Pretreatment for a Lifetime of Slam Dunks

Posted on Friday, August 1, 2014

Like so many other successful businesses today (think Amazon, Apple, Disney, Google and Harley-Davidson), Lifetime Products Inc. had its beginning in a garage. The year was 1973 and the place was Clearfield, Utah, when a playground equipment company called A1 Basketball Standards was conceived. That same company later became American Playworld, and then in 1986, Lifetime Products split from American Playworld to form a separate company that focused on making basketball systems. Since that time, Lifetime has made an impact on the sporting goods industry with the introduction of its adjustable basketball pole and portable basketball system. How appropriate that Lifetime’s flagship product—residential basketball hoops—would take shape so close to where the products are typically used.

Because residential basketball hoops typically are exposed to the elements, it was important that the harshness of an outdoor environment be taken into consideration. This is why Lifetime Products decided to use powder coating to finish their basketball systems. According to Brian Bauer, purchasing manager at Lifetime, because the company has three large powder coating lines with five- and six-stage washers, “Figuring out the right products and suppliers has always been very important to us.”

In its powder coating process, Lifetime uses automated booths with manual touchup; one building uses a spray-to-waste booth for multiple colors, while two lines use Gema systems, and one line uses a Nordson system. To aid in the process, Lifetime uses drying ovens from Blu-Surf, Jackson Oven Supply, and GAT to finish preparing the steel parts after they’ve been through the washers. Bauer says that today the company uses polyester-based powder coatings from Valspar and Akzo Nobel.

For a finish to be a success, the preparation of the substrate is key. If a part is not properly prepared, the powder coating will not adhere properly nor will the finish remain tough. This is why Lifetime Products Inc. took the time to educate their powder coating manager, Tim Neal, about the powder coating process and sent him to a training workshop four years ago where he met Suresh Patel from Chemetall. “During his presentation, [Suresh] focused on the importance of pretreatment on steel intended for powder coating,” Neal explains.

“And at Lifetime, we’ve known that pretreatment of the steel is crucial to finishing the parts before they are coated with powder. For us, it’s important to have clean parts—parts that have been treated to last in harsh environments,” Neal says.

“After the presentation,” Neal continues, “Suresh answered more questions and later contacted the sales manager (Jeff Page) for our area. Lifetime had the opportunity to be introduced fully to Chemetall and they learned about our company, our goals, and the processes we perform at Lifetime.”

At that time, however, Lifetime was not ready for a change in pretreatment. They needed time to evaluate its pretreatment supplier and identify what exactly Lifetime needed from them, Bauer explains. “Identifying precisely what we needed from a pretreatment supplier was our goal at that time,” Bauer says.

“We knew we needed great technical support and knowledge about the process along with identifying the best way to perform the process of using the chemical in the washers. At the same time, we were working on changing our powder supplier and knew we wanted that change to happen before seriously looking at the pretreatment process and how it could be improved.” Once Lifetime chose its new powder suppliers, it was then that they chose to work with Chemetall for its pretreatment needs.

“It was a long journey to switch pretreatment suppliers,” Neal explains. “With each decision we make, the experiences become great learning tools for managers as well as our operators on the floor.”

Working Together for the Alley-oop

Just as the crossover dribble helps a basketball player change direction on the court, working with the right people during a process transition is critical to the end game. Jeff Page, senior technical sales manager at Chemetall, has been working with Lifetime on their pretreatment needs since the beginning of the transition. And as of January this year, the two companies have a supplier agreement in place.

The pretreatment lines at Lifetime Products use reverse osmosis (RO) water in all stages to reduce chemical consumption and improve cleaning, coating effectiveness and corrosion resistance of the subsequently applied powder paint. Iron phosphate is used to give the substrate better corrosion protection and better adhesion of the powder coat. (See sidebar on page 22 for how the conversion coating pretreatment process works.)

Lifetime Products operates three spray washer lines, Page explains. One line is a five-stage, and the other two are six-stage lines. The two six-stage lines have a pre-wash stage as part of their process. For pre-wash and cleaning stages, an alkaline cleaner called Low Heat Cleaner 3 is used. This cleaner removes organic soils such as rust-preventative oils and metalworking fluids from the steel parts. This stage is followed by a fresh RO water rinse to remove the cleaner. The next stage is the iron phosphate stage, which uses Chem Cote 3015. Besides creating an iron phosphate conversion coating, Page says this stage also cleans any soils missed by stage one. The next stage is another fresh RO water rinse. The final stage is a non-chrome seal called Gardolene D 6810, which Page says further enhances the paint performance.

“Each of the spray wash lines has a dedicated washer technician,” Page explains. “To assist the washer technician in the running of the lines, Chemetall has provided Lifetime Products with our DataHawk/ CODACS (Chemetall Original Data Acquisition System) Automation System.” The key operating parameters such as concentration and pH of each stage on each line is continuously monitored and every 10 minutes is recorded.

“It’s easy for Lifetime Products or Chemetall look back to a specific date or time to verify the lines are running under the optimal conditions,” Page continues. He explains that all of the parameters are also displayed onto big screen TVs located strategically on each spray wash line for the washer technicians.
“If a parameter falls outside of its optimal range, there will be a color change for that parameter on the TV screen alerting the washer technician to take corrective action.”

Chemetall provides regular on-site technical service. “If an issue were to arise,” Page says, “Chemetall is on site in a matter of hours.” He goes on to say that during routine technical visits, they run test panels through Lifetime’s lines and submit them to the pretreatment supplier’s labs for neutral salt spray testing. Page says they also collect bath samples and submit them to the lab for analysis. “We spend time with Lifetime’s quality department on every line to get their input on paint performance,” Page says. “When Lifetime Products switched over to Chemetall in January, they had also made a change in their powder suppliers. Through the combined efforts of Lifetime Products, Chemetall, and their new powder suppliers, we have been able to reduce rejects to less than 0.01%.”

Page says that Chemetall provides services that go beyond supplying chemistry. Training,cost-saving programs, employee safety, new ideas, and laboratory services are among the valued services provided to Lifetime Products.“We find Lifetime Products to be a refreshing customer to have,as they are so eager to learn about pretreatment and processes following the pretreatment. We are truly‘partners’ moving forward,” Page concludes.

Lifetime’s Neal agrees. “Now, we are teamed with a supplier that has our best interest in mind from the very beginning. As a company, it’s so beneficial to have suppliers that feel welcomed at Lifetime and are willing to share and improve the processes as well as work with us as a team. Part of Lifetime’s motto is ‘Quality.’ We put that commitment into our products and we want quality suppliers that are honest with us and work with us to improve and excel. Together, we have worked on projects to help save Lifetime from excessive waste,be profitable, and at the same time,this teamwork has helped deliver a great quality part to our customers to enjoy.”

Sharon Spielman is editor of Powder Coated Tough magazine.  She can reached via email at sspielman@powdercoating.org