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Powder Coating: A Look Back, A Look Forward

Posted on Wednesday, September 26, 2018

In December 1982, Modern Metals magazine interviewed a panel of ten experts as part of a Powder Coating Institute round table. Among other topics, the panel discussed the status of powder coating, misconceptions about the technology, and predictions for the future.

35 years later, this article revisits these issues with three current leaders in powder coatings. We invited the sons of two the original participants, Greg Dawson and Marty Korecky, along with JB Graves whose father, John Graves, was also an influential figure in powder coating, to reflect on the progress, challenges, and future of powder coatings.

PCT: In 1982, you were all still youngsters. Could you share some details of your initiation to powder coatings and your own path since this article appeared.

Greg Dawson: In 1978, shortly before joining Nordson, my dad owned a powder coating job shop. I was 12 years old and worked there on weekends and during my summers hanging parts on the line. In 1988, after graduating college I was hired on at Nordson. This is my 30-year anniversary. Today, I am the senior sales manager for the Nordson powder systems group.

JB Graves: My father started in powder coatings in the marketing department at Ransburg Corporation and after a couple of positions there, began working for Gema. Eventually, he left Gema and started the equipment company Iontech. I was exposed to the glamour of powder coating when, at age 14, I traveled with him to one of the first powder coating industry shows at the Drawbridge Inn in northern Kentucky. My coating career began in 1991, when I worked part-time for my dad while I was still in college and before joining him full time. I went on to work for Cincinnati Industrial Machinery, Wagner Corporation and now for Pneu-Mech Systems, where I am currently a regional sales manager

Marty Korecky: In 1982, my father worked for The Polymer Corporation, a small plastics company in Reading, Pennsylvania. They made plastic machinery and parts and in the late 1950s they purchased the European patents for powder coatings. My dad was invited to join this newly formed powder coating group, and we moved to Reading to be part of that. Like Greg and JB, I worked at Polymer Corporation during my high school summers. After I graduated I joined the company as a formulating chemist. Our company has gone through many mergers and acquisitions. Today we are AkzoNobel Coatings Incorporated. Although I am primarily involved in marketing, I still deal with issues including formulation, service and other aspects of our business.

PCT: Let’s start by looking at the progress powder has or has not made in addressing some of the misconceptions about powder that existed in 1982.

Modern Metals: What technological advances have been made recently to overcome earlier objections to PC? Like difficulty in color change? Or storage problems?

Thomas Scattoloni (Armstrong Products): “Those are a few of the misconceptions we’ve been fighting for 10 years or more. Maybe some of those claims were valid in 1972, but they aren’t anymore. Some say powder is unsafe. But if you surveyed finishing plants for the hazards of powder versus solvent coatings, I think the prognosis would favor powder dramatically.”

Marty Korecky: I serve on the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee for NFPA 33 which is the standard for spraying combustible and flammable materials. Up until recently, most of those misconceptions had gone away. Lately however there have been a number of combustible dust fires – not in the powder industry – but in sugar refineries and similar settings that have raised the concern about combustible dust. But our industry is extremely safe, and incidents have been few and far between. However, education about these standards still needs to be improved.

Greg Dawson: I would agree with the need for better safety education. When sold properly, with the right fire suppression equipment, powder is safer than any other way of coating. When buying a booth, particularly from a country that might have less stringent guidelines, powder coaters need to take the proper steps to bring their system up to the right safety standards.

MM: How about (misconceptions about) color match? Ron Farrell (Glidden Powder Coatings): “We’ve had tight color matching capabilities in the industry for years. There is very close color matching of powders every day for critical appliance colors where we have to meet color standards of porcelain enamel. We are a fairly sophisticated industry. I never did think color match was a problem.”

Robert Korecky (The Polymer Corp.): “The only problem I could think of would be with metallic coatings. The flip-flop effect is not the same as in liquid coatings...”

JB Graves: Today it is generally a foregone conclusion that paint suppliers can achieve proper color match from equipment to equipment, or between a color and liquid coating. Therefore, I don’t think this is any longer a concern for our industry.

Marty Korecky: Yes, I think we all agree on that, metallic coatings included. Although I think what the market is looking for now goes beyond color to other

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unique appearance properties, such as veins, or textures. Powder coating provides opportunities to do that better than liquid coatings.

Scattoloni: “Another misconception is that powder coating lines are dirty; that the stuff floats all over the plant and you cannot control it. In my experience, powder coating is 100% cleaner than paint spraying. It is much more easily controlled, both in application and cleanup ....”

Greg Dawson: I think this is mostly a settled issue. When it comes to dirt, if you ask any painter who has sprayed liquid or powder, they will choose the powder gun over a liquid spray gun every time.

JB Graves: I can tell you our people go through a lot less clothing visiting powder lines than they do for liquid lines!

Don Tyler (Volstatic Inc.): “There used to be the belief that if you had a lot of colors, you had to go with liquid coatings; that it would be too difficult with powder. This is simply not true. We have customers who apply 10, 15, 20 colors that they change regularly, in some cases, four, five or six times a day.”

Greg Dawson: This is still a bit of a misconception. Some people continue to think they have too many colors, or that it takes 20 to 30 minutes to change colors. They are surprised to learn that on some lines, like office furniture, customers are changing colors as many as a hundred times a shift. Applicators are spraying as few as three parts before changing to another color with color change time as short as 20 seconds.

JB Graves: I agree there is still work to be done in this area. We run across customers looking for new systems who do not realize that color change times have improved as significantly as they have. They don’t know that reclaim color changes are now well under 10 minutes, and that non-reclaim color changes are happening in literally seconds.

PCT: What about today? Are there remaining misconceptions about powder coating you can comment on?

Greg Dawson: There is a misconception about the cost of getting into powder coating. People sometimes think they can’t afford to powder coat because they have heard that a powder line costs two million dollars. Powder coating lines are actually very cost efficient compared to other technologies, and the price depends on their production volume

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Other misconceptions come from underestimating the work it takes to powder coat properly. Some people think “this is so easy – you just wipe a part off, pick up a gun, put some powder on the part and stick it in the oven.” Sure, they put powder on a part, but it might fall off in a few weeks. We need to do a better job educating people about how to put in a system that meets their objectives. Even though powder coating is a friendly technology, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to do their homework when it comes to developing a process. We all get a black eye when there is a bad powder system out there.

Marty Korecky: Greg is right about this. Some of this misconception comes from how engineers use the internet. In 1982, customers learned more about powder by talking directly to suppliers. Today, when we meet with customers, they already have done a lot of research on their own. There are some advantages to that, but also some drawbacks. For instance, what they read on the internet may not be true or tell the whole story. We need to work diligently as covendors when it comes to helping customers select the right powder, pretreatment, and equipment needed to give them the performance they require.

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PCT: Next, I’d like to revisit some of the 5-year predictions that were made in 1982 and get your opinion about whether they were fulfilled or not.

MM: …Looking five years ahead, what will be the most significant developments in powder coating. This can refer to technology, market penetration, whatever you like.

Scattoloni: “I see two areas-the improvements in transfer efficiency mentioned earlier, and ability to reduce film thickness. We are down to one mil thickness in some applications, which is very good.”

Charles Johnson (Ferro Corporation): “… we should get down into the one mil range, but consistently on complex parts. Such systems are just now entering the market.”

Greg Dawson: I think transfer efficiency has indeed continued to improve, with all of the major suppliers of application equipment offering 100KV guns that can achieve very high efficiencies.

JB Graves: As for the second part of that prediction, while we have made progress on film thickness, I don’t know that we are at a point where we truly have what you might call ‘thin film’ powder coatings.

Marty Korecky: I have to agree with that. On the other hand, while we may not have made a great deal of improvement at reducing film thickness, we have done a better job at controlling film thickness. This relates to the discussion of improving transfer efficiency. The technology now allows us to better penetrate Faraday cage areas so we don’t have to work as hard penetrating corners and putting unnecessary powder on the part trying to get into those corners. I would say instead that overall film thickness has been reduced through better consistency and uniformity

Korecky: “…unless we succeed in developing powders that will successfully coat non-metals such as wood. That would be a breakthrough.”

Greg Dawson: The powder suppliers have done a nice job at producing low temperature cure coatings, but we are not there yet. While we have demonstrated the capability of coating things like carbon fiber and fiberglass, customers have not yet completely accepted the idea of powder coating on these more exotic substrates.

Marty Korecky: I agree. I think the industry has developed powders for non-metallic substrates, but the issue is that powder coating non-metallic substrates requires greater attention to details like line speed, surface treatment, and process temperatures than coating most metal parts. Addressing these concerns sometimes creates obstacles in the manufacturing process. Greg is correct, we’re not there yet. While the technology is there, only the folks who are willing to invest the time necessary to assure the process is designed correctly are doing it.

Johnson: “With the use of microprocessors and robots and the ability to handle finer and finer powder, I think this is the area that is really going to be refined. That’s what the equipment manufacturers are working on.”

Sam Dawson (Nordson): “Automation. It will reduce or eliminate human error, promote uniformity and repeatability, and improve the economics. This industry is very technologysensitive. It’s a new industry, so new advances affect it quickly.”

JB Graves: That’s all true. There has been a clear increase in automation in the powder application process, and this has had a substantial impact on things like transfer efficiency and uniformity as we discussed. These improvements mean better profitability for powder coaters. I don’t think you will find much disagreement that automation plays a much larger role today and that it will continue to influence what we do. The automotive industry has led the way for automation in coatings, with faster adoption than general industrial. We are getting there, but we still have a way to go on automating powder applications.

Greg Dawson: One problem with the acceptance of robotic automation on powder lines has been working out the hand-off and figuring out who is responsible, between the robot supplier and the powder equipment supplier, for programming the robot to paint the way a human being would paint the part. There’s a great opportunity to address this issue and help close the gap.

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Tyler: “… Even more significant, I think, will be the growing awareness of powder coating’s proven advantages in user industries. I am referring to the OEM market. That will be the greatest single factor in the growth of powder coating in the next five years.”

Marty Korecky: There has been a lot of progress in this area. Many OEMs have been able to look to powder for projects where in the past their standard would have been liquid. But we still run into reluctance in a few segments, such as the architectural market which still thinks of liquid systems as the highest standard in spite of the fact that powder can now match the liquid coating performance specifications. So, there are still some stubborn perceptions that need to be overcome.

Farrell: “… I think a lot of companies and industries are going to be interested in powder. One reason is the penetration of powder into the automotive market, as a body coat. That could be a significant new market development. It has been used in Japan and parts of Europe for a few years with varying degrees of success. There has been minor penetration in the U.S. I think it’s going to be very interesting in the next five years.”

Marty Korecky: There’s been very limited progress in the automotive body coating arena. While there have been a few successes in various parts of the world, the progress in North America has been very limited.

architectural

C.W. Taylor (Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company): … “You’re going to see some improvements in basic resins. And some new types. The polyesters and urethanes are just getting started.”

Marty Korecky: Since that prediction in 1982, there are many new chemistries available. We have epoxies, polyesters, and polyester hybrids. We have urethane polyesters and TGICs. And, we now have chemistries such as super-durables using fluoro-polymers, non TGICs, and acrylics.

JB Graves: I agree. There has been significant progress in powder resin choices as Marty described, and at the same time, cure temperatures have continued to move lower and lower. Another area of improvement in chemistry has been some really dramatic changes in pre-treatment chemistry. We all remember 180-degree washer solutions. Now we have significantly lower temperature pretreatment processes, including ambient-temperature conversion coatings that would have seemed impossible in 1982.

alloy wheels

JB Graves: I agree. There has been significant progress in powder resin choices as Marty described, and at the same time, cure temperatures have continued to move lower and lower. Another area of improvement in chemistry has been some really dramatic changes in pre-treatment chemistry. We all remember 180-degree washer solutions. Now we have significantly lower temperature pre-treatment processes, including ambient-temperature conversion coatings that would have seemed impossible in 1982.

Gordon Cole (Powder Coating Institute): “In automotive, there’s the dry-on-wet process that shows promise. A clear powder over a thin metallic base. Once we get into a market, I know we can do a job.”

Marty Korecky: Combinations of powder and liquid have become commonplace in some applications like finish for alloy wheels. For instance, most aluminum wheels have a powder prime, liquid metallic base coat and acrylic clear powder topcoat.

Greg Dawson: We are also excited about the emergence of the so called dry-on-dry applications where a powder top coat is applied over a powder primer, and both coatings are cured together. That’s attractive because it reduces energy consumption, process time, and has a much smaller system footprint.

PCT: Perhaps you would like to offer a few five-year predictions of your own?

JB Graves: More than ever before, powder is perceived as a green technology, and it has only gotten greener over the years through innovation like lower cure temperatures, lower process temperatures, and dry-on-dry. I think this green and environmental emphasis will be a more important consideration in the coming years and a stronger driver for continuing these kinds of technology improvements.

Marty Korecky: I completely agree that the environmental impact is going to be an important driver in the next

five years. We see this kind of environmental focus with California’s Proposition 65 which examines TiO2, TGIC, carbon black and phosphates. So greener chemistry and lowering the coating system’s carbon footprint will become even more important. At the same time, I think we are going to be pushed for higher performance through more demanding specs for things like better weathering, salt spray, and cyclic corrosion

Greg Dawson: Changes in the workforce are also going to be a stronger factor in powder’s growth. As we all agreed there has been more automation since the 1982 article. Going forward, I think there will be even more effort aimed at automating the coating process because of difficulty in recruiting and training the workforce in the next five years. It’s becoming harder for plants to find workers in many parts of the country. Automation, including robots, will be one way for them to help solve that problem.

I think we will also see smarter equipment, with more real-time access to information and instant feedback in the

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powder coating process. Sensors will tell the operator when it is time to change a hopper, and a camera can detect when film thickness has dropped below the mil spec. Equipment will have predictive failure reporting so that the system will remind you to change parts before they fail. These systems will take the large volume of available information, analyze it, and provide valuable insights to the users. Finally, I think technology will also allow manufacturers to provide their work force with faster, easier access to more and better training material.

Marty Korecky: I agree, and these same developments, like smart controls, powder coatings for new substrates, and robotic systems will help the industry attract new talent to the business, so the next generation of leaders can continue to innovate and grow.

Paul Mills is a marketing and business consultant to industry chemical and equipment suppliers. He has been a writer for the powder coating industry since 1994. Paul can be reached at 440-570-5228 or via email at pmillsoh@aol.com.

We would like to extend a special thank you to Modern Metals magazine for giving us their permission to reprint portions of their original article from December of 1982.

Author: Ryan Poeppel