Built to Last Come Rain or Shine

Posted on Friday, January 13, 2017

By: Paul Mills

How does the industry ensure the quality of powder coated architectural products? The development of standards and certifications, both domestically and abroad, have helped ensure that architectural products are built to last. Here, read about two specific associations whose sole purpose is improving the quality of architectural parts.

Architectural products have earned a reputation for having some of the most demanding coating performance requirements. Building products such as windows, doors, siding, roofing, and the aluminum extrusions that form the skeletons of buildings must brave the unrelenting forces of nature. Architects demand coatings that withstand rain, ice, salt air, humidity, rocks, and harsh ultraviolet (UV) exposure from sunlight while continuing to maintain their original appearance during years and even decades of service without fading.

So, what has the industry done to ensure the quality of powder coated architectural products? The development of standards and certifications, both domestically and abroad, have helped ensure that these architectural products are built to last. Let’s talk about two specific associations whose sole purpose is improving the quality of architectural parts.

What is Qualicoat?

According to Josef Schoppig, managing director at Qualicoat, the association started because there was a need to improve the quality for powder coated architectural parts. The international not-for-profit association defines the specifications that ensure the quality of coated aluminum for architectural applications. “As a not-for-profit organization, Qualicoat does not get involved with any commercial aspects of the licensees’ business. Our relationships are only of a purely technical nature,” he says.

Thus, Qualicoat certifies the powder, the pretreatment chemicals and the application process. “We grant approval for specific products that are manufactured at specific locations,” Schoppig explains. “For an approved manufacturer to make that product at one of their other plants, they need to obtain independent certification for each site where it’s produced. Just because the product is the same, the manufacturing equipment and production conditions could be different. Of course, they are also free to sell Qualicoat-certified products anywhere they choose.”

Not all architectural applicators can achieve certification. Schoppig says that only the highest quality applicators will be able to meet the Qualicoat requirements. “There is an investment required in terms of quality system equipment along with some ongoing costs in terms of license fee and auditing costs. Applicators are required to maintain an inhouse laboratory, separate from the production facilities and have their equipment independently calibrated regularly.”

The first Qualicoat approval was granted in July 1987 to a French supplier, and today there are more than 420 applicator licensees applying well over 1,000 approved products. “I went to London last May for their international conference” says Carl Troiano, president of Trojan Powder Coating Company, the first Qualicoat-licensed applicator in the United States. “There were 138 countries represented by Qualicoat licensees. Qualicoat is all over the world,” says Troiano. “It’s popular everywhere—but here.”

Qualicoat and AAMA

The reason Qualicoat is popular everywhere but the United States is because domestically we have the American Architectural Manufacturers Association (AAMA). Since 1936, AAMA has been developing standard test methods and performance specifications for the building product and architectural extrusion industry. According to Rich Walter, president and CEO of AAMA, the association represents more than 300 building product manufacturers and their coating material and equipment suppliers. “Historically, AAMA has been more focused on liquid paints, but that’s changing,” explains Troiano. And Harry Adams, president and CEO of pretreatment supplier BCI Surface Technologies, agrees. “Yes, when I started attending AAMA meetings in 2005, you didn’t see the participation from powder suppliers that you see today. Some of them are obviously involved in both liquid and powder, but now I see more dedicated powder manufacturers. Even within those organizations that were primarily liquid coating suppliers, I think there’s a recognition that powder is here to stay and that it’s a growth market for them.”

Schoppig says that all of Qualicoat’s licensed applicators are authorized to use only Qualicoatapproved materials—about 99.5 percent of which are powder coatings. “When Qualicoat started some 30 years ago, approximately 60 percent of the materials were liquid paints,” Schoppig says. “Compared to Europe or the Middle East, powder coatings in the U.S. are still not as popular in the residential or more prestigious large building and construction markets. This may be due to some of the products used for surface treatment and the historic popularity of PVDF (polyvinylidene fluoride) liquid paints,” says Schoppig.

“We view AAMA and Qualicoat as organizations that complement each other, depending on geography,” says Dan Szczepanik, director of general industrial powder and liquid coatings for Sherwin- Williams, the first powder coating manufacturer to receive Qualicoat certification for powder manufactured in the United States. “AAMA is more of a U.S. and Canadian voluntary certification and Qualicoat is more recognized among our customers in South America, Central America, Mexico and Europe,” explains Szczepanik. “So, we embrace both standards and use either depending on what territory we are doing business in.”

But while both organizations have similar goals, there are some important distinctions. “AAMA standards such as AAMA 2603, 2604 and 2605 correspond to different levels of durability for coatings,” says Schoppig. “For example, 2605 is basically a standard for 10 years of outdoor exposure. Qualicoat has a similar set of designations called Class 1, 2 and 3. In our system, Class 3 is also for 10 years of outdoor exposure. To qualify for approval, the powders are checked in a similar way, but a crucial difference is that we have an independent third-party testing authority. This means that the testing of the powders and the chemicals is done by an independent ISO-certified laboratory that conducts unannounced inspections,” explains Schoppig.

“In some ways, Qualicoat is more like ISOcertification in that it looks more at the entire process for producing parts, while AAMA is more of a prescriptive standard,” says Troiano. “AAMA says, ‘This is the specification you should meet,’ but they don’t necessarily tell you how you have to do it. They are very different approaches. Qualicoat is a licensing approach, while AAMA is a voluntary standard.”

Schoppig goes on to say that some applicators ask why there is a need for certification if they are meeting a certain standard. He explains that it is not the same as an independent third-party test. “If you fail, your powder manufacturer will probably step in and help you fix the problem—they won’t drop you. But if you fail a Qualicoat inspection, you can lose your license. The same can happen with approved powders. If a powder material fails some performance test, the powder manufacturer can lose its approval for that specific product.”

According to Troiano, Qualicoat specifies things that are not always spelled out in the AAMA specs. “For example, the coating weight, or the quality of the aluminum… AAMA says chrome can be anywhere from 40-100 milligrams, and chrome-free is ‘per the manufacturer’s specification’—that’s a lot of latitude. Instead, Qualicoat might specify an etch rate of 2 milligrams per square meter for aluminum before you can coat it. That makes a lot of sense since if you are using secondary billet with a lot of contaminants in it, you’re not going to get the performance you need. So, the Qualicoat specifications get very technical.”

“They can certainly be more defined and descriptive than many of the AAMA specs,” agrees Adams. “For example, they set etch rate standards, because etch rates correlate to filiform corrosion. That’s something that AAMA is starting to embrace and evaluate a bit more.” BCI Surface Technologies is the first pretreatment supplier with pretreatment products that are certified in the United States. “They are recognizing that pretreatment is really a process where each stage has a very important role that can affect the results of the entire process, and that perspective has prompted greater awareness in AAMA of these kinds of standards,” says Adams.

Why Seek Certification?

Each company has its own reasons to seek certification. In 2015, Sherwin-Williams received Class 1 Gloss 3 Qualicoat powder coating certification. “We did that through our plant in Texas because Sherwin-Williams is a global supplier selling into Latin America. That was probably the driving force behind getting the Qualicoat certification,” says Szczepanik. “Some U.S. manufacturers might view Qualicoat as redundant to AAMA, but we market and promote our Qualicoat certification. That carries more weight outside the U.S. right now, but our goal isn’t really to promote one standard over the other. It is to offer coatings that conform to whatever thirdparty testing is appropriate for the region we are working in and makes the biggest impact on quality.”

“Trojan got involved with Qualicoat because the CEO of one of our good customers—one of the largest hurricane window manufacturers in the world—asked us to get Qualicoat certification so they could distribute their product to architects in South America where they don’t use the AAMA specs we use here,” says Troiano.

“In Europe, BCI’s development of Qualicoat products is driven more by demands of the marketplace,” says Adams. “In the United States, there isn’t the same demand yet. But, we’ve have a strong long-term partnership with Carl at Trojan Powder Coating, and have been supplying them with pretreatment materials for a long time. So, it made sense to support them when they decided to pursue Qualicoat certification with our Eclipse 2100 QC chrome-free product. If they hadn’t asked for it, we might not have gone through the expense of getting our products approved, but it made sense to do this in partnership with them. And that has worked out great for both companies.”

“It does cost a little more to run according to Qualicoat standards,” says Troiano. “And when you offer extended warrantees, that protection costs more. Some customers say, ‘You’re 20 percent higher,’ and I reply, ‘That’s because you’re getting a warrantee. If something goes wrong, we fix it. What are they giving you?’ A year later they call back, admitting they made a mistake and ‘everything’s peeling off.’ I tell them that’s the difference between using the right process and taking a shortcut. That’s what both AAMA and Qualicoat do—keep you from taking shortcuts.”

The Approval Process and Its Benefits

Getting certified isn’t either wildly expensive or time consuming for applicators, but it does take a good deal of commitment. There is an annual fee paid to Qualicoat, depending on the number of approved materials. To maintain their license, applicators must pass two routine annual inspections. The time required to go through the certification process can be quick or take years, depending on the availability of the inspector, time for the testing, and the capabilities of the applicant. But in most cases, the process takes at least six to eight months, and often a year.

“We don’t solicit licensees, so the process usually starts when they contact Qualicoat,” explains Schoppig. “The next step is usually a preliminary visit to the applicator to discuss the costs, benefits and certification process. If they are interested in proceeding, we try to coordinate with a third-party inspector for them to work with. Then, when they are ready, we schedule an initial inspection. To obtain a license, an applicator must pass two consecutive inspections.”

“We made a big investment in equipment,” says Troiano. “We had to build a laboratory and install monitoring equipment for our pretreatment system and our cure ovens. It took us a year. The first time we failed. But, they told us what we needed to do, and the second time around we passed. There are still things we need to refine—you are always refining things.”

To obtain a license for powder materials, the powder manufacturer must submit samples of the product to the laboratory where tests are conducted per the specifications, including outdoor Florida exposure for one-, threeor 10- years, depending on the class of powder certification being sought. “It was a pretty rigorous process, but we expected that,” recalls Szczepanik. “We underwent a rigorous plant audit, quality audit and then testing of the actual production batches to make sure they passed the specification.” According to Szczepanik, Qualicoat comes in twice a year to audit the whole process, the paperwork, and the calibration of their equipment. “It’s not easy. It took us around eight months to get through the certification process in Texas, and we are currently undergoing certification of a plant in Mexico.”

“Although we have gotten leads from architects in Europe and interest from Mexico, because we produce so much high-warrantee work, this process gives us a lot of peace of mind because not only are we following the AAMA specs, but now we’re also following the Qualicoat specs as well,” says Troiano. “Now, whenever we are doing a warrantee job, we religiously follow the Qualicoat tests as well. We know that if it passes all those tests in our laboratory, the stuff is going to last forever. So, it’s a great insurance policy.” Troiano adds, “It is also a good marketing tool for us. It shows customers that we have met the most stringent requirements for licensing—and so far, we are the only company in the U.S. to do that.”

“We haven’t seen a lot of pull yet from customers,” admits Szczepanik. “But on the flip side, there’s an advantage to being the only game in town when it comes to Qualicoat.” Schoppig observes, “The supply and demand for certification is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. If customers demand certification, then applicators will need to get it, because without approval they stand no chance of getting the business. But since getting certified costs more, there is some initial reluctance to pursue it on their own.”

Qualicoat U.S. Growth

“To be honest, Qualicoat in the U.S. is not yet a love story. We are really at the very beginning of our courtship,” accepts Schoppig. “We have a single licensee, Trojan Powder Coating, with one, soon-tobe two plants. But it’s a start.” Outside the United States, Qualicoat has more than 400 licensed coaters, roughly half of which are small job shops that powder coating mostly aluminum and some steel parts. The remainder includes large aluminum extruders that have in-house coating facilities. And, while overall there are a few hundred approved powders from 50-60 powder manufacturers, Sherwin-Williams is currently the only domestic supplier of Qualicoat- approved powder coatings, reports Schoppig. At present, Trojan’s inspector is located in Spain because there is not a certified inspector yet in the United States. “That works out okay because they visit Trojan in Florida, and then go on to Mexico where we have several licensees,” explains Schoppig.

“I don’t think [Qualicoat in the United States is] going to grow as fast as some may want, but as more knowledge gets out there, I think you are going to see changes in the market place,” predicts Adams. “Whether that’s more Qualicoat approvals or just the way people start to do things as a result of greater awareness. The U.S. the market is still driven by AAMA, but we have more people asking about Qualicoat—even if they are not seeking approval, they still want to meet the specifications.”

Schoppig says, “Since we have limited manpower and funds, our strategy would be to establish a national body, called a general licensee—like a Qualicoat U.S. or Qualicoat North America—to work directly with the licensees. We would also love to find a way to cooperate with respected organizations like AAMA. Perhaps the strategy might not be to replace, but to coexist or cooperate with organizations that provide different services for companies who seek certifications for different reasons.”

Troiano concludes: “It’s great that there are two specific associations whose sole purpose is improving the quality of architectural parts for the United States and for the rest of the world. The combination of these organizations ensures the proper specifications for their respective areas.”

Paul Mills is a marketing and business development consultant to industry chemistry and equipment suppliers. He has been a writer for the powder coating industry since 1994. Paul can be reached at 440-570-5228 or via email at pmillsoh@aol.com.