Despite a new $4.3 million zinc plating line bustling away on their expansive facility, Professional Plating General Manager Larry Dietz knows that the success of their operation isn’t always in the latest technology.
With an expansion of new lines in 2016 and again in 2018, Dietz is the first to admit that having the right team in place — and the teamwork culture that permeates the 200+ employee Brillion, Wisconsin, company — is what he feels sets apart their operations.
“There are a lot of people who can plate between here and Indiana, and they’re a lot of people who can paint between here and Pennsylvania,” says Dietz, whose facility is one of the largest electroplaters in the Midwest and also has a large powder coating and electrocoating operation.
“But I don’t believe they do it with the repeatability that we have come to be known,” he says. “If 100 parts come off those lines, they are all good. We know that we hang our hat on that repeatability every day.”
10 Racks and 288 Square Feet Each Hour
And that consistency will get even better after Professional Plating commissioned a new zinc line in June that can do 10 racks an hour and 288 square feet each hour. The machine has 23 tanks total, with a 15 tank in the pretreatment system.
Zinc manager Kerry Behnke says the new line offers the capability to use multiple chromates and uses the same tooling that is standardized to their two other largest zinc rack lines. It has dual zinc baths in its 15-system pretreatment.
“We are putting our investment right up front into that pretreatment to make sure that the parts are clean coming off that line,” Behnke says. “We decided to invest in that quality right from the start.”
The expansion gives the facility four rack plating lines with one barrel line and comes on the heels of two previous expansions in 2016 and 2018. Over the past decade, Professional Plating’s owners have invested nearly $20 million in adding lines, upgrading facilities for its team members, and investing in technology and software for its team to work not only more efficiently but also smarter.
Dietz says the 2016 expansion was a new line for the facility after having outsourced some work to other shops, and the 2018 line was a replacement for older equipment nearly 30 years old. They started working on the 2022 expansion over a year ago.
“We felt it was time to expand again, or as we like to call it, ‘here we grow again,’” he says. “In 2018, we probably waited too long to replace the other equipment, and it cost us more as we were getting fewer racks for the hours.”
'Do Things Before You Have to Do Things'
Dietz says they went back to the strategy of “do things before you have to do things.” Professional Plating signed a contract with Koch Finishing Systems’ Jessup Systems in early 2021 to start the planning phase of the expansion.
Each of the three previous racks will be completely integrated, making it easier for Behnke and her team to be able to manage production between the systems.
“We need to let computers and software do a lot more for us,” Dietz says. “Our newer and younger team members like ‘cool,’ and having these touchscreens and information available to them is really cool. They don’t really care for pen and paper.”
Behnke says that during the design and engineering process of the new system with Koch, they were able to learn about the new capabilities of the programmed lines, but that Professional Plating was also able to add input to Koch that was eventually programmed into the new line.
A situation came up during design where Behnke asked the Koch team why they would not make a station out of replacing anode baskets, which turned out to be an idea that Koch was able to immediately add to the design of the systems’ software program.
“The engineer said, ‘that is a very good question, and why wouldn’t we do that all the time?’” Behnke says. “In a matter of ten minutes, he had the program updated for me, and he’s now making that mental note to go back for other customers and do the same thing.”
New Preventive Maintenance Platform
Professional Plating also recently implemented a new preventive maintenance platform to aid them in performing and tracking their maintenance needs. The Limble program is a computerized maintenance management system that maintains a computer database of information about their maintenance operations and is intended to help maintenance workers do their jobs more effectively by determining which machines require maintenance and providing detailed pictorial work instructions to perform the job.
Dietz says the facility tracks over 650 preventive maintenance items for their process equipment which was previously done on paper and had to be reviewed and updated on a weekly basis. Updates to maintenance item status’ are now being done automatically by the maintenance technicians on computer tablets as the tasks are done, giving Professional Plating real-time updates.
“Not only does this program track spare part inventory, safety training events, and tank maintenance, but it will give the management team insight for scheduling downtime for maintenance items that cannot be performed while a machine is in operation,” he says. “This will eliminate maintenance items from becoming overdue due to scheduling conflicts.”
But not only does Professional Plating try to give its workforce the most advanced tools it needs, but they also make sure to engage and support workers in a variety of ways, including expanding areas of the plant specifically designed to enhance team member morale and their workplace environment.
Team Center, Restrooms, Locker Rooms, and Wellness Center
A few years ago, Dietz and his management team decided to turn about 70,000 square feet of what would have been additional office space into an area for employees to have a team center, lounge, cafeteria, restrooms, locker rooms, a wellness center, and a more secure entry.
The new team member areas provide a comfortable setting to enjoy their breaks, including areas with a television, WiFi, furniture, an outdoor patio, and a newer kitchen area. With the wellness center, employees can begin each day with a 15-minute paid workout. The new wellness area also has plenty of equipment for workers to get additional exercise.
Another feature of the team center area is rooms called the ‘comfort suite’ that feature lounge furniture and can also be used as a nursing room, or if someone isn’t feeling well, they can take a break to lie down for a few minutes before resuming work.
“We do all of this because there is a genuine care for our team,” Dietz says. “You can’t automate culture. This is the same approach to when we had 10 team members and 10,000 square feet and now to over 200 team members and 200,000 square feet.”
That’s why Dietz, Behnke, and Jessica Moskow, the Powder Coat Manager, like to bring customers in for tours so they can see the way the shop is run and how much the employees care and feel appreciated.
“They can see there is a true difference there,” Dietz says.
Powder Coating Division Also Sees Improved Efficiencies
Moskow also gets the same attention from management and owners in her powder coating division as the electroplating and ecoat departments.
“The line has not changed much over the years, but we have made upgrades as far as our booth and our guns,” she says. “But we are always looking at what we have to see what may become obsolete, and what are we going to have to do to make sure that we protect ourselves from that occurring.”
With an in-house ecoat operation, Professional Plating has the ability to ship parts from that line directly to the powder coating division to get an additional coat of protection. Moskow says about one-third of the parts they are coating daily are coming from the ecoat line.
With customers such as Volvo, Harley-Davidson, and John Deere, among others, the warranty specifications are getting so high that having the ability to apply an ecoat and then a powder coat makes Professional Plating a unique offering for many OEMs.
In addition, Moskow’s powder coating department has become extremely efficient at color changing and sometimes will go through 15 colors per day on their line without a hiccup.
“As we move into our later hours, we switch into some other blacks and some John Deere colors, and we get lighter as the day goes on,” she says.
The powder coat team has become so efficient that recently they took a white project they were struggling with manually and put it through their automated booth that had been coating black all day and didn’t miss a beat.
“It’s a scary situation when you think about taking your gloss black and running it through the same equipment that we’re doing white,” Moskow says. “But our team handled it phenomenally and we kind of raised our own eyebrows at first, and now we no longer even look at that as a constraint for us.”
Next Expansion May Be In the Works
And while the dust may have settled on the latest expansion project and the new line is commissioned and running, Dietz says he knows that founder and owner Bob Endries may soon come knocking on his door to see what else Professional Plating can do to remain competitive and responsive to its customers.
“I’m willing to bet oneww of his questions is going to be ‘did we order that new barrel line yet,’ and that’s the type of support we get from him,” Dietz says. “But we are not buying stuff just to show off; we are adding things to make it better for customers and to create more security for our team.”