When you think of playground equipment, you might envision bright primary colors – a twisty blue slide beside brilliant red monkey bars.
While PlayCore certainly uses many of these traditional, vivid colors in crafting some of the world’s most popular play and recreation products, there’s also a lot of discussion about the trend toward deeper butterscotch yellows or the shift from tomato-toned reds to those with richer blue hues.
In working with clients like park and recreation directors and landscape architects, the topic often turns to trends in color. “Color plays a huge role in our products,” states Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for PlayCore. “At a basic level, color creates initial appeal. A playground with creative, fun colors attracts attention and gets people excited,” she adds. “But color does so much more. For example, we use color to harmonize with the surroundings, creating an overall aesthetic. There could be a mix of subtle browns or sublime greens that fit a community’s preference. On the other hand, a school may want us to use their school colors to help build identity. Tastes are constantly evolving, and we utilize color research, including the published work of color experts such as the Color Institute and Pantone to help us navigate the latest palette trends,” explains Spencer.
“We also know that color impacts kids’ behavior,” continues Spencer. With leading brands such as GameTime, BigToys, Playcraft, Freenotes Harmony Park, and Worlds of Wow, PlayCore thinks of itself as a learning company deeply committed to applied research that helps provide the best play and recreation products for community needs. “When used with intention, color helps direct a child’s attention. For instance, choosing the right colors for treads and risers can help a child more easily navigate a set of stairs. When we watch children play, we see that they use color to help them identify different zones during hide-and-seek, and that color creates visual cues that improve their navigation, physical ability, andother developmental domains. For educators, strategic use of color can help the phys-ed department achieve goals in directing attention to certain components, like with the PlayOn! program, developed with SHAPE America’s national fitness standards.We like to say that if ‘play is the work of the child,’ then color is one of their basic tools.”
PlayCore has developed their own sophisticated toolbox to help customers visualize the role of color in their product design. Spencer notes, “Our customers are not always sure about how to use color. The design team system gives them a full 360-degree view that enables them to easily make changes to the palette or add color accents to try on a different look.”
Part of the value PlayCore delivers is removing barriers to color and allowing their clients to create a unique design customized to fit their site and express their individuality. Of course, that kind of customization in design requires a flexible production process as well. Each project consists of anywhere from 150 parts for a small bench to well over 1,000 parts for a full-sized play system that will take up thousands of square feet when assembled. These highly customized projects begin with cutting the metal components that make up each tailored order, measuring and drilling as required, and then welding together a myriad of pieces to create the final shapes. These assemblies can be as large as fifteen feet long, six feet high, and four feet wide, and on an average day, PlayCore powder coats over 2,800 such assemblies.
PlayCore’s main powder line is located in the company’s 400,000 square-foot Fort Payne, Alabama, production facility, located about an hour south of the corporate headquarters in Chattanooga, TN. The system, originally commissioned and installed by George Koch Sons in 1990, has been continuously improved and upgraded since. Today, the line is staffed by as many as 40 PlayCore operators and technicians, including two lead operators and a paint line supervisor.
At the beginning of the powder process, parts are hung on the line either manually or with the aid of mechanical assistance depending on the part size and weight. At the typical line speed of 11 feet per minute, parts require about an hour and forty-five minutes to complete the nearly 1,200- foot circuit that includes chemical pretreatment, two Nordson powder spray booths (one for primer and one for topcoat) and convection curing. The wide assortment of part shapes and sizes has inspired a range of hook designs engineered to provide uniform coverage, drainage, and stability on the continuously running monorail conveyor system. “Our engineers have been clever and resourceful at designing a system with part fixtures that both increase our efficiency and optimize powder coating uniformity for better performance,” explains Michael Cothran, plant superintendent at PlayCore’s Southern Fulfillment Center in Fort Payne.
The first stop for fabricated assemblies is the chemical pretreatment process. Depending on the particular design, each PlayCore system can incorporate several different metal substrates, including aluminum, stainless steel, and galvanized steel. These parts often have soils such as oils, dirt, and smut from manufacturing that need to be removed prior to powder coating. PlayCore uses a fourstage power washer to ensure surface cleanliness with chemistry provided by Madison Chemicals (of Madison, IN). The combination of alkaline cleaners and several rinses provides the corrosion protection needed to withstand the rigors of continued outdoor exposure to sun, rain and snow. After cleaning, the pretreated parts are dried in a gasfired convection dry-off oven to remove any remaining moisture. Automatic monitoring of the pretreatment process, including coating, line speed, and process temperatures, assure that all parts meet PlayCore’s stringent standards.
Next, the powder coating application process begins by applying a 4-6 mil thick primer to all of the welded surfaces in the first application booth. Following the application and cure of the primer coating, a 4-6 mil color powder top coat is applied in a second powder booth. Both the primer and topcoat booths have similar configurations; two successive manual spray stations on each side of the Nordson spray booths. At each manual spray station, operators are equipped with Gema spray guns to uniformly powder coat each part as it travels by. This system allows operators to adjust the spray gun settings to accommodate for changes in powder, part design, and plant conditions.
The majority of PlayCore’s parts are coated with TGIC polyester powder supplied by TCI Powder Coatings. To ensure long-term performance, incoming powder is screened for a range of properties, including corrosion resistance, humidity resistance, cure profile, overbake resistance, flexibility, weathering, lead content, specific gravity, recoatability, gloss and color.
“Color is an important element of our product,” says Cothran, “and our customer’s imagination is the guide! On average, each order uses four to six different colors, but that can vary. Since we are a custom manufacturer all parts are made to order, and we have routinely had orders with many more colors.”
To accommodate the high frequency of color changes, PlayCore has developed a procedure that utilizes an air purge system, so operators can change colors quickly and without risking cross-color contamination. “During each color change, one operator purges the guns and spray equipment while another changes the color hopper,” explains Cothran. “We allow enough space on the line when changing colors to ensure that no contamination affects the finished product. The whole process is very efficient, typically taking a total of a minute and a half to change from one color to another.” On average, PlayCore changes colors 40 to 50 times each day.
Proper curing is accomplished using a zoned gas-fired convection oven that increases part temperatures in a controlled fashion. First to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 minutes, then 375 degrees for eight minutes and a final bake at 400 degrees for an additional five minutes. After leaving the convection oven, the cured parts are cooled with ambient air and unloaded.
Since powder coating is one of the last steps in the manufacturing chain, as each part is unloaded it is carefully inspected, then bagged or wrapped to prevent damage. The complete set of parts for each order is gathered for shipment to the final destination. PlayCore ships products across the world through a variety of methods and takes care to protect the finish prior to shipping to ensure that each customer is delighted when their play equipment arrives.
Cothran explains that PlayCore takes a number of steps to ensure parts conform to a wide range of high quality standards. “Quality has been incorporated into all aspects of our powder coating process. To assure the highest value and satisfaction for our customers, we manage our quality systems using ISO 9001 guidelines and objectives. Each step of the process is monitored by trained technicians watching for a powder coating process that produces the right hardness, color, gloss, thickness, adhesion, and cure so that each part can deliver long-lasting results.” “Our customers invest in a product that is expected to be used by the community for a long time,” adds Spencer, “and we are committed to delivering on that expectation.”
PlayCore recently achieved PCI 4000 Certification from the Powder Coating Institute, an extensive audit program that evaluates processes and procedures, equipment, maintenance practices and quality control capabilities of a coater to ensure they are capable of producing a high-quality powder coated product.
“Our volume of powder coated parts is increasing as we continue to build our business,” says Cothran. “When you visit one of our play and recreation structures throughout the world, you’ll notice our commitment to quality,” adds Southern Fulfilment Center General Manager, Spencer Cheak. “The community that uses the product on a daily basis counts on us to deliver a smooth, long lasting finish as part of an overall product that stands the test of time. Our teams understand that what we make is used by children and families to promote health, activity, and fun. They take their commitment to these children, families, and communities very seriously.”
Cheak points to PlayCore’s PCI Certification as evidence of the company’s commitment to quality. “We were honored and humbled to receive the Powder Coating Institute’s PCI 4000 Certification. To be recognized by a third party for our conscientious manufacturing practices and processes is not only a testament to all the hard work our team puts in to ensure a top-quality product, but an overall assurance of quality that our customers can trust.”
by Paul Mills