The Importance of a Quality Coating

Posted on Thursday, February 22, 2024

By Melanie Hess

The attitude that every step matters is the reason that Key-Link, a manufacturer of aluminum railing, fencing, and accessories, has been powder coating their products in-house for years. They want to control the process from start to finish. As a manufacturer, protecting their product over the course of its life is a top concern.

Every morning, Ed Aponte, the powder coat technical team lead at Key-Link Fencing & Railing, does titrations, checking the chemical compositions of Key-Link’s pretreatment wash for their powder coating lines. It’s one of Aponte’s many tasks in a day, but one he sees as essential.

“We make sure the aluminum is pretreated the way it needs to be because if it’s not pretreated correctly, it doesn’t matter how good the powder coating is,” says Aponte.

Drew Lebo, Key-Link’s director of product, adds, “We expect our product to be removed from a deck because of a future remodel, not because the finish or the aluminum has failed. Making a railing that will last for years is our ultimate goal.”

Why Powder?
Key-Link chose to start with powder because of its durability and found a vendor they trust to supply high- quality powder and ongoing customer support.

“Powder coating meets the needs of our product and allows us to achieve the long-lasting coating it requires,” says Aponte. “Aluminum fence and railing are going to be out in all kinds of weather for years.” He adds that while liquid coating has its place, it doesn’t hold up to the elements for the length of time that powder coating does, nor does powder require the same ventilation for fumes or HEPA filters that liquid would.

To ensure a quality finish, Key-Link starts by pretreating its aluminum. In addition to Aponte’s checks of the pretreatment wash, the team takes time before each run to send a color test panel through the coating process to make sure it meets quality standards. Then, during each product run, there are quality checks every 30 minutes, including a visual color test and a spectrometer check to make sure that the coating matches the color panel provided by the coating vendor. The team also checks gloss and thickness every half hour to match standards. If a product like a railing, baluster, or bracket is coated too thickly, it will not install properly in the field.

Coating In-House for Quality
Quality standards were one of the main reasons that Key- Link chose to move their powder coating operation in-house. When the company first started manufacturing aluminum railing, they sent it out to be powder coated, but realized that they could do better work in their own plant by building their own powder coating lines.

Key-Link uses a five-step process to powder coat their aluminum, starting with pretreatment in wash bays, then on to drying, coating, curing, and quality checks. Parts move through the process hung on hooks and racks designed specifically for each part, allowing every piece to receive full, even coverage.

“Oversight of the process is the main reason for coating in house,” says Aponte. “We control the quality of the process from start to finish. And if there are any problems, we can address them immediately.”

Research and development is another reason to powder coat onsite. Key-Link does first article runs on new products, taking them through the manufacturing process from start to finish. Powder coating is an important part of that process.

“If we find any problems with powder coating during the first article run, it’s easy to go back to product development and tell them so they can fix the issue quickly,” says Aponte. “We don’t want to have to send out a new product for powder coating, wait for it to come back, and then find out there’s a problem.”

Third Party Validation
n 2023, Key-Link’s leadership team directed the powder coating team to pursue third-party accreditation of what they knew was a high quality process. The team reached
out to the Powder Coating Institute to begin the review and audit that would lead to PCI Certification.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh we have top quality powder coating facilities and processes,’” states Lebo. “It’s much more validating to have powder coating experts from outside the company tell you that you’re achieving industry standards.”

After several months of work, documentation, and a visit from the PCI auditor, Key-Link received word that they had passed their audit and achieved PCI 4000 Certification, which certifies that they have the capabilities and competencies to produce a high quality powder coated product.

“By successfully completing the certification process, Key-Link demonstrates that it understands powder coating is a high-performance painting process that must be maintained and controlled to optimize the performance of the finish,” notes Kevin Coursin, PCI’s Executive Director.

Aponte says that PCI Certification continues to keep the team accountable as they do their work each day. “Getting PCI 4000 Certification has made our quality control process more stringent,” he shares. “It’s also made us more aware of maintaining our equipment and quality documentation. Now that we are clear on what industry standards are, we work harder to meet or exceed those standards every day.”

Aponte also says that the certification has significantly improved the training program as the powder coating team onboards new associates. “Since we have clear standards, we have guidance to help educate new team members to meet those standards,” he says.

The team of powder coating associates at Key-Link is proud of the work they do and the way they create beautiful, long-lasting railing for their customers. They are also proud of the PCI Certification they worked so hard to achieve.

“Key-Link creates quality products, and a big part of that quality is the powder coating,” says Aponte. “Our team is glad to work to contribute to the success of the company.”

Melanie Hess is content manager for Key-Link Fencing & Railing and Superior Outdoor Products.