. Valdes. “We had fixtures that could barely pass 100 hours salt spray.” Now, Visa has so much confidence in its products that it offers a five-year guarantee on the finish and performance of its products, a first for the light fixture industry.

Presently, Visa is working closely with Nikolas & Co., Inc., G.J. to test, evaluate and ultimately introduce zero-VOC liquid paints for solid colors, metallics and clear coats.

“We’re trying to get to all zero VOCs, to be totally green, and we’ve made some good strides on it,” said Mr. Valdes, noting that Visa is currently in the third phase of a four-phase strategy to completely eliminate VOCs. “We have a good idea that with the Nikolas products we can get (to zero VOCs).”

As with Visa’s finishing requirements, the company also expects a lot of O’Donohue Industries, Inc. (Milwaukee, WI), Visa’s primary supplier for spray paint and pre-finishing equipment. “Knowing what our expectations were, they obtained the necessary input and feedback from engineers, managers and operators and went to work,” says Mr. Valdes. “They made recommendations and selections of the right spraying equipment that addressed all of our requirements and expectations. We worked very closely as a group with them and ultimately installed a system that is highly functional and efficient, fulfilling all of our spray finishing needs.”

Pretreatment: A Formula For Success

With the help of Parts Cleaning Technologies and KCI Chemicals, Visa developed a 12-stage cleaning and pretreatment system that Mr. Valdes credits with playing a significant role in the quality of the end product. The system features the following stages:



  1. Cleaner Tank—An aggressive, alkaline immersion cleaner safe on aluminum and tough enough to remove oils and spinning compounds. This tank primarily removes organic material, dirt, dust and oils found in the manufacturing process.
  2. Rinse Tank—Overflowed city water is used to rinse the parts between stages.
  3. Deoxidizer Tank—An aggressive acidic deoxidizer used to remove inorganic materials such as oxides, metal fines, weld scale and stains.
  4. Rinse Tank—Overflowed city water is used to rinse the parts between stages.
  5. Non-Chrome Aluminum Treatment—A conversion coating is produced on the aluminum surface using a non-chrome aluminum treatment from KCI Chemical. This product produced both painted extrusions and painted flat stock parts that exceeded 4,000 hours of salt spray according to ASTM B 117. Bare aluminum panels exceeded 336 hours of salt spray and more than 720 hours in a humidity chamber.
  6. Rinse Tank—Overflowed city water is used to rinse the parts between stages.
  7. Clear Chrome—This tank is in the process of being replaced by another non-chromated conversion. This tank is used for aluminum castings and parts that will be painted clear.
  8. Rinse Tank—Overflowed city water is used to rinse the parts between stages.
  9. Rinse Tank—Overflowed city water is used to rinse the parts between stages.
  10. Iron Phosphate—An organically accelerated iron phosphate used to produce an amorphous iron phosphate coating on steel parts.
  11. Rinse Tank—Overflowed city water is used to rinse the parts between stages.
  12. Final Seal—A non-chromated final seal prior to painting used to enhance salt spray performance.

Because various substrates are prepared differently, there is no single formula for pretreating all of the fixtures that Visa produces. “This is the most complicated pretreatment I’ve ever had,” said Mr. Valdes. The prospect of dealing with a variety of substrates, surfaces and finishes might be cause for a headache (or twelve) for most companies. But Visa’s approach has kept such headaches to a minimum.

One of the ways in which the company manages the complexity of the pretreatment process is with the use of color-coded “cheat sheets.” Every metal that Visa works with is assigned a color, and each stage of the pretreatment system features a chart that tells the operator whether or not that stage of pretreatment is required for that particular substrate. As a result, a novice user could step in and immediately have a rough idea of how to treat each part.

Organization, Strategy and Teamwork

The well-organized structure behind the pretreatment system is actually present throughout the entire facility. Every station in the plant—from pretreatment to final assembly and packing—features charts and graphs detailing the specs and instructions for a particular process. The company has also started a program that it calls “Visa University,” the goal of which is to cross-train employees in a variety of jobs, something that can be a big plus at times when the market is down. Soon, Visa plans to incorporate computers at each assembly cell so that the operator can simply “call up” the assembly instructions for a particular fixture and have the computer walk them through the process.

Another component to Visa’s success, said Mr. Valdes, is its team approach. Employees from any number of departments – ranging from management to engineering to plant floor employees – may play a role when it comes to developing new ideas and troubleshooting obstacles.

The sense of teamwork and big-picture thinking at Visa is perhaps best illustrated by its Purchasing Department. “While the cost of equipment and commodities is a driving factor for the department, it is not the driving factor,” according to Jerry Smith, a buyer in Visa’s purchasing department. Any time the company is looking to purchase new equipment, the department assists in performing a value analysis that includes performance, fit and function. Appreciation for Visa’s Purchasing Department extends beyond the walls of its headquarters. “They know what’s going on,” said Nikolas & Co., Inc., G.J.’s Jamie Koch, who communicates with the Purchasing Department on a regular basis. “They’re not just out there saying, ‘I need so many units of X at Y price.’ They have a concept of what their company is doing and what the materials are and how they are used.”

Suppliers are very much considered a part of Visa’s “extended family,” and the company makes it a point to work with those suppliers willing to take a hands-on approach in the processes and obstacles that Visa faces. “You truly find out how good a supplier is when something (bad) happens,” said Mr. Valdes. “It’s when things are not so rosey that you learn how good your relationships with your suppliers really are.” On those rare occasions when something does go wrong, Visa has found that its suppliers have focused on cooperation instead of finger-pointing.

With a talented staff, constant improvements in technology and plant management, and a collection of suppliers who take an active interest in its affairs, Visa continues to set new standards for excellence in its industry. Not only is it on the road to completely eliminating VOCs, the company has managed to improve its products and increase profits in the process.