Painting and powder coating come at the end of the line, but that doesn’t mean it should be the last thing that fabricators think of if they are interested in running an efficient fabricating operation.
I didn’t need Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean to take a trip to the past in putting together this issue. Working on the paint spraying skills development story did it for me.
I spent a little over three years in the late 1990s working on a publication called Industrial Paint & Powder, which covered paint and powder material development, application equipment technology, and industrial finishing operations at OEM sites and custom coating shops. It was my first real consistent taste of metal fabricating as most of these finishers were painting or powder coating some sort of metal component or assembly. (The publication has some limited coverage of finishing other materials, such as powder coatings for wood that were cured with ultraviolet rays, but the primary editorial coverage focused on metals.) The publication also provided me with the chance to see just how interesting metal manufacturing could be.
Actually one of my favorite memories was driving out to Williamsburg, Iowa, for a visit to Kinze Manufacturing. The company had just installed a powder coating line that would be used to finish parts for its planters and grain carts.
The trip was memorable because it was the first time I had the opportunity to drive across Iowa from the Chicagoland area. (Seeing rows and rows of cornfields was still somewhat new to me!) Also, the powder coating line was unusual because it was finishing really long and large tube sections. That was a major accomplishment at the time because the large metal parts were difficult to transport through the system and they retained so much heat from the ovens, which could pose a challenge to the final cure.
The folks at Kinze, which started as a simple weld shop in 1965, were helpful and proud of what they had accomplished. The Kinze blue, which coats all of its farm attachments, is found all over the world, and that finish had to last.
I may have been looking back fondly on those days because I’m not so sure that job shops that run finishing lines look at it the same way. Painting and powder coating are some of the last tasks involved in the metal fabricating value chain, and frankly that’s where it is in the minds of many shop owners and managers. They are just looking for someone to throw a decent finish on a metal part before it heads out the door.
That’s shortsighted given the competitive nature of the fabricating business. There are always ways to eliminate waste and improve production processes, and that same focus should be applied to paint and powder application as well.
Fabricators have a real shot at boosting finishing efficiency and engaging workers just by thinking about training opportunities for those at the end of the line.
“There is obviously a lot of value for those people that can do it really well,” said Jeremiah Treloar, program manager,Iowa Waste Reduction Center, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa. “We are seeing more companies push to identify how to get skilled people in these positions and how to keep them in these positions. That ties in a lot with training.”
I haven’t been in many metal fab shops where training focused on paint or powder application. Typically, the training concentration is on press brake or welding skills development, which helps to address the bottlenecks in many shops, which are bending and assembly. If a shop would closely scrutinize its paint operations, however, it might find a real opportunity for improvement.
Is the paint or powder technician spraying so that more material is landing on the floor than on the part? Is the sprayer applying the coating in such a way that complete coverage is taking place? Are parts organized on racks to offer the best presentation for material application? More important, just how much rework is taking place on improperly finished parts? These are just a few of the questions a shop should be asking.
This type of training also elevates the position of the finishing technician. The operator sees the company investing in his skill development and hopefully recognizes that the job can evolve into a career.
It took me just a couple of months to acquire an appreciation for those who work in the finishing department. Others would be wise to develop a similar respect for the finishing line.