Identity Crisis

Posted on Thursday, February 22, 2024

By Troy Hartwig

Over the years I have worked in OEM and job shop environments, from small family run businesses to large multi-national organizations, and a theme regarding how they identify themselves comes to light. I’ve noticed that job shops typically identify with what they do, while OEMs identify themselves based on their products.

Since their identity is tied specifically to what they do, job shops are typically deep in process knowledge related to their particular competency. OEMs usually consider some of their processes as core competencies, and as such, those processes are heavily supported with a variety of resources, the most obvious being personnel and financial. However, I have yet to come across an OEM that states their finishing operations are a core competency. Frankly, I don’t understand why. Product managers all love to talk to their customers about their shiny new paint job, that icing on the cake so to speak. It is an OEM’s glamour shot to show off to their customers. Many of them will even spotlight the coating with some catchy name that glorifies the finish and zealously oversells what their process is capable of producing.

When executed properly, the finishing operation does what it needs to do, and no further thought is taken. Unfortunately, the investment into the process goes little further because they have gotten by with the status quo, walking that precarious line between good and bad. However, when coating problems strike it can be disastrous to an OEM’s reputation and extremely costly to fix in the field. Truth is, you don’t need to know anything about finishing to understand there is a problem. Sure, some serious attention gets brought down on the finishing operation when there’s a crisis, with a whole host of experts coming out of the weeds to the rescue with varying opinions on what to do. These so-called experts all walk away high fiving each other in triumph, but in the end was the root cause of the problem addressed? I would argue that in most cases the answer is no.

If you understand the 5S lean program, then you know the last “S” stands for sustainment, which is always the most difficult one to achieve and maintain. Everybody loves to fix immediate problems, but investing resources into ensuring the issue is rectified and does not happen again, more often than not, falls short.

Coatings also take the heat for other issues that exist within the manufacturing process. The expectation is that applying that magic pixie dust, or powder, will cover all prior sins in the end. Wire sticks, weld BBs, laser burrs, along with a whole host of other process and design-related issues, manifest as a coating problem. Customers and marketing managers only see that demon rust coming through the finish and assume the coating is the issue. As a result, not only do finishing managers have to keep their house in order, but they must also attempt to control others.

Thus far, I’ve addressed the obvious reasons OEMs should strive to excel and invest in the finishing process from a resource perspective. However, one of the not so obvious reasons at an OEM is cost. I suspect this statement has set off many alarms with our readers but let me explain. Generically speaking, OEMs track profitability of their products as a whole without focusing on specific processes, and as long they are profitable, nobody is the wiser. Sure, we all track productivity and other low hanging metrics, but actually digging deeper into what it takes to run a finishing operation cost effectively can take some work. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss, but that approach doesn’t help achieve the focus and resources needed to actively manage the process and make an impact on profitability. As long as the OEM isn’t in the headlines for poor quality, there seems to be little interest to do more.

From a business perspective I often see engineers or process leaders assigned to a finishing area only in name, with many other processes to manage as well. Given the choice, lack of knowledge, or lack of capacity, their focus tends to be on the other processes and the finishing line goes mainly unattended for a variety of reasons.

So why is finishing that outcast within OEMs? I have my theories:
1. Past quality crises have created a bad reputation, and nobody wants to be part of that mess.
2. Operations leaders would prefer to defer the headache to someone else, like a job shop.
3. It’s expensive.
4. It consumes large amounts of floor space.
5. It can be difficult to manage capacity.
6. It is dirty, hot, and sometimes accompanied by chemical smells.
7. It can come with more regulatory, environmental, and safety headaches than other processes.
8. People just don’t understand because to outsiders it seems very complex.
9. Done right, it will require a financial investment in personnel.

Considering my theories, you may ask yourself why an OEM would want to continue to invest in finishing? At the end of the day, in today’s fast-paced lean environment, OEMs need to integrate as many core processes as possible into their production to remain competitive. In the case of the manufacturer that I work for, our core identity is simply our ability to quickly create customized products in a lean fashion. As I stated previously, like it or not, the finish is the first glance of our quality the customer sees. So how do we gain momentum internally, get better, and instill confidence in our finishing process?

Two years ago, we decided to pursue PCI 4000 Certification for OEMs. Fast forward to today, and we are coming up on our third audit. The program has instilled confidence both internally and externally that our powder coating lines are functioning properly. It has also helped us identify areas that required more attention, and we have since closed those gaps. We bring hundreds of customers through our campus every year to showcase our manufacturing. One of the stops along the tour is our finishing operation where we proudly display our PCI 4000 Certification. We can confidently state that a third-party organization solely focused on powder coating has recognized our ability to produce a quality finish—and that makes us different than our competitors.

Internally I have found our PCI Certification gives our finishing professionals the attention they deserve. Recently we brought another powder coating line online at a new plant. The plant manager asked to have his plant go through the audit process to become PCI Certified as he saw the value experienced by our certified plants. We are moving forward with his request and will be working towards PCI 4000 Certification for the new plant this year. From where I sit, I can definitely see the difference in the way our finishing operations are viewed since achieving PCI 4000 Certification. We are finally getting the positive attention we deserve.

Troy Hartwig is principal manufacturing engineer, advanced manufacturing group at Greenheck Fan Corporation.