Jason Pugh was in the powder coating industry for only a few months before his company — Key-Link Fencing and Railing — presented him with a huge challenge.
“We thought it would be something that would help set us apart from competitors,” Pugh says. “We’re always striving to get better. We want to learn where our shortfalls may be, what we can do to improve our processes, and what we can do to put a better quality product out.”
Working Towards PCI 4000 Certification
It was a daunting task for his team at Key-Link’s New Holland, Pennsylvania, headquarters to work towards PCI 4000 certification, which is for original equipment manufacturers. Only five other companies have attained the certification.
But it was especially huge for Pugh, who previously had been director of maintenance for Zook Molasses Company, which produces retail and industrial-size syrups, sugars, molasses, cooking oils, and dry mixes.
But Pugh used that inexperience to his advantage.
“I had no powder coating experience, but I came into this with a fresh set of eyes,” he says. “And I just said, ‘You know what? It’s a challenge I want to win.’”
Key-Link has been manufacturing aluminum railing and fence products for over 40 years but just added onsite powder-coating facilities about five years ago. All of their products are fabricated and powder-coated at their New Holland plant and shipped from their warehouse.
Key-Link is also a subsidiary of Superior Plastic Products, a manufacturer and supplier of vinyl railing, vinyl fencing, and vinyl specialty products.
3 Powder Coatings Lines to Fine-Tune
The facility has three operating powder coat lines, of which two are automated. One line has eight-foot load bars, which allows them to run up to about 10 feet in length to handle most of their balusters, pickets, rails, and longer fence posts.
The system starts with a 5-stage wash that includes two surface prep cleaning stages and several rinses, followed by an etcher and sealer. Parts then go through a dry-off oven into the powder booth, which are Nordson ColorMax booths that are part of a quick color change powder spray system optimized for efficient, repeatable powder application.
The other automated line is a duplicate of the other but has four-foot load bars.
“We run the same cleaning process through all three of our lines,” Pugh says. “On the smaller line, we run our small parts, brackets, and accessories that we sell with our fences. Our third line is a hand-spray line where we do longer lengths, and it is all manual.”
Pugh says that in 2022 began a plant-wide initiatives to cross-train all powder coating technicians across the plant and in the powder coating booth. The practices continues today.
“It’s nice to have that flexibility with our techs to be able to move them back and forth between equipment,” he says.
Bringing Together Key Members of the Manufacturing Team
Pugh says Key-Link management asked him shortly after taking over as powder coating manager to work towards the PCI 4000 certification for the department. As Pugh began to dig into what the process would be to obtain the certification, he soon brought together key members of the manufacturing team to discuss a plan of action.
Lloyd Wetzel, Key-Link’s Plant Engineering Manager, led a meeting with numerous other quality managers and techs, and the powder coating team to discuss the PCI 4000 requirements and how to get ready for the certification process.
“We all got together and went over the audit,” Pugh says. “We went through everything on the PCI list, and a lot of it, we saw things that we were already doing.”
After discussing the process further with Key-Link management, the decision was made to contact PCI and begin the process.
“We were all in agreement that we wanted to pursue this,” Pugh says. “The attitude was like, ‘Let’s get them in here, and let’s do the audit.’ Let’s see what it looks like. We knew we were going to learn, and that’s really the mindset we went into it with. We were going to find out if we were up to par, and if not, what do we need to do to get up to par?”
Undertaking Extensive Audit Program
PCI says its 4000 certification is an extensive audit program that evaluates the candidate’s business practices, process elements, equipment, maintenance practices, and quality control capabilities. Certified coaters can show — through demonstrated audit performance measurement — that they have the capabilities to correctly clean, coat, and cure products to meet the manufacturer’s recommendations.
“Certification is not a determination of the quality of the powder-coated product that is produced,” says Kevin Coursin, PCI’s Executive Director. “It strictly certifies that the coater has the capabilities and competencies to produce a high-quality powder-coated product.”
Applicants for PCI 4000 certification must complete and submit an audit application, including acknowledgment of OSHA/NFPA compliance requirements.
The onsite audit duration is a minimum of one day and a maximum of 2 days per facility. A pre-audit telephone consultation between the applicant and auditor is available to review the facility setup, answer questions, and finalize the onsite audit date. All audits are performed at the facility by a PCI-retained auditor and include a meeting with certification applicant company representatives, a review of applicant records, logs, and procedures, and a process review.
Assessing Line Operation Capability
The audit is performed using PCI scoring developed for the purpose of assessing line operation capability. Upon audit completion, the auditor submits the finalized score sheet to PCI. The areas that are scored include:
- Surface Preparation: processes used, equipment condition, maintenance procedures, and adequacy for substrates being treated. Testing procedures to confirm satisfactory pretreatment results are also evaluated.
- Ovens and Curing: equipment condition, calibration, and preventive maintenance procedures and documentation. Documentation and tracking of recipes for operation parameters/oven set points per requirements.
- Booth and Recovery: location and condition of application area; compressed air quantity and quality, as well as system location and distribution design; powder reclamation process; and condition of collection booth and related equipment, maintenance, and cleaning procedures.
- Powder Application: a look at application equipment condition and maintenance; good earth grounding practices; color change process; and operator PPE.
- Incoming Quality Control: documentation and evaluation of parts prior to coating; powder coating inventory usage, storage conditions, and evaluation procedures; technical and safety data maintenance and availability; reject process.
- Training: the training process for all powder coating personnel, including operators and supervisors.
- Maintenance:program, schedule, and documentation process for equipment maintenance.
- Process Management: job tracking for the entire coating process, including documentation of line speed, coating data, unique specifications and requests, production schedule, part hanging, quality tests, etc.
- Final Quality Control: existence of a quality management program and quality manual; definition of quality parts vs. rejects, documented and tracked; root cause analysis process.
- Loading, Unloading, and Packaging: loading and hanging process supports coating objectives; rack and conveyor condition; part handling, evaluation, and touch-up process; packaging specifications and consistency.
Utilizing PCI 4000 Certification Approval
The PCI Program Administrator informs the applicant of their certification status within 10 business days of audit completion. If the company passes, it can use the PCI 4000 certification logo and information on its website and sales literature.
Applicants that do not pass the onsite audit are provided with a corrective action plan CAP and will have six months from the date of notification to implement the CAP.
Pugh says he and other Key-Link leaders knew they were already doing the majority of the inspection list.
“There was a couple of things we might have had to tighten up the fine details,” he says. “It was dotting our I’s and crossing our T’s as far as we were doing it, but just making sure it was documented and our processes were updated documents.”
Key-Link started the audit process in March with a PCI representative who spent three days with the group going over their systems and documentation. It was in May that they heard back that they had passed the audit and received their PCI 4000 certification.
“Anytime you go into an audit, you’re always a little bit concerned,” Pugh says. “I did everything on my end, but you just never know what may be found in an audit; maybe it's ‘I didn’t think of that.’ But we all went into the audit as a management team that, one way or another, we’re going to learn from this audit. We’re going find out what we can do better, what we can do to up our standards, and really maximize the value of the audit as far as the learning aspect.”
Illustrating Commitment to Quality
Key-Link officials were pleased that Pugh and the coatings team were able to pass the audit on the first try.
“Achieving PCI Certification illustrates our commitment to quality,” says Javan Lapp, Key-Link’s CEO. “To be recognized by a third party shows that we have the equipment and procedures in place that enable us to produce the quality coated products that meet our customers’ expectations.”
Coursin says that process measurement and repeatability are key to giving customers confidence that a certified finishing operation has the processes in place to do the job well.
“By successfully completing the certification process, Key-Link demonstrates that it understands powder coating is a high-performance painting process that must be maintained and controlled to optimize the performance of the finish,” Coursin says.
Pugh gave all the credit to his coatings team.
“We have an excellent group here, and they do a fantastic job of really dialing in the duties of their job, making sure we’re putting a consistent product out there,” he says. “They are very diligent on making sure that they’re doing the best to put a consistent product out the door, as well as they’re doing their best to help us improve. My hat off to them.”