The Pursuit for Perfection

Posted on Wednesday, May 12, 2021

By Sheila LaMothe

Nick LaVigne, plant manager, describes Monti Inc. as a “one-stop shop” for manufacturing. The company, founded in Cincinnati in 1971, offers fabrication, machining, and welding services primarily geared toward the electrical industry. When the decision was made to add powder coating to their capabilities in 2018, along with that decision came the pursuit for perfection.

When Nick relocated from Monti’s Cincinnati location to manage their Greenwood, SC, facility in 2012, the plant had a small batch powder coating operation. Nick estimates at the time they coated 20 to 50 parts a day, primarily for expedited jobs. In typical Monti fashion, work at the Greenwood facility grew rapidly, growth that included major metal stamping contracts requiring powder coating well beyond the capabilities of their batch system. For several years, Monti relied on local coaters with automated powder coating capabilities to support their needs. However, a combination of regular quality issues and delayed orders led Monti to give serious thought to bringing the process in-house. Perhaps it was the realization that outsourcing powder coating was negatively impacting other aspects of the business that finalized the decision. Monti was losing large package work because their bids weren’t price competitive and had longer lead times.

With the decision made, the goal was set to have the new powder coating line up and operational in 2019 and, if they were going to do this, they were going to do it right. According to Nick, Monti “breathes quality first.” So, doing it “right” came with a lofty, seemingly unattainable, zero-defect objective. This meant doing their homework, and lots of it.

Drafting an All-Star Team
An automated powder coating line was a given, one that would enable them to control their quality and lead times and support continued growth. This meant a top-of- the-line system; they were willing to make the necessary investment because as the old saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” Monti selected GAT Finishing Systems as their integrator. “We were impressed with their technical aptitude and felt they were well-suited to best prepare us for the installation of the line,” explains Nick. Bringing GAT on board to quarterback the team that would assist Monti in this endeavor was the first step. Referencing Monti’s highest volume jobs, largest part size, and plans for growth, GAT designed a line that would meet their needs now, and for the foreseeable future.

With a game plan for the line in hand, Monti started to design the building that would serve as home to both the automated line and a new expanded batch operation. They invested in an environmental room and ensured there was enough space to keep the two systems separated to avoid cross-contamination.

Once construction for the Greenwood facility expansion was underway, Monti began to scout and recruit the remaining members of their supplier team. They researched and interviewed a variety of providers to ensure the players selected would best align with Monti’s expectations. Nick shares that the process was relatively seamless with the exception of selecting a chemical provider, which he found to be the most complex to vet due to the significant differences among chemistries. “When we began the search for our chemical provider, I created a questionnaire to be completed by each potential supplier,” Nick explains. “I decided not to focus so much on the chemicals themselves. What was most important was how they would support us—how they would train us on the chemistry, how quickly they would respond if we needed help. The questionnaire really helped me dial in which provider was the best fit for us since all of the suppliers had to answer the same questions,” he adds.

Ultimately, Monti selected Quaker Houghton as their chemical supplier. “Partnering with Quaker Houghton turned out to be a trifecta—the support we required, an environmentally friendly approach, and a cost-effective system,” states Nick. Monti rounded out their supplier team by choosing Gema USA as their application equipment provider.

The Best Offense is a Good Defense
With their team in place and the new building slated for completion in a few months, it was time for Monti to develop the playbook they would follow to achieve their ambitious quality goals. Process documentation would serve as the basis of their defense and a formal training program would build their offense. Since automated production coating was completely new to them, they knew their future was dependent upon the successful execution of every play. “Powder coating is a simple process, but it’s not easy. The devil is in the details of every step,” acknowledges Nick. Details like good grounding. After reading an article about the importance of a good ground, Nick reached out to the author to ensure Monti was addressing it appropriately. Garnering knowledge from every resource possible, Nick also attended a troubleshooting seminar recommended by GAT. “It helped to hear about common powder coating
issues and problems others experienced so we knew what to be prepared for,” he recalls.

Monti leaned heavily on the expertise of their supplier team, which Nick believes had a major impact on their success. Reps were on-site to support Monti as they learned the ropes. Their existing small batch system served as their practice facility and was used to test chemistry, functions, and processes so they could work out any kinks before kickoff of the new line.

Nick shares an example of the partnerships Monti built with their suppliers. The company sprays powder from a variety of providers but has a particularly good relationship with PPG. “Coating thin gage flat parts is fairly straightforward, but thick heavy steel parts presented more of a challenge for us, especially with getting the part up to temperature and curing. PPG stepped up as an extension of our largest customer and was on-site for testing,” he explains. With PPG’s guidance, they ran lots of trials so potential issues could be addressed up front rather than having to reverse engineer problems out of the process later.

Another area not to be overlooked was racking, or as Nick calls it, “the secret sauce” to powder coating. For example, one of their parts has a cup shape which would hold the chemicals after coming out of pretreatment. To rectify the issue, racks were designed to tilt the parts so the chemicals would not well up in the cup area. With a focus on functionality and high line density, customized racks were tested on their old batch system for three to six months prior to the automated line being operational.

Practice Makes Perfect—And Perfection is the Goal
Monti operates in accordance with three core values, one of which has a direct tie to their approach to training— mutually beneficial long-term relationships. Nick explains that this applies, as one might expect, to suppliers and customers; however, it also applies to employees. Monti is a family-owned business, and their employees are viewed as their biggest asset. Their growth and development are critical. Nick says, “You either have to be really good at hiring or really good at training.” And he doesn’t want to be good at hiring unless they are in a growth spurt.

The importance of training cannot be overstressed— documented, formal training. “Tribal knowledge is not a good approach to training,” states Nick. “You need to extract that knowledge, document it, and add it to a formal training program.” He acknowledges that hands-on training is a key component to any powder coating training program which led to their development of a job shadowing program to obtain real world experience.

Monti also rotates their powder coating line personnel so they are cross-trained, something Nick feels more companies should do. “The guy unloading and packing up parts at the end of the line is looking for defects all day and can add a lot of value at the beginning of the process,” he explains. Nick has also noticed that cross-trained employees understand each other better and work better as a team.

Focus on the Fundamentals
For certain, Monti invested a lot of time and effort prior to installing their line or coating a single part. Was it worth it? “Absolutely!” Nick exclaims. “It will pay back. Invest in your line, invest in your people,” he adds. Nick restates that powder coating is simple, but there’s nothing easy about it. It’s only easy when you understand and have the processes under control. He says it is a process where good parts can go bad quickly. While every step is important, Nick feels pretreatment chemistry is particularly significant. “Most approaches will work IF you abide by the processes. If your process is under control, you will be successful,” he states.

This is why Monti audits tank temperature, titration, the psi of every wash system to ensure spray nozzle pressure is correct, and more. These audits and associated documentation enable them to go back in time if there is an issue. In fact, about six months after installing their line, Monti had an issue with a job. Powder adherence on the parts was good, but the parts didn’t look right. The non- conformance was brought to their attention several weeks after the parts shipped. With their playbook full of extensive documentation in hand, they were able to determine the issue began at the same time they recharged a tank, filling it with new chemistry. They also discovered that they were meeting chemical supplier specifications, but as it turned out those specs were wrong. They brought the supplier in, the concentration percentage was adjusted, and they never had the problem again. Proof that many times the best offense is a good defense. Nick feels most shops he’s been in would not have been able to go back and find the source of the issue simply because they don’t have the documentation and history to do so.

Quality is in Their DNA
Nick is proud to share that all of their pre-season training has paid off. While the elusive “perfect season” remains ever so slightly out of reach, Monti boasts an impressive first- time pass-through rate of more than 99%. He also admits that they’ve become a bit selective in the work they take in. They’ve had the opportunity to run some very high-volume powder coating work but turned it down. “All they wanted was quick turnaround and a cheap price. They didn’t care at all about coating quality,” he explains. High quality coating is in Monti’s DNA and they don’t want to take on this type of work for fear it will negatively impact their quality-focused culture. “It’s hard to have employees that are trained to be dialed in on quality take on a customer that doesn’t care about it,” Nick adds.

In addition to eliminating quality issues, Monti’s turnaround time has gone from weeks to days. When they were outsourcing powder coating, they were getting a one- to two-week lead time for the powder coating step alone. Nick acknowledges that jobs turned around in a day or two are typically expedited orders, but there has certainly been a marked improvement to delivery overall.

Good Sportsmanship
Word is out about Monti’s powder coating success. A few coaters have asked Nick for his help and he has been happy to oblige. He has visited some shops to review their operation and has found some common issues. “In many cases there is a misunderstanding about the process, how one step impacts another, as well as high employee turnover and a lack of training,” he shares. He recalls one company that was having adhesion issues. Nick could tell when the parts were coming off the line that the water break was bad, indicating they weren’t being appropriately cleaned. Turns out, they didn’t understand the chemistry well enough to realize their line was running too fast. The company had experienced a fair amount of employee turnover and one of the new guys figured the faster they ran the line, the more parts they could coat. The line was running too quickly to complete the chemical conversion process, resulting in an increased rejection rate.

In an interesting turn of events, one of the customers Monti acquired in 2020 also happens to be a large competitor. Experiencing quality issues, they approached Monti to see if they would be willing to powder coat their parts. Some might have responded with a “good luck” approach and let their competitor go elsewhere, knowing they would not get the quality results they needed. But not Monti. They feel a responsibility to be a good steward to the powder coating industry. Not wanting to see their competitor go through the same problems they did, they have taken on their work, a move that would shock others in the industry. Nick explains that their competitor’s parts are different from their own, which provides Monti with a training opportunity, in addition to being a good industry steward. And who knows, maybe they will become closer partners rather than competitors someday.

The competitor is now in the process of adding powder coating to their own capabilities. When asked if he is helping his competition with the installation of their new line Nick replies, “We would be happy to answer any questions they have during the process.”

50 Years of Monti, Inc. 
In 1971, three friends started Monti Corporation in Cincinnati, OH. By the end of year one, two of the three moved on to other opportunities, leaving Gavin Narburgh and one employee to “defy the odds.”

In 1981 their biggest customer, Westinghouse, moved to Sumter, SC. In an effort to save the bulk of their business, Monti expanded with a move to Sumter that same year. Growth has continued over the past five decades:

1985, 1989, 1997 – Cincinnati facility expansions.
2005 – Opened 3rd facility, Greenwood, SC.
2009 – Expansion doubling the Sumter facility.
2011 – Expansion of Greenwood facility.
2012 – Opened plating company in Cincinnati.
2019 – Expanded Greenwood facility to include powder coating.
2020 – Opened epoxy facility in Greenwood.

Today, the family-owned company led by Gavin and three of his children has five locations and 280 employees.


Sheila LaMothe is editor of Powder Coated Tough.