PCI Certification: Behind the Curtain

Posted on Wednesday, May 12, 2021

By Rich Saddler

Are you considering becoming a PCI Certified coater? Not sure if you are ready for an auditor to review your powder coating equipment and procedures? Although having an auditor come into your plant can be stressful, it is also rewarding.

Becoming a PCI Certified coater communicates to existing and potential customers that you have the processes and procedures in place to help ensure a quality powder coat on the parts you produce. The certification audit is also an opportunity for an outside, unbiased party to review your powder coating operation, and based on the scoring, identify areas for improvement because, let’s face it, nobody’s perfect.

A Program for All—Big and Small
Before we get into tips on how best to prepare for the PCI Certification audit, let’s take a minute to review some program basics. For starters, if you have a single line or batch operation, the audit is typically completed in one day. For larger operations with multiple lines, batch systems, and/or facilities and locations, it’s best to plan on a minimum of two days.

The audit score sheet is broken into specific sections such as surface preparation, ovens and curing, training, etc. For each question within a section, the auditor selects the predefined answer that best matches the candidate’s situation, removing subjectivity from the process. There are also other benefits associated with this approach to scoring, which we will address a bit further on in the article.

A common question received from certification candidates relates to whether or not PCI requires a coater to utilize a specific process, type of equipment, etc. It is important to note that the intention of this program is not to tell the coater what they should be doing or using, but rather to examine the processes they have. Instead, it looks for the critical attributes of your process that need to be held in control to help ensure the parts you produce on a daily basis are meeting quality requirements. In addition, certification is not just for companies that use a multi-stage washer pretreat operation, for example. If your process utilizes blasting or immersion for the surface preparation of the substrate before powder coating, the audit process accommodates those surface preparation processes as well. Similarly, it does not matter if you have an automated line, batch system, or both. The audit is designed to address virtually any type of powder coating operation. This might lead one to ask, “What about the questions in the audit that don’t apply to me? Will I lose points?” No worries! You won’t be penalized. For example, if your surface preparation process is blasting, the pretreatment questions relating to chemical processes will be marked N/A and will have no impact on your final score.

If at First You Don’t Succeed
The PCI Certification audit holds all applicants to the same standards to ensure certified companies meet the program motto, “Powder Coating Done Right.” Therefore, not all audits result in a passing score on the first try. In fact, it’s not unusual for the audit process to identify areas where improvements are needed before certification can be granted. In all cases, the certification candidate receives an audit report within a week of the completion of their audit. This report includes the complete score sheet with questions, all possible answers, and the company’s score for each.

In order to pass the PCI Certification audit, the candidate company must achieve a minimum 75% score in each of the ten sections with an overall minimum score of 80%. If the candidate does not meet these scoring requirements, they will receive a summary report outlining the areas where they fell short. And while the auditor is unable to provide consulting to help the candidate achieve a passing score, the summary identifies the specific audit questions that require improvement. This is where the scoring approach mentioned earlier in the article provides additional benefit. Since the audit report includes the question, along with every possible answer and its point value, the applicant can immediately see the expectations for the areas where they fell short and make the necessary improvements.

Companies that do not pass the audit have six months to address the problem area(s). Recertifications submitted within this timeframe are reviewed by auditor and the audit score sheet is updated accordingly. In most cases, the review process can be conducted electronically through
emailed documentation and photographs, or by a live video consultation. However, if the required improvements are substantial, a second on-site audit may be required.

More Than Just Coating
Ok, now that the audit basics have been reviewed, let’s move on to some tips to best prepare for an audit. Based on audit history, the most common areas for improvement fall into three primary categories: documentation, process/quality control, and training.

Passing the certification audit requires focus not only on the process itself but the documentation that verifies the process is followed, in control, and meets the identified standards. Appropriate documentation is required for every section of the PCI Certification audit and should be a primary focus of your audit preparations. In general, a document should include a title, date it was developed (and updated if applicable), and the name of the person who created/updated it. Some companies include a sign-off process for document review and approval.

Another important aspect of documentation is a viable backup process to be followed should something happen to the original documents. With the majority of today’s documents being in electronic format, a backup system might consist of storing the data in the cloud. Some companies may have a corporate process for backing up data, managed by the IT department, which would include the paint line documentation.

Process/Quality Control
Process and quality control are crucial to passing the certification audit. The coater should maintain documentation which identifies customer quality expectations as well as the test methods utilized to ensure these standards are met. In some cases, your customers may not have documented standards. In this situation, the next best thing is to document the standards that you are achieving on your powder coat line yourself. Keep in mind, the audit does not determine what specific quality standards you should be meeting, but rather whether you can show the auditor the levels of quality and performance you are capable of, and that you are meeting those levels through periodic testing. It is not enough to tell the auditor that you perform water break free, adhesion, accelerated corrosion tests, etc. You must be able to show through documentation that these tests are performed, the frequency performed, etc., because if you don’t write it down, it never happened.

Typically, bigger organizations tend to have larger, more formal quality manuals. However, that does not necessarily mean that these companies have higher standards. Remember, all PCI Certification candidates, regardless of company size, are held to the same standard. 

The majority of certification candidates understand their processes and what is important to produce a good product.

The certification audit also looks at the candidate’s training program to ensure that finishing department staff is trained to perform their job correctly. That’s right, you need to have a formal training program. It doesn’t have to be particularly fancy, but it must be a formal documented program. A response like, “Bill has been here for 10 years, he knows what to do,” might be an acceptable response from the candidate’s perspective, but the auditor is looking for documentation that confirms Bill has been trained to the standards required for his position.

The training section of the audit is focused on ensuring the coater has a fully trained staff for the entire finishing operation. This includes supervisors, line leads, paint technicians, loaders, unloaders, material handlers, maintenance, and others associated with the powder coat line. The level of training and the specifics of the training will vary by job title and responsibility. Some aspects of the training program are common to all job titles and include understanding the corporate quality statement, identification of a good part versus a bad part, etc. When it comes to specific job functions, training details for a paint technician will be different than those for a line loader, for example. 

Documentation of required training is as important as the documentation that shows who has been trained, along with a signoff process. As new people are added to the team, documentation should identify the trainer for each new employee, and what they need to learn the first day, week, month. As a new person learns more and more about the job, it is important to document their progress, confirming they are being trained in the proper methods and techniques. Learning to do things the wrong way is as big of a problem as not learning at all.

When putting your training documents together, be sure to include the name of the training conducted, the date performed, and the signature of each employee that successfully completed the training. A training matrix that includes each employee and the training they have completed can also be a helpful tool.

Engage the Experts
Technology is constantly evolving, and the world of powder coating is no exception. As new equipment, materials, and operations are developed, how does the company learn about them and how are they incorporated into the existing operation? There are a number of resources a powder coater
can take advantage of to help in this area. First and foremost, enlist the support of your suppliers. Your pretreatment, powder, and equipment suppliers are all interested in making your operation successful because their success is contingent upon your success. They are experts in their
specific fields and an excellent resource to learn about what is new in the industry. Talk to them, ask for information about new products and how those products could improve your operation. Should you purchase new products and equipment, work with them to update your process and quality documentation. Additional resources to keep up-to-date on the latest powder coating technology include attending industry events like PCI’s Powder Coating Week and FABTECH, and reading Powder Coated Tough.

Circling back to your supplier network for a moment, consider bringing them into your shop to help with your audit preparations. They can identify areas that need improvement and can likely help you rectify those issues prior to the auditor coming into your facility. Take the time to address equipment that may not be operating properly or is in disrepair. Missing hopper lids, broken or damaged pickup tubes, leaking hoses and powder guns, do not show the auditor that your equipment is maintained, in good operating condition, and your process is in control. While duct tape is considered by many to be a “fix-all,” it’s not going to earn you points with your PCI Certification auditor.

How to Get Certified

1. Visit www.powdercoating.org/GetCertified to download the application.
2. Contact PCI Executive Director Kevin Coursin with any questions.
3. Submit completed application.
4. Review audit questions and schedule audit.
5. Auditor visits facility and conducts evaluation.
6. Passing companies are certified. Non-passing companies receive summary of non-conforming areas to be addressed.

Rich Saddler is finishing consultant with Industrial Finishing Solutions, LLC
and a PCI Certification auditor.