Focus on Procedures Spurs Powder Coating Growth

Posted on Thursday, September 24, 2020

By Sheila LaMothe

Businesses naturally change over time, depending on many internal and external factors. Those that embark on growth and expansion projects take calculated risks and manage the expected (and unexpected) through the process. Mallory Metal Products’ journey began in 1989 as a fabricator of roof curbs and ventilators for contractors and distributors. In 2006 it moved to a new 25,000 square foot facility which it outgrew in less than eight months and the business has been growing ever since.

Growing Pains
As business continued to grow, Mallory Metal Products found itself shipping trailer loads of parts every day to local and out-of-state vendors for powder coating. Before long, Mallory’s leadership team realized that outsourcing powder coating for large quantities of parts was not practical nor cost effective. In addition, many of their vendors were unable to consistently meet quality and deadline requirements. It was clear something needed to change, and that something was bringing the powder coating process in-house.

However, this was not a venture that would happen overnight. Estimating they would need to double the size of their existing facility to accommodate a powder coating line, Mallory simultaneously began a facility expansion plan and system search. After researching various designs, layouts, and components, as well as comparing new versus used equipment, in 2011 they purchased a complete system from a company in California that was getting out of the powder coating business. Vice President of Sales & Operations George Doyle recalls, “The brand and model of the equipment weren’t that important. What mattered was that it met our projected needs, was affordable, and in good condition.” The system, an early 2000s Industrial Process Equipment design with four- stage washer, partitioned drying/curing convection oven, and mid-90s manual booth and guns, was shipped to Mallory’s facility in Santa Teresa, NM. Arriving prior to the completion of the facility expansion, the system was safely stored until installation could begin.

At the time of installation, some modifications were made to the system to better suit Mallory’s needs. The second stage of the four-stage washer was cloned to create what is now the third stage of a five-stage washer, an easy task for the fabrication group. In addition, the original chain/trolley I-beam conveyor was lengthened significantly to approximately 770 feet. In December 2013, the system was up and running.

Just a few months after the powder coating line was operational, Les Mallory, president and CEO, was approached by another coater to see if he was interested in acquiring their powder coating equipment. The purchase included two newer, larger paint booths—one spray-to-waste and the other with a complete iControl® non-reciprocating automatic gun system—along with some additional manual guns, controllers, hoppers, and a wide variety of spare parts. “While there wasn’t an urgent need for the second system when we purchased it, the opportunity to have newer, larger booths and an automated gun system seemed like a wise investment that aligned with our goals to improve and grow our powder coating capabilities,” shared Les. “We didn’t wait to upgrade the system and opted to replace the smaller, older booth with the two new ones right away.”

New Kid on the Block
Several months after installation of the line, Mallory’s experienced powder coating manager left the company. This left a void in both expertise and management that needed to be filled, and quickly. So George called on a former colleague in hopes he could entice him to join the Mallory team. He didn’t have powder coating experience, but George knew he was a good manager and quick learner. In November 2014, Alan Russell signed on as Mallory’s new powder coating manager and has been leading the operation ever since.

Alan did not sugarcoat his lack of powder coating knowledge when he arrived at Mallory Metal Products. Instead, he faced it head on. He relied heavily on Mallory’s powder and chemical suppliers, along with their equipment manufacturers, to build his understanding of the powder coating process and related technology. In addition, Alan gleaned information from management and the powder coating line staff he inherited. “I asked seemingly thousands of questions about the equipment, policies, procedures, techniques, and past issues. I had to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could, from every source I could find,” shares Alan. In addition, he pored over manuals and other educational materials from his suppliers, and also got involved with PCI (but more on that later). Little by little, he not only increased his powder coating knowledge, but also began updating and adding processes and procedures to ensure quality coating.

Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines… Oh My!
It didn’t take long for Alan to see the existing staff was working extremely hard to continue Mallory’s powder coating operations. He also discovered they were doing so with minimal training. “They had some understanding of the how, but not the why behind what they were doing,” recalls Alan. For example, both painters had some experience prior to joining Mallory but they didn’t know anything about how gun settings impacted the powder application process because no one ever showed them. Only the two default settings on the manual guns were used, recoat and not recoat, and coating thickness issues were addressed by increasing or decreasing powder flow. In addition, no one knew how to develop profiles or activate triggering functions on the automatic gun system. This meant only the two preset profiles were used and once painting started in the booth all 14 automatic guns would spray continuously, regardless of part size, until painting had finished.

From his copious notes and thousands of photos, Alan built the foundation for what would become an impressive library of processes and procedures not only to further develop the line operators, but to better educate management on powder coating. In an effort to ensure comprehension and accurate execution, every process and procedure was written with a formal ISO-style approach and supplemented by more visual documents Alan refers to as ‘quick reference guides’, a best practice still in place today. To accommodate the ever-increasing number of parts they paint in the spray-to-waste booth, Alan developed a Part Requirement (PR) document which identifies the specific paint to be used, along with masking, plugging, and hanging instructions for each part type. Located in a notebook next to the hanging area for easy access and reference, everyone, regardless of experience, is required to find and review the PR prior to hanging.

Continued education, skill development, and quality improvement is a focus for Mallory Metal Products, and an apparent passion of Alan’s. “To date I’ve developed about 400 policies, procedures, guidelines, forms, posters, and instructional items along with 850 PRs,” shares Alan. This would be impressive in just about any case but is even more so when you consider Mallory started with only three documents—a paint log, daily titration log, and work schedule.

While only two of Alan’s original staff members remain, the team has eight employees who can paint, all of whom were trained in-house. All staff is given the opportunity to cross-train and Alan employs unique methods to not only teach, but help employees retain what they learn. “Oh, I think their least favorite is what I call the ‘lightning round.’ I walk up to a worker without warning and ask them questions about processes, problems, etc., ‘What do you do if this? How do you fix that?’ and they have to answer on the spot,” he explains. “It’s nerve-racking, but a great way to test their knowledge.”

Always on the lookout for instructional materials, Alan sends relevant videos to both powder coating staff and management as he feels it’s important to educate both groups. “Sometimes I recommend they pay close attention to certain parts of the videos while other times I just send them without comment. In a couple of days, I ask for their impression of what they saw,” he explains. “It’s a good way to determine if they got what I wanted them to out of the video.”

Mallory Joins the PCI Family
In his early days at Mallory, Alan received information about PCI from a paint rep. After joining, the company wasted no time in taking advantage of their member benefits. The educational materials and videos, along with articles in PCT, all proved to be invaluable resources, but it was the Powder Coating 101 Workshop that was particularly eye-opening. “Within months of being hired, the head painter and I attended the workshop. What a fantastic experience!” recalls Alan. When the pair wasn’t asking questions, they found themselves saying to each other, “‘I didn’t know that. We don’t do that. We’re doing that wrong. We need to learn more about that.’ It was depressingly laughable,” chuckles Alan. “But at least I found out what I needed to learn and what had to be addressed when we got back to the shop.”

Determined to make the most of the opportunity, Alan chose to participate in the workshop held at Nordson Corporation near Cleveland, OH, because they manufactured Mallory’s booths and guns. Alan had lots of questions about the iControl®, which he hoped to get answered while he was there. At first, the rep indicated it would be more impactful if they met at the Mallory facility where he could see the specific control screens in question. It should come as no surprise that Alan had photos of every screen on his laptop! Armed with all the information the rep needed to assist, a one-on-one crash course that Alan refers to as “iControl® for dummies” ensued.

The Investment Pays Off
Since bringing the process in-house, Mallory’s powder coating operation has grown significantly. A few years ago, they coated anywhere from a few hundred to 1,200 individual parts a day. Most were relatively simple and painted medium gray with the stationary automatic guns. Color parts were, and still are, coated in the spray-to-waste booth and totaled just two or three orders a day. Fast forward to 2020 and Mallory now coats more than 1,500 different part types for their largest customer alone. It is not unusual for 2,500 parts and as many as 100 orders to run through the line in a day. Alan proudly adds, “A review of last year’s records indicates we powder coated about 530,000 individual parts.”

To support their growth, the system has been upgraded. Two new Gema OptiStar CG 13 manual guns along with purge pump to reduce color change times replaced the obsolete manual gun system in 2016. And, in late 2018, the original Nordson Versa-Spray automatic gun system with first generation iControl® was replaced with their automatic Encore guns and iControl® 2. The recent purchase of a pre- cure scanner has improved consistency and cut rework in half. “Being able to scan the part prior to cure from two feet away and see if it’s too thick or too thin has really helped with training our painters,” notes Alan.

Mallory Metal Products is well-positioned for continued growth of their powder coating operations. While a lot of internal effort was invested into the process of bringing powder coating in-house, Alan is grateful for the support the company, and he personally, received along this journey and is quick to point out, “Without the assistance and endless patience of our suppliers and the educational materials and workshops from PCI, the growth and success of our powder coating operations would not have been possible.”

Top 20 Tips
Below are the top tips Mallory Metal Products recommends for those considering bringing powder coating in-house.

  1. Be “all in” on the idea. It’s a major investment.

  2. Do your homework. It’s much more than purchasing the equipment.

  3. Confirm you have enough work to justify the expense.

  4. Make sure you can afford the infrastructure and operational expenses, even during slow times.

  5. Do you have enough space? Consider equipment, supplies, part loading and unloading, packaging, chemical storage, etc.

  6. Consult your Local Authority Having Jurisdiction (LAHJ) regarding local regulations and ordinances.

  7. Consult the experts. Talk with several systems houses and equipment manufacturers.

  8. Considerations when purchasing used equipment:
    a. Be familiar with the equipment and ensure it comes from a reputable source.
    b. Sourcing quality or OEM parts can be difficult and expensive.
    c. Older equipment may come with hidden issues or costs.
    d. Technology changes quickly. Near-obsolete equipment could become problematic.
    e. Consider the impact of replacing big ticket items after a couple years of use.

  9. If using a multi-stage washer, confirm the chemical supplier meets your needs, can train employees, and troubleshoot issues.

  10. There will always be a learning curve.

  11. Understand the capabilities and limitations of your systems and your staff.

  12. Provide quality and ongoing employee training.

  13. Develop and adhere to policies, procedures, and guidelines.

  14. Large or small, maintain your equipment properly.

  15. Ensure good reliable sources that can provide prompt technical support.

  16. Monitor and document all aspects of your process.

  17. Establish in-house quality control testing protocols.

  18. Have a dedicated paint room with a good HVAC system.

  19. Install good lighting over paint booths.

  20. Clean air is just as important as good water. Get a good compressor and dryer.

Sheila LaMothe is editor of Powder Coated Tough.

Top 20 Tips
Below are the top tips Mallory Metal Products recommends for those considering bringing powder coating in-house.

Top 20 Tips
Below are the top tips Mallory Metal Products recommends for those considering bringing powder coating in-house.