10 Tips for Selecting a Systems House

Posted on Tuesday, May 30, 2017

By Paul Mills

Purchasing a new powder coating line can cost from tens of thousands to millions of dollars. Making a mistake and buying a line that will not work properly can cost even more in rework, product returns and lost business. The design of a powder coating line can directly affect the quality, production efficiency, reliability and overall profitability of an entire powder coating operation. However, while nearly everyone agrees that it is not a decision to be made casually, few manufacturers have a clear roadmap to help them make a sound decision when it comes to choosing a good system supplier.

Having spent a good portion of my time in the paint industry working for a systems house that sold many liquid and powder coating paint lines, I have enormous respect for the companies that design and build high-quality turnkey powder finishing lines. Selling a powder system is different than selling related products such as the powder, pretreatment chemicals, or even spray booths and guns because nearly every system is highly customized, starting with a “white sheet of paper.” There are substantial risks in misjudging the current and future requirements. There are hundreds of little decisions to be made, and each choice has an associated tradeoff and price tag.

Therefore, it would be impossible in a single article to review every one of these decisions to provide any kind of sweeping recommendation. Instead, the goal of this article is to provide some advice about how to choose a good finishing system partner. It may help you decide which company offers more value, and which offers the lowest risk of failure. The following 10 suggestions can help when selecting a good system supplier.

1. Know the Company They Keep

The better system houses tend to be actively involved in the paint and coatings community. Belonging to a network of competitors and complementary suppliers allows them to stay current on industry trends and emerging technological developments. These associations allow members to build strong partnerships and share valuable cross-functional knowledge. Membership in organizations like the Powder Coating Institute (PCI) and Chemical Coaters Association Intl. (CCAI) signals a system supplier’s commitment and support to their industry

“I am (a past president and) a member of the PCI board of directors, and I start off my sales presentations with a slide that shows that we are active members of important industry associations,” says John Sudges, business development manager for Midwest Finishing Systems. “PCI helps to educate and promote sound engineering practices with resources like Powder Coated Tough magazine, the Complete Powder Coater’s Finishing Handbook, regular hands-on workshops, and the custom coater certification program. These programs rely on input from the best and brightest suppliers to help make customers more knowledgeable, so that they can better tell the good ones from the bad ones.”

Therefore, one starting point is to check the membership lists of coating societies like PCI to see who is an active member. You can even look more deeply at a company’s involvement in industry technical conferences and trade shows.

2. Work with Thought Leaders

Designing turnkey powder finishing systems requires specialized expertise in metal pretreatment, powder application, material handling and curing techniques. One way to find systems houses with this expertise is to subscribe to, and read, trade publications like the one you are reading right now as well as other industry magazines for articles they author, or case studies on projects relevant to your own. You can also search online web sites for educational articles, blogs, and advice written by and about companies with this kind of experience. This includes looking at which companies regularly present papers in the technical program of conferences, workshops and symposia dedicated to powder coating. Companies that are actively involved in education often feel that educating manufacturers will help them be more discriminating and appreciate the benefit they bring to their system design.

“We want to help customers to educate themselves,” says Marty Sawyer, CEO of Trimac Industrial Systems. “We want them to question what suppliers say about their own products by understanding the physics behind the product. That way they are really equipped to evaluate and compare the technology being offered,” says Sawyer, “We want them to do research on our company and on the technology we deliver.”

Ken Schaer, business development manager for engineered solutions at Global Finishing Solutions, says that sometimes there are technology differences from systems house to systems house. “They say there’s no secret sauce, but that’s not true; there can be important technology differences that set apart one system house from another,” he says. “For example, we find that many competitors don’t really understand many of the subtle differences involved in operating a zirconium pretreatment system compared with a zinc phosphate system, and the effect that they have on the rest of the process.”

3. Look Behind the Curtain

One of the most helpful and important screening tools is a visit to the offices of each systems house you are considering. When you do visit, be vigilant and aware of signals about how they do their work. For example, you might look to see what kind of CAD software and what version they have. How modern are their workstations? Are the project managers’ desktops buried under a haphazard pile of papers, prints and invoices? Alternatively, are projects neatly organized into files and binders so they can look up information quickly when a question arises? Pay attention to what kind of equipment is used to manufacture their products. Is it modern and well maintained?

“If you look around at the type of equipment a system house has it will tell you about how seriously they take their work, and the investment they are willing to make in providing you with a good product at a reasonable price,” says Ron Cudzilo, Midwest regional manager for George Koch Sons LLCww and current president of PCI. “For instance, if you are coming to see me, is my shop maintained? Is it haphazard?”

If you approach a systems house plant visit as a bit of detective work, you will find good clues about their approach to customer service, quality and safety. Is there an organized stockroom with spare parts for systems they have recently shipped, for instance? Or, how well do they pay attention to their own workers’ safety on the shop floor? If they do not take steps to keep their own workers safe they might not be vigilant about safety on your system.

4. Trust, but Verify

Good system design engineers are skeptical of fast, backof- the-envelope assumptions. This is because bad assumptions often come back to bite them. Many systems houses avoid surprises by investing in test equipment to verify a process before it goes into the field. This equipment might include conveyor or batch spray booths, some kind of flexible pretreatment system such as a wand-spray system or even a small power washer, and various curing alternatives such as a batch convection oven or portable infrared panels. “Our lab ovens have variable frequency drives so we can test curing processes with different rates of air turnovers to simulate a production oven,” says Sudges. “If you test every process with a one-size-fits-all approach, you are likely to miss something that might be a problem in production.”

Along with this process equipment, systems houses should also own a good set of test and measurement tools, including film thickness gauges, a cross hatch kit, perhaps an impact tester or some way to measure color or gloss levels. They may have field diagnostic tools such as a temperature profiling system and a way to measure airflow. If you are making a site visit as suggested above, ask to see what kinds of process development capabilities they have and what test equipment and troubleshooting instruments they own.

5. Avoid Cutting Corners

“If it’s not specified in their quotation, there’s no telling what you will end up getting,” says Cudzilo. A specification that skimps on specificity leaves the door wide open for less reputable suppliers to cut corners in order to save a buck. This could mean a cheaper pump, less capable controls, lighter weight materials. Down the road, you may find rusted metal pieces in places you assumed they would be using stainless steel. Better system houses are usually accustomed to sharing a full description of what they plan to deliver and are happy to talk about their materials in detail. “Don’t buy a million-dollar paint system from a four-page quote,” cautions Cudzilo, whose company provides extensive information about the parts and practices they use.

One solution is to specify what you want in painstaking detail. However, this is often not possible because it requires expertise that many customers just do not have. One safeguard is to work with system designers who offer this level of detail with their quotation.

“There are two basic strategies system houses seem to follow,” says Kevin Coursin, president of Engineered Finishing Systems. “They can bid the way a system should be designed, or they can just try to be the most cost competitive. We design a robust system made to last a 25-year cycle, built the way we would want it built if we were the operator. That means designing for reliability and service and providing things like proper cleanouts, a way to pull a pump for easy maintenance or an access door. We don’t want to cut corners when it comes to longevity and serviceability.”

Jerry Trostle, vice president of sales and marketing for Pneu-Mech Systems, adds, “Rather than send out a spec and say ‘quote this,’ we suggest customers do some research, interview several systems houses and ask about what they have done. Then they can narrow the field to one or two who they have trust in to help them to develop the specification.”

6. Get Tough on Referrals

Nearly all systems houses offer to let prospective customers talk to one of their satisfied customers. However, it is also likely they will offer up the name of a more recent customer who is still enjoying their honeymoon with their shiny new powder system. “I would ask to see a system that’s 10 years old,” says Coursin. “Sure, it might look a little dirtier, but you can find out how well it is still operating. You can see for yourself if it is rusting, and ask the operators how much maintenance they need to put in.”

Find referrals that are willing to sit down and share their experience candidly with you one-on-one without the systems house breathing over their shoulder. “They should be your best salesman,” says Coursin, “I have the confidence enough to leave them alone.”

7. Know the Depth of the Bench

Before picking your supplier, you will want to meet the key team members who will work on your project. This includes the lead mechanical and electrical engineers, the project managers, the fabrication crew, and assembly and startup supervisors. Ask about who will install the system. Who will supervise that process? Some systems houses have dedicated installation crews, and others hire local tradesmen and provide supervision. Who will start up your system and work with you to debug any problems? To provide some assurance that they can achieve your production schedule, ask how many other concurrent projects these key people already have on their plate. You might keep track of how many professionally certified engineers are on their staff, as well as how many mechanical and electrical engineers. While great people can wear many hats, a highly automated system with sophisticated sensors and controls often requires more specialization. Besides, you need to have some security about what would happen if their jack-of-all-trades quits. Most winners have a staff of trained experts with some depth in each critical position.

“I strongly encourage them to come to our facility for this kind of meeting,” says Steve Houston, chief marketing officer for Col-Met Engineered Finishing Solutions. “I want them to meet everyone who will touch that project. Not just to show that we have the people, but that we have enough people—a team of experts—to see that we have enough of them to handle their system.”

“You want to understand the extent of each supplier’s local support, and how they will respond to a problem that might shut down your system in a timely manner,” says Schaer. “Ask how they are geographically positioned to support your plant and whether they have a long, proven record of service performance.”

8. Weight the Benefits and Pitfalls of Build Vs. Buy

Among system suppliers, there is a broad continuum ranging from those companies that design and manufacture a complete turnkey system, and those system integrators who piece together the major components (like ovens, washers and booths) that they purchase from other suppliers. Either approach can produce a successful result, but each approach also has benefits and potential pitfalls. Designing the entire system offers more control and ensures that information is not lost in translation. However, designing every piece of equipment requires expertise in the details of each component. Because the overall system is only as strong as its weakest link, you need to ensure that they have this broad expertise in-house; otherwise, integration might be wise.

Integrators who partner with reputable component manufacturers can provide excellent results, but the integrator must be capable of coordinating each piece of the puzzle so that the system comes together seamlessly. When dealing with an integrator, be sure they are willing to assume overall responsibility for the process, and not resort to finger-pointing if things do not come together properly. You are not buying a collection of components, but a working process, so it is important to discuss which components they intend to design and build, and what portions of the system they are subcontracting from others.

“Be cautious,” warns Sawyer, “there are … salespeople who use loose language, claiming ‘we are the best.’ Beware of these blanket statements. We try to pick our lane—not trying to be one of many, but look for where we can excel,” says Sawyer.

9. Ask Other Trusted Suppliers

Good system suppliers make the lives of other suppliers easier. When things go bad, poor systems houses often blame their own problems on the spray equipment, the powder or the pretreatment chemistry. These suppliers often end up spending countless hours trying to help make the system work properly. As a result, they frequently know the best and worst system houses they have worked with, and can be an excellent resource.

“People buy from people,” says Houston. “We work in a world of ‘nationals,’ but we live in a world of ‘regionals.’ So, ask the local suppliers about their history and experience with different system houses. Talk to the powder manufacturer, chemical supplier, even the companies that provide things like hooks and load bars. There’s a lot they can tell you about problems they’ve seen with prospective suppliers.”

10. Start with the Part in Mind

Good system design starts with a thorough understanding of the parts. Look for a systems house that takes the time to look at the full range of parts that will be powder coated. They should want to know the size and shape of each part, from the smallest to the largest, to properly size the system. They will want to study each part to determine how to properly hang or fixture them. Part handling helps ensure each part is cleaned properly and can drain properly. Parts should be fixtured or hung to achieve optimum line density, since line density is directly related to how efficiently (and thus profitably) your parts can be powder coated. You should expect questions about exactly which surfaces must to be painted and which surfaces cannot be coated at all. Part inspection reveals problem shadow areas, Faraday cage effects, or issues getting a good electrostatic ground. You should therefore be leery about systems houses willing to offer a design or quotation without painstakingly examining your parts.

“Parts don’t just magically levitate themselves around the system,” Trostle says. “We ask a lot of questions at the beginning about what areas get powder coated, what doesn’t, where can we touch the part, and where can’t we leave marks. Sometimes we find that this is the first time the customer has really thought about how to paint the part in the real world.”

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.