Revving Up Quality: Powder Coating OEM and Aftermarket Parts

Posted on Tuesday, April 30, 2024

By Sheila LaMothe

Like many custom coaters, Prime Powder Coating serves just about every market where powder coating is required. But within their diverse customer base, the automotive market has proven to be a constant, even as the market evolves.

We talked with Prime’s president, Cory McCabe, about their history serving the automotive market, how it’s changed, and how they’ve kept up with the trends.

How did Prime get into powder coating, and more specifically powder coating in the automotive market?
Cory: We started out as a blasting company with a fleet of mobile blasters. One of our key markets was stripping classic cars for rebuilds. In fact, we had two machines dedicated to daily blasting paint from car bodies, frames, wheels, and more. Over time, we built a Rolodex of car enthusiast customers. So, when we started our venture into powder coating, we already knew automotive aftermarket parts were going to be an area of focus.

Customizing trucks, ATVs, side-by-sides, sport cars, you name it, has always been a big thing. There always has and always will be demand, and we aren’t just talking car clubs. It’s everyone who drives and wants their ride to stand out and be seen.

Do you only serve the aftermarket segment of the automotive market?
Cory: While we do a lot of aftermarket work, we also support OEMs and tier suppliers. When it comes to OEM work, it’s often overflow production, or it can be something the OEM doesn’t want to mix in with their production. These tend to be lower demand items like specific colors, gloss, etc.—trends in the market that aren’t high volume. Whether it’s a walk-in one-off request or a large OEM production run, we can handle it.

It sounds like you have a lot of diversity just in the automotive-related portion of your business. How do you handle it? What challenges do you encounter?
Cory: We are set up to handle just about anything that comes through the door, especially with the addition of our new facility which opened last May. Having multiple systems, two batch and two automated, makes it easier to determine where a job will be run. That said, larger production runs are not necessarily coated in one facility versus another. It comes down to workload and what’s happening in each facility. Our new Harbor Avenue facility can run up to 7,000 parts per shift on one line. You’d think all of our high-volume production would automatically be directed there, but Harbor, with its conveyor system and a max load per carrier of 4,000 lbs., is better suited for large parts. For high-volume smaller parts, our original Brooks Road facility is often the better option. They can really push out smaller parts on the six-feet-per-minute line.

Even though it’s not the most complicated part of the process, hanging strategies can be our biggest challenge. They are critical in conquering low volume, high variation production typical of aftermarket work, as well as large OEM production runs. There’s some ingenuity that goes into it to ensure we maximize part flow and the part window. When you get into larger production runs, especially if it’s for OEM overflow, they want the parts as inexpensive as possible. So, we have to maximize that window and produce as many parts as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Have you ever powder coated an entire car body?
Cory: We’ve had customers that wanted to, but the body wasn’t in good enough condition to do so. So no, we’ve never powder coated an entire car body, but we have coated virtually every component of the body as individual pieces. We have, however, powder primed an entire vehicle for a full restoration project.

I have a 1957 Chevy that I sandblasted because, well, originally sandblasting was my thing. Now that I’m a powder coater, I’d love to powder coat the entire vehicle, but got a bit carried away with taking it apart. It’s been seven years and I’m still piecing it back together. Turns out I’m a pretty darned good powder coater, but not much of a mechanic.

What trends are you seeing in powder coating related to the automotive market?
Cory: Of course, there’s been an ongoing trend towards incorporating more aluminum in vehicles, and as such, we’ve taken on a lot more aluminum work. But where the trends are most obvious for us are visual characteristics. We’ve seen a lot of changes in color and gloss over the years. Flat black could be in for a while, then it’s high gloss black. There was a period recently where everyone wanted battleship gray. Loud colors and bright neons are currently popular in aftermarket components. You just never know. Everyone wants something that gets a WOW reaction.

One thing is for sure, there are a lot more color options and finishes than when we started. When it comes to metallics, I’ve seen more people leaning towards powder, primarily because of cost versus liquid. Take a set of wheels, for example. Material costs, time, and labor for liquid are far more expensive than powder, and the final look of metallic powder is comparable to liquid—and you don’t have to sand and buff it.

Do you see increased applications for powder in the auto market?
Cory: Without a doubt, powder is getting bigger and bigger in automotive, keeping pace with the increase in substrate versatility, and of course, the new opportunities connected to the electric vehicle market. Powder offers a beautiful, durable finish that can stand up to just about any condition vehicles are subjected to. However, it still amazes me how many people I run into who don’t know about powder. I guess there are some people still stuck on the traditional, “we’re just going to paint it,” approach. It’s likely a percentage of that group will always have that mindset.

One area of the market where powder seems to be lacking is car bodies. In my opinion, a big reason full car shells aren't typically powder coated is because touchup is far easier with liquid, and powder coating isn't as easy to repair. Bumpers, wheels, etc., are no problem. They can be removed, stripped, and powder coated, but the shell of a car is more complicated. That said, with the continual innovations in powder coating technology, it’s only a matter of time before touching up powder is a standard practice.

You mentioned powder priming a car body. Do you do a lot with powder primers and clearcoats?
Cory: Yes, particularly in our aftermarket work, especially when someone wants a crazy color, metallics, etc. Metallics especially require extra durability and use a lot of clears, both matte and high gloss. We do a lot of calipers and wheels; even dealers bring them in. We have lots of customers who come in with brand new wheels, absolutely nothing wrong with them, but the customer has something special they want, regardless.

How do you ensure a quality finish?
Cory: It’s simple really; we don’t cut corners. Naturally, we work to customer specifications, but we also follow a strict internal audit process on which all employees are trained.

Luckily, we’ve not had a lot of turnover and our people have a great understanding of the final use of the products they coat. In particular, when it comes to enthusiast components, our employees understand that if it’s not something they’d want on their own personal vehicle, the customer isn’t going to accept it.

Part prep is always a big deal in powder coating, but with the importance of visual aesthetics in the automotive market, prep is king. Some parts need to be blasted in order to coat to a customer’s expectations and we have a 25-foot blast booth. For many other components, especially aluminum, multi- stage washers are used to pretreat parts. We are set up to run multiple metal types. Depending on what we have coming in for production, our pretreatment supplier comes in and ensures the baths suit the application, whether that means adding a sealer, or changing out a stage for something that will promote better adhesion.

Continuing in the spirit of quality, Prime recently pursued PCI Certification. How does this factor into your work?
Cory: From day one, our goal was and still is to be the top powder coating shop in the U.S. for automotive, industrial, commercial, and architectural markets. Being recognized as a PCI 3000 Certified coater shows clients and prospects that through our processes, procedures, equipment, maintenance practices, and quality control methods, Prime is capable of producing a high-quality powder coated product confirmed by a third-party expert.

We’ve also been audited by automaker and aftermarket OEMs. It’s a process similar to the PCI Certification audit. They want to know that what you are doing is what you say you are doing and that you are set up to meet the quality they are looking for. Always looking to demonstrate our commitment to quality, we are also in the testing stage for AAMA verification with multiple vendors.

With an unrelenting focus on quality and their finger on the pulse of the market, Prime Powder Coating is well positioned to handle the automotive industry’s powder coating needs today and well into the future.

Sheila LaMothe is editor of Powder Coated Tough.