The Demand for Powder in the Appliance Industry: A Q&A

Posted on Friday, July 21, 2017

Since its founding in 1948, American Trim (known then as Lima Tool and Die) has achieved success by adding value to the parts it supplies to the appliance industry. The company’s first customer, a kitchen range manufacturer, fell in love with the stylish, chrome-plated handle that company owner Henry Hawk designed. With the help of the Tennessee Stove Works, Hawk expanded his company’s reach into the appliance industry by developing the capability to manufacture and then plate appliance parts using an efficient, continuous, process.

Recently, Powder Coated Tough magazine talked with Steve Hatkevich, director of research and development, and Dave Rankin, plant manager for American Trim’s facilities in Erie, Pa., and Cullman, Ala., respectively, about the demands for powder coating in today’s appliance industry. In keeping with its legacy of adding value, American Trim continues to provide added value, through powder coating as well as by offering services from design and fabrication to assembly and metal decoration.

PCT: Can you describe American Trim’s position as a powder coater for the appliance industry?

Hatkevich:Many appliance manufacturing facilities today have evolved into more like assembly plants, bringing together larger components that are from a number of sub-suppliers. So, we are often not just powder coating or just bending metal or just screen printing, but instead we are growing by managing a broad range of related processes.

Rankin: Most of the major appliances in American homes are powder coated, but many are also a mixture of powder coating and porcelain enamel technologies. For example, on a kitchen range, some cabinet parts might be powder coated, while the surfaces that see higher temperatures are finished with porcelain enamel. We have developed capabilities to do both processes for our appliance customers. Then there might be a control panel that needs to be screen printed after it’s been powder coated, and we will do that as well. There’s synergy across these related processes, so it makes sense to be involved in powder coating, porcelain enamel and screen printing for our customer.

PCT: What manufacturing processes has American Trim integrated for appliance manufacturers?

Rankin:We are adding a good deal of value to appliance parts. For example, at our Cullman facility, many parts start off as steel blanks or coil. We partner with the OEM to help design the part, then we stamp it, coat it, decorate it and even put a protective film on it for shipment to the range assembly plant where it is ready for electronics installation.

Hatkevich: It’s great when we are invited to help with the design process. The result is that a part can be designed for better manufacturability. Often, that means being involved with parts from start to finish, including making some of the tools needed to manufacture the part.

PCT: How does American Trim’s involvement in the design process affect how you powder coat parts?

Rankin: Good things happen when we participate in the design process, since we can provide insights and experience into how different aspects of part design affect its manufacturability. For example, we know whether a bend radius is too tight to allow even powder coverage, or how variation in the mass of a part will affect the way it will cure in an oven.

Hatkevich: Working with appliance manufacturers helps avoid problems. For instance, every part must be hung so it can be pretreated and painted. Sometimes there is a hole we can use, but sometimes there isn’t because the designer didn’t think to add one. If we don’t correct that design we might have to make a crazy high-tech and expensive rack. When we are involved early, we can influence the part design because we think a lot about how it has to be painted.

Rankin: Yes, take Faraday cage effects for example. You would think everyone would have that down by now—but, surprisingly, some designers make a part that will be tough for us to paint evenly. They may not think about making it easy to hang, drain, or coat. In general, the better you can control how to present a part, the more likely you can drive the cost down.

PCT: What are some of your fabrication capabilities?

Hatkevich: Well, in Cullman, for example, we do roll forming, heavy gauge and deep-draw stamping, robotic welding, brazing, sonic and resistance welding, and precision three-axis laser cutting.

Rankin: Our roll-forming capability is unusual, since most fabricators only stamp parts. Stamping requires extra handling, more time and more people. Roll forming requires very little handling since we can start with flat piece of steel, aluminum or stainless up to a quarter inch thick and run it automatically though a series of consecutive rollers that notch it, and form it into a complex part like the track for an appliance cabinet. We can do all of that without ever having to transfer it from one machine to another.

PCT: Can you describe your finishing and powder coating capabilities?

Rankin: American Trim works with both powder coating and porcelain enamel finishes. The technology we use on any project depends on the required performance of the part. On kitchen stoves for example, things like the control panels, doors, and a large number of trim parts are powder coated. However, parts like the oven cavities, and range tops that are exposed to high cooking temperatures, are porcelain coated since porcelain enamel holds up especially well to high heat. But since powder and porcelain are both used on many projects, there is a lot of attention to color matching.

Even if it’s “just white,” there are dozens of shades of white. At times, we manage over fifty different shades of white to meet our customer expectations. Beyond the basic powder coating colors, we also need to closely match a wide range of colors. On the porcelain side, 95 percent of appliances parts we coat are some shade of white or black. For the small proportion of porcelain parts that require other colors, the appliances are first coated with a white or black powder base coat, and then finished with a wet porcelain enamel top coat. Although porcelain enamel provides a somewhat tougher finish than powder coating, powder is more efficient.

There is less handling for powder coating since everything can be done in one booth, with the same application equipment. For porcelain parts where we first apply the powder base coat, and then the liquid porcelain top coat, there’s more handling, and a lot of time and effort needed to mix the liquid porcelain. The process temperatures for porcelain are also much higher - between 1450°F and 1500°F. So, we have to run parts through both powder cure ovens and high temperature furnaces for porcelain pieces

Hatkevich: Since 1996, American Trim has also operated an integrated e-coat/powder coat line that supplies a finish with both the corrosion resistance of e-coat and the UV protection and cosmetic appearance of powder. So, we have a large toolbox of processes including traditional chemical pretreatment, e-coating, powder coating and porcelain enamel to offer the industry.

PCT: Are there any processes you perform after powder coating?

Rankin: We have decorated parts after they have been powder coated. For instance, control panels need to be screen printed. After powder coating, our operators set the control panels into an automated screen printer that applies the thermoset or UV-curable inks. We also do metal decoration on flat stock like stainless steel prior to forming.

Hatkevich: Actually, American Trim is one of the largest screen printing on metal companies in the U.S., producing tens of thousands of decorated appliance control panels every day. In addition to screen printing we also offer roll coating, brush coating and laser marked components.

PCT: What are some of the benefits that your vertical integration brings to your customers?

Hatkevich: Well, first, when it comes to quality—we can own it all the way. There is no finger pointing if something is not right. In fact, one of the reasons we first brought powder coating in-house was because of coating quality issues a customer was having with a job shop after we had e-coated the parts. Bringing the entire process in-house resolved that problem. It just makes sense that each time a part is handed off to another supplier there is an opportunity for something to go wrong.

Rankin: We are also accustomed to high quality requirements. We do not do a lot of coating for general industrial parts, but we do a lot of coating of automotive parts such as instrument panels, consoles, and other interior trim. Automakers are accustomed to rigorous expectations when it comes to finish quality, so working with the automotive sector has raised our capabilities. That’s welcomed by large appliance OEMs and other leaders in the appliance industry who look to eliminate imperfections, blobs, and scratches in the finish.

Hatkevich: Also, if we are involved in the early stages of the design process, we can usually find ways to reduce the production schedule. Lead times can be reduced from five weeks down to two, and we can squeeze down the working inventory. To meet our customers’ demand for reduced inventory we have integrated assembly operations and synchronized our process to the OEM’s scheduling. It also costs more to send a part to five different locations for five different stand-alone operations. Our plants are well located. For example, Cullman is close to Atlanta, Birmingham and Nashville, and we can serve a number major North American appliance manufacturers from this location.

PCT: What have been some of the benefits of this integrated approach for American Trim’s overall business?

Hatkevich: Creating more value has been an important focus for us. If you just want somebody to powder coat a flat panel door white, we are probably not the best fit for you. Our goal is to provide a total solution. Today, we are a supplier to most of the major manufacturers of washers, dryers and cooking stoves. Our management and sales teams are talking with leading manufacturers about how designing for manufacturability improves quality while saving time and money. Our facilities, technology, and labor force seem positioned for good growth.

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

You can visit American Trim online at www.amtrim.com