Powder Coating Reaches New Heights
Posted on Tuesday, February 28, 2023
By Brent Robb
Powder coating offers an excellent finish, strong performance, and customization, while providing a more environmentally sustainable and cost-effective solution for long-term durability. These advantages are crucial to the architectural industry since building construction and maintenance costs are ever-increasing. All building architectural elements such as window or door frames, storefronts, curtain wall structures, railings, fencing, column covers, façade panels, light fixtures, and other decorative components can be enhanced with a powder coating finish.
Powder coating has been popular in the architectural sector in Europe since the 1970s when environmental concerns began moving to the forefront in the design and construction industries. Increasingly over the past two decades, design and construction professionals in the U.S. and other parts of the world have begun to embrace powder coating for the built environment. This is primarily due to coating technology improvements making powder coating a viable choice over wet paint finishing in many applications, as well as the drive for greater sustainability and cost containment in manufacturing processes.
In the Beginning
In 2003, major national fenestration manufacturer Crystal Window & Door Systems purchased an existing aluminum fabrication facility in Union, MO, which had been owned by a succession of fabricators over the years, many involved with metal and industrial products. Crystal’s goal was to vertically integrate operations, and control quality and cost for its growing aluminum product line. After refurbishing the plant, Gateway Extrusions (originally named Crystal Extrusions) began operations, initially providing window and door profiles for Crystal Windows exclusively. Soon Gateway began to offer extrusion services for a variety of products in local markets and other smaller fenestration manufacturers. Today the company offers extrusion, fabrication, and finishing services for a wide range of aluminum products.
Initially, Gateway’s aluminum extrusions were finished with liquid paint, as was typical of the industry. However, soon after starting operations, the company opted to replace the paint line with a new, modernized $1.4 million powder coat system. The horizontal powder coat line enabled Gateway to accommodate demand for more consistent finish quality, longer profiles, and faster turnaround in the architectural market.
Horizontally configured powder coat systems permit even coating of large flat components, such as shutters and panels, or smaller components such as fence caps and light fixtures, regardless of orientation on the line. It is ideal for finishing companies handling smaller batch jobs, shorter lengths of aluminum extrusions, and frequent color changes. It is also well suited for production facilities with limited ceiling height, without the same level of capital investment required for vertical powder coat systems.
The Writing on the Wall
With enhanced awareness of the benefits of powder coating within the design and construction community, powder coating for architectural products has enjoyed substantial growth in recent years. As cities across the country enact more aggressive energy codes and architects specify products with more sustainability in building design, building product manufacturers are evaluating cradle-to-grave implications of their products. For product finishing processes, powder coating offers substantial environmental benefits over liquid paint finishes, including:
- Low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and no toxic compounds in powder coatings.
- Single coat factory application and no jobsite application required.
- Powder overspray reclamation and reuse.
- Non-chrome pretreatment of aluminum.
- Superior scratch, weather, and corrosion resistance for long term durability.
- Superior color and gloss retention.
- Lower temperature curing with lower energy costs.
- No hazardous production waste.
- EPA recommended.
- LEED point contribution.
By 2012, Gateway Extrusions had expanded its market reach well beyond its parent window company, adding major customers in architectural products such as fences, railings, lighting, storage systems, and solar panel rack systems, as well as other window manufacturers. Crystal Windows also continued to grow at a steady pace, with sales of its aluminum window and door products for commercial applications soaring. All of this growth challenged Gateway’s production capacity to meet demand and led the company in 2014 on a major expansion and investment effort. By 2017, Gateway had upgraded its aluminum extrusion capabilities and switched from a horizontal powder coating line to a much greater capacity vertical powder coating line, along with expansion and renovation of its existing facility.
Vertical powder coating lines offer faster production speeds, can handle longer components, and require less floor space for pretreatment, powder application, and drying than horizontal lines. They do require significantly greater ceiling heights, however—Gateway had to build an addition with a 50-foot ceiling height to accommodate its new vertical line. Vertical lines are most cost effective for finishers with high volume, large batch jobs.
Vertical lines typically require fewer workers, allowing companies to streamline operations and shift workers elsewhere in production. With its move from a horizontal to a vertical powder coating line, Gateway increased its throughput two to three times, while reducing staffing from two shifts with 16 employees to one shift with 10 employees (the remainder were reassigned where needed).
Demand for natural lighting within buildings, and thus architectural fenestration, continues to grow. Expansive window openings, window walls, and curtain walls are now an integral part of residential, multi-family, high-rise, commercial, and institutional properties to support health and wellness environments within for occupants. All of these larger openings require longer aluminum extrusions; vertical powder coating lines allow finishers to handle aluminum extrusion profiles as long as 30 feet, compared with less than half that with typical horizontal lines.
Life in the Supply Chain
Building strong relationships with powder suppliers and application equipment manufacturers is critical for powder coating finishers. Powder formulation and application technologies continue to advance, and suppliers are on the forefront when it comes to keeping their customers current. For example, powder suppliers can customize powders for specific substrates, performance standards, veining, textures, color options, and different visual effects. Equipment manufacturers can provide essential on-site technical support, keeping operations flowing smoothly.
Several challenges to the current supply chain in the powder coating industry demonstrate how important these relationships are. Overall raw material cost inflation over the past 18 months has raised costs for powder components such as resins, curing agents, and pigments, forcing many powder suppliers to put customers on allocation. This has led to greater lead times for finishers providing a wide range of building products and increased costs and surcharges. Some suppliers have purchased and maintained raw material supplies above their normal inventory set points to keep their customers stocked. This has allowed costs to remain relatively stable and predictable. Powder suppliers have also worked with powder coaters to adjust processes for more efficient powder use, saving money despite rising material costs.
A major supply chain challenge for the finishing industry, and thus for architectural products, is the competition for resin raw materials across many other industries, including solar panels used to power smaller products, medical devices, electronic equipment, and many other products. Possibly the greatest challenge, however, are the lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles (EVs), which require binder and coating resins for the electrodes to ensure stability and protect against damage. The rapid increase in demand in the EV industry has put tremendous strain on resin component availability. This primarily impacts liquid paint supply, which can require five times the high-demand resin components as powder. This gains powder coating for architectural products another distinct advantage over liquid paint.
The Future of Powder Coating for Architectural Products
The market for powder coating for architectural products will continue to grow due to its superior performance and “green” characteristics. Architects are increasingly aware that powder coating can perform well in even the most severe climates—harsh sun, salt air and spray, and temperature extremes—and they will continue to specify powder coating to protect façade elements. Building product manufacturers will seek powder coating fabricators certified for AAMA durability performance standards 2603, 2604, and 2605 to meet this demand. They will also promote their powder coated products as the more sustainable choice, helping building construction and renovation projects earn LEED points and meet “green” goals in cities across the country, with independent lab testing to demonstrate the powder coating finish level of architectural products.
While supply chain challenges currently exist, with intense competition for powder raw materials from many industries, material suppliers will adjust, and technologies will adapt to eventually bring greater balance to supply and demand. The long-term outlook for powder coating in the architectural product market is very positive and growth will remain strong.
Brent Robb is general manager at Gateway Extrusions.