Powder Coating Company Fills Technology Gap with Industry's First Software System
Developed in-house, the software package has initiated repeatability, accurate pricing, and greater control of the powder coating process
As a finishing process, the powder coating industry took over where the painting industry left off several years ago. While powder coating made its mark by handling more complex, precision projects, the fledgling industry still lacked the standardization, uniformity, and repeatability of most other primary manufacturing industries. Nowhere to be found was a piece of software that could help managers and engineers control, manage, and document data for custom, precision powder coating processes.
Sensing a need for more efficiency and accuracy in the industry, Shivie Dhillon, the co-owner of Sundial Powder Coatings Inc. (www.sundialpowdercoating.com), stepped up to the plate with the industry's first management software for the powder coating industry. The company's co-owner eventually developed Powder Soft©, a web-based, desktop program for powder coating plants.
"There was no software solution flexible enough to handle the wide range of parameter controls, so with our 30 years of experience, Six Sigma training, and software knowledge, I developed Powder Soft©," said Dhillon. "So this is why we took the initiative to write the software. In my opinion, this is the first software system to come out for the powder coating industry. There might be other programs that help with the data basing, but this is the first one that is a full web-based software."
Sundial Powder Coatings, located in Sun Valley, California, near Los Angeles, offers not only the coating of products, but also sand blasting, masking, labeling, packaging, subassembly, silk screening, pad printing, and artwork preparation. In addition, the coating company can provide engineering assistance and prototype to high-volume production for a variety of industries and applications. These industries include automotive, architectural, aerospace, indoor and outdoor lighting, cosmetics, and medical equipment.
The coating company often powder coats die castings for such diverse products as gas meter bodies, water pump housings, valves, and vehicle carburetors. Many of these components have critical uses that need specialized coatings or processes. "For example, we might have a die casting for robotic arms," says Dhillon. "The arm we coat is used to assemble a piece of equipment. The robotic arm is in a chamber that is exposed to all sorts of horrendous chemicals. So the powder itself has to be cured at a 20% higher level than most powders.
"The parts also have very tight tolerances because of the cross linkers and silicone that's built into them," he continued. "If this part was not up to specs when it was powder coated and the arm was to go into operation, the powder could completely peel off in a matter of seconds."
Like most manufacturing processes, die casting has issues that have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Not only does a given coating need to adhere securely to a given substrate, but it also needs to maintain its aesthetic finish for long periods of time. In addition, aluminum extrusions oxidize faster than steel, so the pre-treatment parameters are very critical. Processing parameters require, for example, that pre-treatment agitators are used to take the oxidization off of the top surface.
"Each one of the parts that we work on has its own challenges, whether it's a water pump housing, a valve, or a carburetor," Dhillon points out. "A carburetor has many grooves in it. A carburetor for agricultural equipment has some large grooves that are very tight. We have to get powder all the way down into the body of these parts; therefore, there are specific temperatures that we need to have the part at. So when the powder is applied, it will post-cure into the part, and melt its way into the grooves."
The powder coating process applies paint particles electrostatically to achieve a smooth, even finish every time. If the carburetor is too cold, the powder will go inside the groove and blow away. "There is a situation called the Faraday Effect," says Dhillon. "It states that when two pieces of metal are together, they start to create a negative void. The powder particles are charged positively. As they enter the carburetor's grooves, they hit a positive shield and bounce back. It's like taking two magnets and putting the like polarities together—they'll push themselves away from each other. So what we want to do is cheat the Faraday Effect a little bit. As the powder is floating down into the groove, it starts to melt and then sticks onto the part. We can track all of this and repeat it every time with Powder Soft©."
According to the company's co-owner, Sundial may be one of the few powder coaters that offers design and engineering assistance for a customer that wants to perfect a coating for a critical part or component.
"In my experience, it is very rare to find a coater that offers engineering assistance," says Dhillon. "There are a lot of powder coaters out there, probably more than 700 in California. But in all honesty, I wouldn't consider 90% of them to be of any value as an extension of a manufacturing shop. This is because of their lack of any quality control. For example, you have to have tight parameter controls on your curing ovens. The remaining 10% are stand-up shops; they're very good at what they do. They have a lot of experience and good knowledge of the processes. We get input from these shops to find out what a powder coating software should offer. We bounce ideas off of each other to learn how to make this industry better."
If an OEM's engineering staff wants to create a part or product that will function correctly and still look aesthetically pleasing, the OEM needs to include the powder coater early on in the design process. If the proper communication is accomplished in the beginning, many time-consuming problems and challenges can be avoided down the road. "If someone comes to us with a prototype or a concept, we can offer design and engineering assistance," says Dhillon. "The most recent assistance we offered was writing a manufacturer of airport runway lights a specification. It was a high-pressure, die cast housing that requires a five-year warranty. It's a very high-pigment, red color that will be exposed to all of the outdoor elements all day long."
Increased Attention to Critical Details
Maintenance is not an option for these parts, Dhillon remarks, so they need to have good weatherability, chemical resistance, and excellent color retention. So the company wrote them two specifications with these parameters in mind. "We told them that they needed to pre-treat the casting with a particular chemical, and that they needed to use a specific kind of metal so the castings can adhere to a specific temperature for curing," Dhillon explained. "That made a big difference for them. If they would have gone with a commercial-grade aluminum casting and cured it at 425 to 450 degrees, it would be a problem, since the commercial casting cannot exceed 385 degrees. We told the engineer that they needed an aluminum die casting that can withstand 450 degrees."
After discussing the component's rigid requirements with the OEM's product engineers, the OEM reformulated the die and the aluminum injection mixture. "So now they look forward to getting a very successful product that has a five-year warranty," says Dhillon. "Therefore, we tell all of our customers to come and talk to us before they design their next product. It eliminates a lot of headaches later in the process, for us and for them. We want to be more proactive with engineering solutions for all of them."
The powder coating industry has changed tremendously during the past decade. The better coaters are reported to be able to powder coat a variety of substrates, including glass. "A good portion of our business right now is coating glass," says Dhillon. "MDF (medium-density fiberboard) had its day, but we lost that work to China. For example, everything that IKEA sells is powder coated, including MDF, plastics, and metals. We will coat everything except plastic, which requires a different style of infrared oven."
Exotic metal alloys, like Hastalloy® and Inconel®, may be the only substrates that are not compatible with the powder coating process. "We try to educate the customer about powder coating's reaction to them," Dhillon reveals. "These exotic metals are alive in the sense that corrosion is always happening. The corrosion factor can affect the finish of the coating, and they are also more volatile to moisture when we do the pre-treatment. We have an iron-phosphate system here, so if we use a metal that doesn't have an adequate amount of iron in it, it may not get treated properly. So there is a lot of metallurgy in this business."
Developing Industry Lacked a Robust Software
Dhillon remembers the vagaries of processing parts before his software - Powder Soft© - was brought to fruition. One unique challenge, he stated, was being left out of the design and engineering loop when a job came in the door. Raw materials would be secured, prep work accomplished, and then a finish was coated on the parts, often with very little upfront dialogue. "That finish could fall into several different categories at the same time," Dhillon recalls. "It could be strictly aesthetic; it could have a functioning aspect; and it could also have an engineering design specification. All of these things had their own parameters and specifications, so it became very challenging to keep all of these things in order. Multiple parts would come from a customer, but each part would have its own specs and design issues."
Dhillon says that the initial push to create a fully-functional software was because of the increasing development of the powder coating industry. At that time, everything was done on the fly and every spec was handwritten for a particular job. Sundial had been in the powder coating business about 25 years when it decided to begin working on the software. "In those days, powder coating was very subjective," Dhillon explained. "Industry standards were being created, but not finalized, since it was a very young industry. What we started to notice was that there was some consistency and continuity in how the job specs were written."
Dhillon says that in the old days, three-ring binders were the plant's archives, and eventually became nothing but dust collectors. Nobody wanted to refer back to the binders, and nobody wanted to perform any of the updating. "We used to give a job to a customer and they might not like something about it, but they couldn't pinpoint what they didn't like," says Dhillon. "So when we finally got the job the way they wanted it to be, we wanted to be able to make it repeatable. We wanted to be able to hold their parameters very tightly. We wanted to get photospectrometer readings off of the colors, time in the oven, thickness gauges data, and where the hook mark is located. So we needed a place to store all of this information."
Initially, Dhillon experimented with some standard, off-the-shelf software products, like QuickBooks and Design Shop. He said all of these software packages were fine for the manufacturing aspect--for raw materials, inventory, and assembly processes. What it didn't allow for was the real world of powder coating.
"We wanted to exploit and expand on the information that we needed, so we decided to hone in on the powder coating process," Dhillon maintains. "We wanted to know how parts would be hung up and masked, critical areas that needed extra attention, exposed areas, environmental challenges, the actual recipes for materials, and the customers' tolerances. A lot of times, the customer doesn't even know the tolerances they need."
More Efficient and Accurate Pricing
With any manufacturing process, pricing is a key element to giving the client a competitive price, while still allowing the manufacturer to make a decent profit. Dhillon says that Powder Soft© has been especially useful for pricing for both parties. "I've never come across a single piece of software that allows us to do step pricing," Dhillon remarks. "For example, if someone comes to me and says 'I have one part, it's one color, and will be produced one time,' I can easily give them a price. But this isn't how it usually works. They usually say, 'give me a price for 1 to 100 parts, 101 to 200, and 201 to 300.' And then they want a price range between the quantities for black, white, and red. Now there are multiple combinations for pricing."
This is likely the first software system that came out specifically for the powder coating industry, according to Dhillon, and the first one that is a full web-based software. He readily admits that it's not a completely finished product yet, and is still growing. As with most software, new versions will be coming out periodically in the future.
"We wanted to make sure it was approachable to powder coaters that don't have an IT department or servers, so they can access their data at home or at work," Dhillon points out. "I was the person who developed the very first desktop versions, and then it went beyond my programming capabilities. I was attracted to the idea because we didn't need to outsource the code work initially. Now that it's a professional software, we had to contract it out. We had some beta testers working with it early on, and now it is definitely on the market for sale."
Using Powder Soft© as a digital job traveler--complete with photos of the parts and components--has made recall of the job essentials effortless and brought jobs to the plant floor more quickly. "So what the software does for us is not only can we confidently accept the work, but we don't have to commit specs to memory and become fallible," says Dhillon. "So when a part number is entered, you can see more than just a number for the job."
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