In 1998, Jerry Cabrera purchased PTF Industrial Coatings located in Hialeah, Florida. At the time, the six-year-old company primarily served the powder coating needs for OEMs producing high volume sheet metal components. As high-volume manufacturing began to give way to low volume/single piece production, it wasn’t long before PTF experienced a downturn in volume and as a result, sales. Jerry knew he had to do something to turn the business around.
When you think about manufacturing-focused states, Florida most likely does not immediately come to mind. Rather, when you think of Florida you think of tourism, real estate, and service industries. Jerry had to figure out how he could tap into these markets with powder coating and ultimately decided architectural applications were the answer.
Making the switch from serving OEMs to the architectural market would require significant investment. PTF’s equipment was ideal for powder coating small metal components, not long aluminum extrusions, but Jerry believed strongly that architectural powder coating was the way to go, and in the early 2000s PTF purchased equipment that enabled them to set their sights on jobs requiring AAMA 2604 and 2605 performance. In fact, 80 percent of the powder coating work they do today meets AAMA 2605, with the remaining 20 percent meeting AAMA 2604.
In 2005, PTF started looking for a new capability they could offer that would complement their architectural offerings. “Powder coating is very competitive in our area and we have always tried to stay one step ahead of our competitors,” notes Jerry. “My partner and I visited a tradeshow and saw the woodgrain finish on aluminum. We showed some samples to our customers but didn’t hear a peep for a month. Then a customer, who still had the samples sitting on their shelf, called and showed some interest.” After a brief meeting with the manufacturer of windows and doors, PTF decided to take a chance and invest in the equipment to add dye sublimation to their capabilities. It took over a year for PTF to make the required changes to install the necessary equipment for their new venture.
What is Dye Sublimation and What are its Benefits?
So, what exactly is dye sublimation and what type of finish does it produce? A “faux finish” is a common way to describe the result of dye sublimation. Faux finishes offer a unique and innovative alternative to conventional coatings and mimic the finished look of natural materials, such as wood, on metal surfaces.
Faux finishes have many advantages, especially in areas exposed to weather or harsh conditions. They offer durability, high heat resistance, and low maintenance— without compromising the aesthetic value of a realistic surface. Sublimated powder coated finishes on floors, decking, railings, windows and doors are scratch and stain resistant, making them hard-wearing. In addition, the recommended outdoor color patterns have great stability and are uniquely durable with low maintenance.
Aesthetically pleasing and easily maintained, fauxfinished aluminum products are also eco-friendly. Many products and structures previously constructed out of wood are now built with wood grain faux finished aluminum, which provides the added benefits of being non-combustible and quickly dissipating heat. In addition, in warm and moist climates, insects, mold and mildew are a constant threat to products constructed with wood. Faux-finished aluminum products are nearly impervious to these threats.
How Does the Process Work?
The sublimation process starts by pretreating the substrate, after which a powder base coat is applied. For this step, PTF uses an eight-stage immersion pretreatment line instead of sprays to clean the product thoroughly. The line includes etching and deoxidizing the aluminum using an automated two-ton rail rider hoist system.
“Once pretreated, we apply a powder coating base as a free-flowing dry powder, which is electrostatically charged allowing the powder to uniformly adhere to the grounded parts,” states Jerry. As it turns out, not all powder coatings are created equal when it comes to sublimation. Jerry explains, “The powder coatings are uniquely formulated for the sublimation process. Some of the distinct features are that the pigments do not conflict with the sublimation inks, which will distort the graphic image. And, not all sublimation powder coatings are the same quality when it comes to outdoor weathering. Additives in the formulations form a protective UV coat, shielding the inks from fading. These are known as Class 2 powders in Europe, comparable to the AAMA 2604 in the U.S.”
After the extrusions are powder coated, they are bagged and vacuum sealed using a pre-printed film that has the desired graphic design. Prior to loading an extrusion, it must be masked or deburred to prevent cutting the film and losing the vacuum pressure. The extrusions are then cured in an oven where the substrate is heated to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, twice. Once cured, the coating hardens and prevents the film from attaching to the base coat. According to Jerry, the finish could be applied to just about any material that can hold the temperature without being deformed or damaged. PTF has applied the dye sublimation films over steel, stainless steel, MDF and glass. However, aluminum extrusions make up the bulk of PTF’s sublimation business.
The film is printed using special sublimation inks that turn from a solid to a gas when they are heated in an oven. When the powder base is fully cured and enclosed in the film, hot air is blasted onto the extrusion and the image transfers from the film to the base coat. The air volume and flow for the sublimation process is much greater than a conventional powder coating oven, which uses lower air pressure to prevent the powder from blowing off as it starts to cure. Once cooled, the film is removed and discarded, revealing a beautiful wood grain finish.
Addressing the Need for Speed
Over the years, the wood grain finish has grown in popularity and subsequently so has PTF’s sublimation work. “We added a night shift and still couldn’t get the jobs out on time,” states Jerry. “The department grew from three or four employees to twelve. And with the increase in volume, we had to dedicate a good amount of time to maintaining the older equipment in order to avoid down time and falling further behind.”
Realizing their conventional batch-style machine was simply unable to keep up with demand, PTF started to research new technology. When they learned about a new machine from an Italian manufacturer, they packed their bags and traveled to a factory in Milan to see it in operation. “As soon as we saw the Speedy working, we understood why it was so popular,” recalls Jerry. “The machine incorporated many of the functions that we did on two pieces of equipment into one machine, eliminating many manual processes, which would enable us to more efficiently utilize our employees,” he adds.
During the trip, the PTF team witnessed the Speedy system sublimating 100 to 120 pieces per hour. “At the time, we struggled to reach 150 decorated extrusions per eight-hour shift, and they were doing it with three operators and no night shift,” exclaims Jerry. Some quick calculations showed the machine would pay for itself in a short period of time through labor savings alone. Not to mention, their production problem would also be eliminated. Purchasing the system appeared to be a no-brainer.
There are just two Speedy continual-production sublimation lines in the U.S., and PTF’s is one of them. Jerry explains how this system differs from their previous equipment. “In the batch-style machines, you run the extrusions through a bagging machine first. Then they get transferred by hand to a special dolly where four operators fill the cart on both sides. Once the cart is full it gets moved and inserted into the oven by the operators.” He continues, “A temperature probe is placed on one of the extrusions of the batch to measure temperature. When the batch reaches the set temperature, the oven opens and the hot batch is ready to be removed from the dolly by hand. Many times, the parts are still hot and need to cool before they can be removed to start the next batch. So, we used heavy welding gloves to speed up the process and removed the film later.” In describing the Speedy continual-production sublimation system, Jerry notes, “Our new system has all these steps automated with conveyors, transfer arms and pneumatic cylinders. The operator loads the extrusion on the initial conveyor and the machine progressively moves one extrusion into the integrated bagging machine. One operator can load the extrusions and operate the bagging through a touch screen control. The transfer of the bagged material is also automated, and the material is transferred to a staging area. Two operators connect the extrusion at each end to a final conveyor that goes through the specialized oven.” The new system enables PTF to use a 30- to-40 second cycle, meaning one extrusion enters and exits the oven within 40 seconds.
With the Speedy system, the entire process requires three operators, and they can run 100 to 120 cycles per hour. In Jerry’s words, “This was a game changer for our company.” With most of their competitors still using a batch-style system, PTF’s automated sublimation process enables them to offer faster, longer-lasting faux finishes at a much lower cost.
A Productive Partnership
PTF’s investment to expand production goes beyond purchasing the Speedy sublimation system. “When we first became interested in the Speedy, we visited SEF Italia, a smaller company where the machine was invented, designed and manufactured,” explains Jerry. “On the raw materials side of the process, another Italian company, Menphis, served as a primary supplier of sublimation powder and film. Menphis eventually purchased SEF and became a turnkey supplier offering the equipment, film and powder we need, along with great lab support and technical service. They are a key business partner for us,” he adds.
In addition to purchasing the Speedy sublimation system, PTF invested in a new hybrid powder and liquid coating line from SEF Italia. While his preference is to spray powder, with such specific focus on the architectural market Jerry felt it to be in the company’s best interest to have the capability to spray both. The hybrid system, installed in 2019, enables PTF to run liquid coatings for a few hours and switch to powder in just minutes to support the sublimation department or any other powder coating jobs.
The new line features an environmental room that houses the first SEF Italia quick color change booth in the U.S., along with the new Nordson I-Control 2 system. This unique arrangement has been designed to control powder thickness and consistency while improving efficiency. “It is crucial to maintain uniform thickness of 2½ to 3½ mils throughout the extrusions we powder coat prior to the sublimation process,” explains Jerry. “If the coating is not consistent, the inks will either stay on the surface or travel deeper into the coating, resulting in an uneven finish with color variations. A thinner coating will result in a reddish tone, while a thicker coating will generate a darker than desired brown,” he adds. In fact, one of the early complaints PTF received when they were sublimation novices was from a window manufacturer about inconsistent color. “We visited the customer and saw for ourselves the impact powder thickness has on color,” notes Jerry. He also acknowledges that consistent powder application control and thickness on long extrusions are much easier to achieve with an automated system.
A Finish for the Future
When PTF started offering woodgrain finishes in the mid-2000s, questions about finish durability combined with the real estate market collapse presented significant challenges for this new endeavor. Jerry acknowledges, “It was very difficult for us at the beginning, but we persisted and after about five years the business was doing well. We now provide the finishing service to almost all of the window and door manufacturers in the South.”
With the bulk of their business located in Florida and the Caribbean, under some of the harshest environmental conditions, PTF’s wood grain sublimation business is quite busy. Jerry elaborates, “We are proud to have our product in many of the most prestigious commercial and residential projects throughout Florida and the islands. Believe it or not, the first few waterfront homes that we did still have the original aluminum wood grain windows. Of course, after fifteen years they show some signs of weathering, but they are holding up remarkably well.”
When asked about any particularly interesting projects currently underway, Jerry shared that PTF is working alongside aluminum wholesalers to develop a variety of direct-to-market products that feature the sublimated wood-grain finish. This requires a change in the approach to extrusion design and fabrication using fasteners to join areas traditionally joined by welds. “Creating a mechanical system allows us to apply the sublimated design on a finished product which distributors can then offer to their customers. This will result in a significant increase in faux-finished product as distributors are only interested in high volume product,” explains Jerry.
Looking to the future, PTF expects the sublimation portion of their business to continue to grow. Always seeking new technology to increase and improve their sublimation offerings, PTF will install a new machine specifically for sublimating flat sheets by the end of this year. They process flat sheets currently, but the new machine will bring increased efficiency to the process. And, while the bulk of their current sublimation business is from window and door manufacturers, Jerry is starting to see a demand for the finish on other outdoor products such as cladding and battens used for building facades, along with gates, pergolas and soffits. “Architects and designers are always looking for ways to make their homes and buildings more attractive to buyers and the wood grain finish adds that special touch. We have the capability of creating surfaces with the appearance of not only wood, but granite, marble, and more,” says Jerry.
As architects and designers continue to evolve and create increasingly unique and appealing projects, PTF expects to be by their side with the processes and expertise to help them expand their scope and achieve their goals.
- by Sheila LaMothe, editor of Powder Coated Tough magazine.