It’s always good to have a few friends in the powder coating industry to call on when you need a quick answer.
For Jonathan Gawlak at Accurate Metal Fabricating (AMF) in Cicero, IL, that help could not come soon enough when his company installed a fully-automatic powder coating line and 5-stage washer in 2022.
Previously, AMF was outsourcing its coating needs, but the decision to bring the system in-house — as well as moving into a new building and combining two facilities into one — made for quite the challenge for everyone involved.
“It was like a perfect storm,” says Gawlak, AMF’s Quality Manager for its coating division. “Not only are we getting a new building, but we’re transitioning two different facilities into one building, and bringing a brand new paint line. It was a challenge.”
New 1,063-Foot Powder Coating Line
Gawlak had experience in coatings while at Marvel Group in Chicago, which AMF acquired in early 2021. But bringing together the new 1,063-foot powder coating line, the cleaning station, and the ovens and booths was a major operation that needed to be fine-tuned rather quickly.
The two major equipment providers — integrator Midwest Finishing Systems and powder equipment supplier Wagner — assisted AMF in getting not only the equipment up and running but also setting them on a path of mastering the art of quality coating.
“It’s not where you could just turn on the machine, and you can start stamping things out,” Gawlak says. “We were very lucky to have Midwest, and Wagner not only put the system in but also helped us with the powder coating process. It’s so involved, from setting up the machines to the concentrations of the chemicals to the application side of it. It takes a lot of time and effort and training.”
AMF has been fabricating metal since 1939, when it was Advance Display, and made a niche for itself in the Point-of-Purchase market sector. In 2006, Accurate Perforating acquired Advance Display and re-named it Accurate Metal Fabricating, where it specializes in fabricating parts and blanks, bases, assemblies and components, screens, guards, grilles, enclosures, cabinets, perforated sheets and coils, lighting components, retail fixtures, pop displays, and weapon racks.
Last year, AMF purchased the Marvel Group, and decided it wanted to control the manufacturing process more by installing a new powder coating system instead of sending the work out to various Chicago facilities.
Bringing Powder Coating In-House
While he was at Marvel, Gawlak oversaw the powder coating operation, among other things, and inherited the position of Quality Manager when the acquisition took place in 2022. By then, the AMF management team had already decided to bring the powder coating in-house and had already started working with Midwest and Wagner on the system and equipment.
“We pride ourselves on quality and lead time,” Gawlak says. “And in order to reduce our lead times, we needed to bring that process in-house. To be more responsive — especially to the markets that we serve, like the PoP business — we needed this process to be in-house to reduce lead types and to be very quick and responsive to our customer needs.”
Vic Fiszer, President and Chief Financial Officer at AMF, says adding their own powder coating system was needed because shipping parts back and forth to coaters was not doable.
“The products that we produce are too big to send bath back and forth on trucks,” he says. “It would be too unwieldy and expensive. But also it would really enhance and satisfy our customer needs because it really cuts lead time.”
"If you have a short cycle time — and you have good quality — customers just don't want to leave you. You have to be well higher than the next guy if they risk leaving you.”
For example, some customers who use AMF to create PoP displays at stores want to quickly put together a prototype to see how well the display would work. AMF had no issue with fabricating the product but was often on hold while the one-off parts were sent out to be finished at the powder coater.
“In order to get this job, we’re bidding against these other companies, and we need to prototype immediately,” Gawlak says. “Going to an outside finisher might take one or two weeks. We don’t know what they’re running, and when they’re going to throw a couple of pieces of our prototypes on their line and change colors and stuff like that. It became very expensive, and the lead time was a problem.”
Fiszer says adding an in-house powder coating line was a way to better engage its customers.
“I've been very lucky in my life to work for some very intelligent people,” he says. “One guy in particular used to preach that it comes down to not just on-time delivery, but it comes down to cycle time. If you have a short cycle time — and you have good quality — customers just don't want to leave you. You have to be well higher than the next guy if they risk leaving you.”
That is when AMF began designing the new line in 2021 and worked with Midwest and Wagner on the specifications.
Fortunately, Midwest took Fiszer and his team on a tour of five previous installations that had been done to let them see what a proper installation was all about, and Fiszer came away impressed.
“We learned not only from the folks at Midwest, but from their customers, too,” he says. “And that was absolutely crucial for us laying out the line. Midwest has been unbelievably helpful, and they even they hooked us up with the right chemical and paint people, too. It has worked out pretty well.”
The installed line includes:
- A fully automatic line that runs 1,063 feet.
- 5-Stage wash system to provide surface pretreatment for corrosion protection, paint adhesion, and salt spray performance.
- Part capacity up to 400 pounds.
- Dry-off oven that is 40’6” long x 14’ wide with a temperature range of 250°F to 450°
- Cure oven that is 56’6” x 26’ wide for complete uniformity.
- Paint booth opening 48” wide x 72” high.
- The paint section is 10’6” long by 7’11” wide.
- Quick cube, fast color change booth.
- Electrostatic powder spray.
- 8x automatic coating system.
- Pre and post-manual spray stations.
- It can apply all powder types, from epoxy to polyester, including zinc-rich primer.
- Can handle over 1,000 coating recipes.
Gawlak says that after getting the initial equipment installed and tuned in by the providers, it became crucial to have the powder coating team trained properly in order to provide a quality finish.
“We’re continually training right now, and it’s nonstop,” he says. “We always want to get better. It’s an ongoing process in that we are always training to get better. It hasn’t stopped yet from day one.”
The coating team runs two shifts and includes 10 staff members in total. Gawlak says that level can change depending on the amount of work that is being run through the factory, and then other workers in the facility can be called on to help load and unload parts where needed.
And even though they are an in-house system, Gawlak says they operate very much like a typical job shop, as the parts they coat are inconsistent from not only one day to the next but also from hour to hour possibly.
Training, Training, and More Training
And in the realm of AMF’s constant training cycle, Gawlak says he routinely brings in different suppliers to help teach and train his team on proper protocols, procedures, and practices to get the best finish possible.
“Sometimes it’s little tricks of the trade that we want to pick up on,” he says. “Not everybody knows those tricks, but we want to get better in any way we can.”
Gawlak brought in D.J. Laffey, a Technical Sales Specialist at powder supplier Powder Technology, Inc., as well as Dan Anderson, General Manager at All-Color Powder Coating in Oregon Town, Wisconsin.
In fact, Gawlak visited Anderson and the team at All-Color Powder Coating to see how their facility operates in order to pick up some tips that he could use at AMF. He says he appreciated All-Color opening its doors for him and teaching him the proper way to run a facility, even though AMF might be considered a somewhat competitor of theirs.
“In the powder coating industry here in the Midwest, everybody seems to know each other,” Gawlak says. “When I talk to DJ at PTI about someone, he’ll tell me that he knows that guy. They all seem to know each other, and it’s a very small circle of people that have been in the industry for a long time. What I’ve noticed on collaborating with all these individuals is that they’re very receptive to answering questions and helping out.”
With a Little Help From Their Friends
Gawlak says not only has the assistance been helpful, but it has been surprising to him, as well.
“I found that to be eye-opening,” he says. “In different industries, you might find somebody who doesn’t want to talk to you because they don’t want to give out secrets. But this has really been eye-opening for me to realize that someone like Dan Anderson will invite you to his facility and will spend hours with you just answering questions. He is awesome.”
The training assistance has paid off handsomely, as AMF is now an authorized applicator of the American Architectural Manufacturers Association’s 2603, 2604, and 2605 coatings process. It’s a qualification that Gawlak knows came from not only having very good powder coaters on his team but also having suppliers and vendors that are willing to work with them to get better at the craft.
“That’s a testament not only to us but also to people like our chemical suppliers,” he says. “These parts have to be pretreated well in order to be certified, and so it’s not only the powder coating or the application, but it’s also the chemicals that we put those parts. It all ties together.”