The band U2 may have been the stars on the opening night of the new Las Vegas Sphere, but it was Accurate Coating in Michigan that shined in the arena’s debut.
The Sphere is a music and entertainment arena near the Las Vegas Strip that opened in September to rave reviews with its more than 1.2 million LED pucks showing impressive graphics and images.
The venue is 366 feet high and 516 feet wide at its broadest point, but its calling card is the integrated video display, which needs to be coated to dissipate heat not only from the lighting fixture but also from the intensive Nevada sun.
That is where Accurate Coating in Grand Rapids came in: they were called on to coat the more than 1 million fixtures, which would be spaced eight inches apart on the exterior of the Sphere. Each puck contains 48 individual LED diodes, with each diode capable of displaying 256 million different colors – creating a vivid new landmark on the Las Vegas skyline.
Unique Coating Solution on Architectural Lighting Program
Accurate Coating’s owner, Dave Kasper, and operations manager, Alex Kasper, were tasked to come up with a suitable coating to meet the detailed specifications. Founded in 2006, the company has quickly become an expert in the electrocoating process, often working on programs as large as 2 million parts a year.
Dynacast, an Elgin, Illinois, manufacturer of multi-slide die casting technology and tooling techniques, approached Accurate Coating in 2019 looking for a unique coating solution for an architectural lighting program they were planning.
Dynacast had done some research with the help of Accurate’s coating supplier — Clearclad Coatings of Harvey, Il — who sampled a matte black electrocoat for testing. Dynacast’s tests showed the matte black electrocoat had excellent emissivity, which fit their job perfectly, but they needed someone to run it.
“At this point, all we knew was they had an architectural LED lighting project that needed to shed its own heat while it sat in the already hot Las Vegas sun,” says Alex Kasper, the operations manager at Accurate Coating and Dave’s son. “Since then, other customers have found this emissivity benefit as well.”
One of Accurate’s customers, Chicago White Metal, had an electronics manufacturer replace electroless nickel with the matte black electrocoat and found even better product performance from its heat sink products than it had with razor-thin plating.
“We had known about the advantage in the past as one of our first jobs was electrocoating aftermarket LED headlight components for Truck-Lite,” Alex says. “But we didn’t know it was as big of a selling point as we found out.”
UV Stability Needed Due to Sunny Las Vegas
Dynacast Elgin performed the aluminum die casting on the job, and the lighting system was built by SACO Technology in Canada, which is a developer and supplier of industry-leading solid-state LED lighting and media solutions.
Aside from the finish, the second most important characteristic required for the job was UV stability, given the location in sunny Las Vegas. Polyurethane electrocoat contains UV stabilizers, making it ideal for final finish applications even in the desert sun.
“The ability of ecoat to wrap the part uniformly also made it ideal for evenly coating down and in between the 2-inch heat sink fins,” Dave says. “In the end, the matte black ecoat covered all bases delivering excellent emissivity, UV stability, and even coverage across the casting.”
“I hadn’t heard about any competing coatings like powder, but this electrocoat ultimately won the bid,” Alex says. “I think emissivity drove that decision, but the full, even coverage into heatsinks surely played a part. Whether I like it or not, coating metal products is a powder coater’s world, but it’s nice to know we can still beat them at a variety of things.”
Accurate Coating’s matte black polyurethane electrocoat from Clearclad was basically the same as the test product — minus friction additives — and Accurate happens to have the largest automated capability of all the Clearclad job shops in the U.S.
1.2 Million Heat Sink and Face Plates in One Year
After crunching the numbers, Accurate moved ahead with the program with a daunting goal of running off 1.2 million sets of heat sinks and heat sink face plates in about a year. Alex says the job was unique for them because, unlike automotive programs that last years, this had a defined time frame, and then they would have to shrink back down to a normal size.
“We had never done a project like that, but we thought our experience with past automotive programs that exploded out of the gate would help,” he says.
The program kicked off in the summer of 2020 to a great start, but like all manufacturing operations, Accurate Coating was broadsided that fall by the pandemic. When Las Vegas shut down construction sites, the program ground to a halt. At that point, Accurate had multiple production programs frozen as automotive projects paused, and their focus shifted to any available alternatives to keep production running and money coming in.
“Luckily, many of our programs were deemed essential, so we kept at work with very little downtime,” Dave says. “While the project paused, we knew we were losing time we could have used to dampen the breakneck speed of production.”
Accurate Coating offered better terms to try to encourage an earlier resumption, but they ultimately had to wait until the customer wanted to start back up. The break grew longer when engineers decided the lighting element of construction could wait until building construction was further along.
Adapting to Speed of Production and Volume
Waiting somewhat warily for things to start turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Accurate Coating. While the program had started well, adapting to the speed of production and volume of parts was a challenge that benefited from some reflection during their intermission.
“On the chemical side, the massive volume was akin to running our entire system multiples faster and harder than prior standard production,” Alex says. “The replenishment rate of the electrocoat normally required a minimum of three months, and we were turning our bath over in days.”
All the fresh material meant Accurate’s chemistry was way more reactive than normal, so a variety of systems were introduced to stabilize the chemistry. They reviewed and improved their hardware capability and modified their shift schedule with a split shift to essentially double their throughput.
“The important thing to keep in mind is once that job was done, we wouldn’t need a company twice the size of what we started with — an important aspect of a defined period job,” Dave says. “I like the analogy of learning to drive a car at high speed; we would have to know how to speed up, not hit the wall, and then slow down again without hitting the wall for different reasons.”
Dealing with Staffing Issues for Huge Project
One thing that Accurate Coating did from a management standpoint during this program was to shift from annual bonuses to quarterly bonuses to keep their team engaged. They added a couple of people who would knowingly leave for other business in the fall, so they didn’t have to lay anyone off either.
“While overtime was basically uncapped, I was surprised to see many young people with us work nearly no overtime over this program,” Alex says. “I’ve come to believe in the saying that ‘You make hay while the sun shines,’ and that didn’t happen for a number of people who could have benefited from it. I think that’s a generational tell, or we failed to communicate the benefit; one or the other or maybe both.”
Accurate Coating didn’t commit to ‘mandatory overtime’ as many other shops might have done in the past couple of years; Alex says people who were top performers before took full advantage, though, and really came through for the team and company during months of long days and long weeks of work.
“For me personally, the pandemic was like the ‘freshman 15’ despite being a fairly active person,” he says. “After several months of 60-hour weeks, I had shed 20+ pounds that added up from the bad habits I think we all gave into during COVID: too much pizza and too much television.”
Accurate Coating resumed that job in the late fall of 2021 and finished by the end of summer in 2022. The Kaspers say this program didn’t exist in a vacuum either, and they spent a lot of time on all of the other work that pulsed through the shop. They launched a large Harley-Davidson program that was also very demanding, and they added customers like CWM, a large diecaster whom they had never worked with before.
“It was a significant growing period for the business and the customers we work for,” says Alex, who adds there is talk of another Sphere in London or Asia and hope for more business with the possible additional venues.
“But as a job shop, we have to move on to the next act regardless,” he says. “I always think of the book ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ Our cheese is on the move once again, and so are we.”