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Standing Out from the Crowd: The Benefits of PCI Certification

Posted on Monday, December 10, 2018

certification

“Certification has made us better at documenting things like corrective action procedures and non-conformity policies that would probably make attaining ISO certification easier,” says Dallas Cooley of Georgia Powder Coating."

The program offers two certification types; PCI 3000 was designed for custom coaters, while PCI 4000 applies to OEMs with in-house powder coating operations. A primary goal of the program is to raise the bar of the industry by recognizing commitment to quality and minimizing coating failures that threaten to tarnish powder coating’s reputation.

As a result of PCI’s dedication to continuous improvement, the certification program was updated in early 2018. The voluntary certification process examines an applicator’s entire operation, rating their powder coating processes in nine key areas: pretreatment; ovens and curing; application area; incoming quality control; training; maintenance; process control; final quality control; and loading, unloading and packaging.

This article examines the experiences of five custom coaters who have successfully undergone the certification audit process. We interviewed Terry Watson, Sales Manager, A-Plus Powder Coaters (Columbiana, Ohio); Rick Gehman, President, Keystone Koating (Lititz, PA); Mark Mortensen, President, All-Color Powder Coating (Oregon, WI); Dallas Cooley, Vice President of Sales, Georgia Powder Coating (Gainesville, GA); and Dave Flatten, President, Inland Powder Coating (Ontario, CA) about their motivation, experience and advice concerning PCI 3000 certification.

Why did your company decide to become PCI certified?

Rick: We looked at certification as an opportunity to improve our coating operations and quality. Sometimes I worry that you can suffer from a forest-for-the-trees problem if you try to assess your own performance rather than let an objective third party help. Our auditor could compare us to a broader set of standards developed by working with coaters across the country. A second motive for us was that we have some customers, for example high-end patio furniture manufacturers, who have a low tolerance for cosmetic defects, and others, like agricultural and construction equipment suppliers, that are more concerned about functional performance. PCI Certification gives us an audit of our coating process that applies to both these types of customers.

Dallas: We were also looking to improve our quality process. I started by examining both the ISO 9000 certification process and PCI’s standard. We felt that ISO was geared more towards part manufacturers than to custom coaters. We found ourselves saying, “That’s a nice idea, but how does it apply to us?” Ironically, now that we’ve gone through the PCI process, we’ve talked about ISO certification again, because PCI 3000 has made us better at documenting things like corrective action procedures and non-conformity policies that would probably make attaining ISO certification easier.

Dave: We have been involved with the idea of certification since its inception. I feel that certification helps customers identify those custom coaters who are the most serious about their commitment to quality. Years ago, when there was less acceptance of powder coating in general, we felt certification was important to OEMs so they could compare powder as an alternative technology, and for PCI to keep a low-quality coater from giving powder coating a black eye. Today powder has proven its capabilities and trust in the technology is generally very high. So now certification serves more to set custom coaters apart according to their commitment to quality within the industry.

How do you promote your certification to potential customers - and how has it helped your business?

Terry: We display our certification in our plant and on our website, and we bring it up in all of our sales discussions. I think it solidifies the relationship with a prospect and gives them an added sense of confidence in our ability. In the past, several customers, particularly larger accounts, had audited us with their own inspectors. While we did very well, this could be a very risky approach for some. PCI is friendly and there to help us improve, but with a customer performing the audit, if you fall down, you may not get a second chance.

Rick: We also promote our certification on our website and sent out a press release to our customers when we passed, but truthfully, we haven’t really actively marketed it. For me, certification is not as much a marketing tool as a way to assure that we are doing things properly – you might say, more of an intrinsic motivation. However, PCI Certification does help reinforce the kind of quality-driven image we are trying to cultivate for ourselves.

Mark: We promote certification on our website, in our literature, on our vehicles, and even on the address block of every email we send out. I don’t know for sure how to quantify how it has helped, but it certainly hasn’t hurt us. One of the reasons we first got certified many years ago was because we received a quality questionnaire from a valued customer asking about ISO certification. When we provided them with details about PCI Certification, it seemed to put the issue to rest, so we are eager to see more awareness and acceptance of the certification.

What impact has certification and the audit process had on your quality system and how your organization thinks about quality?

Mark: The biggest change certification had for us was in our documentation. We now do much more extensive documentation than we did before becoming certified. We are better at establishing formal written procedures. Where ISO requires you to do extensive documentation on your process, whatever that process is, PCI Certification gets more involved with specific technical requirements of the process itself. For example, if you specify a water-break test, but are not getting good results, PCI Certification might prompt you to add more time to your wash process.

Dallas: We have come away with a deeper understanding of quality as a means of meeting expectations. Some of our customers have functional expectations for their coating, while others are more concerned about the coating’s appearance. We have found it’s easier to meet all of these expectations if you have a more comprehensive approach to establishing quality. The PCI 3000 certification gives us that comprehensive framework.

Dave: In the past, there was concern that powder was a risky alternative to liquid paint. Today discussions about risk center more on how to choose a good partner for powder coating services from among a large set of custom coaters. From that perspective, certification has reaffirmed for us that we are on the right track in trying to enhance the quality that powder can deliver in the market.

Did the certification audit prompt you to make changes to your processes and procedures?

Rick: It definitely helped us in the areas of documentation and record-keeping. We now have a well thought-out set of specific work instructions for our various processes. We can also tell each customer that their product was coated in a very specific way, along with a detailed process specification and data. This provides a new level of traceability in terms of how each part was pretreated, powder coated, and cured by individual batch number.

audit-opportunities

The audit can help identify opportunities for documentation improvements, which can provide more granular traceability of how each part is pretreated, powder coated and cured.

Mark: The process helped us make a number of very helpful changes. For example, we improved our ovens by modifying them from single to double vestibule designs to help with heat containment and energy efficiency. Thinking about the implications for our certification is now also part of our thought process when we make changes in the plant or new equipment purchases.

Dallas: One of the more difficult but impactful changes for us was to implement stricter inspection of incoming parts. At first it was challenging for our people to go back to a customer and be critical of incoming material. It required that they alter some long-held beliefs and adopt the idea that it is better to prevent problems on the front end, rather than overcoming them down the line. It is more costly to inspect parts more thoroughly, but in the long run it’s had a noticeable impact on scrap and rework that has been very beneficial. We also might have a more diverse range of customers compared to many job shops. Since we do work from aerospace to handrails, and motorcycles to lawn mowers, a comprehensive quality system has been very appropriate for our business.

Dave: There have been a number of changes - both small and not-so-small. We have increased the capability of our laboratory and invested in new test equipment. We have added some sophistication to our lines, such as automated pH monitoring of the pretreatment system. Like others have found, we were pushed to do a better job documenting our processes and have instituted a formal customer survey to systematically follow-up on our work. I would say we are doing things more rigorously and consistently than ever. It has also been important for our employees to see that we are seriously committed to improving quality. That has helped create a quality mindset.

quality-pc-operation

The certification process can help you instill a quality mindset throughout your operation.

What do you want customers and potential customers to know about what is required to achieve certification?

Rick: I’d love for them to understand that the process requires us to be very intentional about quality and that quality isn’t something that just happens if things go right. It provides a way to not just create, but to maintain consistency in our process day in and day out

Mark: I’d like customers to understand that certification is an established quality standard you earn by going through a really exhaustive examination of all your policies and procedures in order to assure repeatable results. That gives assurance to our customers, but is also recognized by industry partners, like powder formulators who want to entrust their customers to the most reputable custom coaters.

Dave: Customers should recognize that we think deeply and critically about what we do. We have always been committed to recommending the best solution to their coating needs – even if that is not powder coating. I think PCI Certification is consistent with that critical approach and improves the trust our partners place in us. We are still one of only a handful of certified applicators, but we want to see this grow because more certified applicators will help grow the awareness and acceptance of powder coating.

poor-quality-pc

The powder coating industry as a whole suffers when there are poor quality controls in place because often there is a perception the technology failed, not the applicator.

Can you share your experience in terms of the audit process?

Mark: I think the audit process was wonderful, and you get out of it what you put into it. For us, it was a team effort with many of our operations people involved in preparing and executing a successful audit. For instance, to prepare for re-certification, our quality manager, Larry, reviewed the results of our prior audits to identify all of the areas where we agreed we could improve. That kind of advance preparation helped to produce a smooth audit when the time came.

Dallas: At first, some of our folks took the process a little too personally. You know, if you worked all day to make your lawn look nice - you fertilized and seeded it, mowed the grass, and edged it. Then if a guest comes by and points to some weeds you missed in the corner – there’s a temptation to think, “Hey, the place looks great – I am okay with a few weeds.” We needed to break down that barrier and accept that the auditor’s job is to find the weeds you missed. The auditors were direct and didn’t beat around the bush. But in the end, that’s helped us get better than if we tried to do this without their input.

Dave: It was a good process. We really didn’t have to jump through many hoops to prepare for our audit since we already had a pretty tight process in place, and we knew in advance what the auditor would be looking for. We felt that the auditors were welcome to come in on any day to observe our normal operation. I encouraged our people to answer honestly and learn how we can improve.

What would you tell others that are considering certification?

Terry: The PCI standards are good at striking a reasonable balance. You don’t want the process to take forever and a day, but on the other hand, it can’t be too easy either. The auditors did a good job of watching what we do without being too intrusive. Going through the certification process is also not inexpensive but compared to ISO certification I think there’s great value in it, particularly if you have things in good order before you try to get certified. I am pleased that there is a program developed for original equipment manufacturers, PCI 4000, that evaluates business practices, process elements, equipment, capabilities, employee competencies and quality control capabilities of an in-house coater to assure they are capable of producing high-quality powder coated products.

Mark: Like a boy scout - be prepared. When you sign up for the audit process, you will get all of the information you need to see what is required to do well. So, spend enough time beforehand to get comfortable with what you can do to improve your results and assure success. I would like to see more custom coaters sign up and be successful, because that will help build recognition and acceptance of the PCI Certification process by customers

Dallas: I sometimes worry that it’s not always the individual applicator that gets blamed when things go wrong, it’s powder coating period. I have heard on several occasions, “Yeah, we tried to powder coat these parts, but it just peeled off.” In those cases, the whole industry suffers. So it takes an investment by those who place high value on quality to lift the perception of powder coating. In our case, my father, Counte Cooley, was one of those who recognized the value of establishing a commitment to quality that starts at the top.

PCI Certification audit results help coaters recognize opportunities to improve their application process, optimize their performance, contribute towards raising the standards of the industry and recognize the merits of a capable coater. Certified coaters are afforded a number of benefits including a qualified, third party evaluation and assessment of capabilities, the ability to differentiate themselves from other coaters, access to business opportunities requiring PCI Certification, use of the PCI Certified logo in marketing materials and quality documentation, image elevation associated with the high standards of certification, and more. To learn more about PCI Certification and to schedule an audit, visit www.powdercoating.org/certification or email certification@powdercoating.org

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.

Author: PCT Editor