Adept Powder Coating Branches Out.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA has a well-earned reputation for being the nation's bellwether of environmental regulations. The harsh reality of this claim to fame is known all too well by local woodworking companies, which were saddled with the burden of reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds in their finishing operations several years before their brethren in other parts of the country were forced to do so.
To comply with the South Coast Air Quality District's environmental crackdown, many woodworking shops turned to water-based finishes. Others adopted UV curing of high solids finishes, quit finishing and switched to laminating or, in the most extreme cases, shuttered their doors and moved to Mexico.
Last fall, Adept Powder Coatings took a different tack toward achieving finishing compliance while simultaneously aiming for new markets when it signed on as a Certified Lamineer Applicator with Morton International. In doing so, the company, which was originally formed in March of 1998 to apply VOC-free powder coatings on metal truck parts for SmittyBilt, has extended its service reach to coat MDF cabinet doors, juvenile furniture, stereo speaker boxes and other engineered wood products.
Getting Started in Powder Finishing
Adept Powder Coatings is run by partners Tom Smith, former owner of SmittyBilt; Phil Clemmons and Andy Starritt. Clemmons says he approached Smith with the idea of installing a metal powder coating line about three years ago.
"SmittyBilt was growing so much over the last five years or so that it got to the point where they needed an in-house powder coating line," Clemmons recalls. "The more we talked about it, the more we were brought together as partners to develop a new company specializing in powder coating to service SmittyBilt and other metal customers," Clemmons says.
Adept's 35,000-square-foot operation shares a building with SmittyBilt. In fact, an extension of Adept's overhead conveyor connecting to the finishing line runs through an opening in the wall that separates the two businesses.
Clemmons says as installation of the metal powder coating progressed, his partners and he began hearing about Morton's Lamineer powder coating for MDF.
"I actually played around with spraying wood with metal powder coatings some years back but never had much success at it," Clemmons says. "But I was interested in finding out more about the newest development."
In addition to talking with his Morton representatives, who already were furnishing Adept with metal powder coatings, Clemmons says he got in touch with Sierra Pine, which was developing a new MDF panel designed specifically for powder coating.
"I was impressed by what I learned and because we had open capacity on the line, we decided to spend an additional $500,000 on top of our initial $1.5 million investment to reengineer our line, including our ovens and gun setup, so that we could coat wood as well as metal," Clemmons says.
"The powder coating market is tough out here in Southern California," Clemmons adds. "Every ma and pa shop seems to be doing metal. The ability to do wood, as well as metal, using our high-volume line or batch ovens, enhances our competitive position."
More Than 500,000 MDF Parts Powder Coated
Just over a year ago, Adept christened its commercial wood powder coating capabilities by finishing 3,000 children's desktops in red and blue. Since then, the company has powder coated more than 500,000 MDF parts with the lion's share comprising one-piece MDF doors for a high-volume cabinet manufacturer.
"Wood coating is totally new and it's very interesting and challenging," Clemmons says. "Powder loves metal, but wood does not love powder. We can use a lot of information that we learned from coating metal for wood but there are a lot of nuances that need to be factored in if you are going to attain consistent results in finishing wood."
Achieving consistency begins with the quality of the substrate and the machining perfection of the part, Clemmons says. "The single biggest cause of part rejects in powder coating relates to the moisture content of the wood," Clemmons says. "If the substrate has too much moisture it will blister through the coating. If it has too little moisture the coating will not adhere."
In lieu of owning woodworking equipment, Adept has established a subcontractual relationship with Diamond Woodworks in Lake Elsinore, CA, to machine wood parts. "We buy the board, they do the routing and we finish and sell the finished component," he says.
The Powder Process
To illustrate this relationship, Clemmons says profiled one-piece cabinet doors are machined on a CNC router at Diamond Woodworks plant before making their 20-minute journey by truck to Adept. There, Adept employees drill holes in the back of each part so that they can be hung by hook on the conveyor. Each part is visually inspected for any signs of damage and surface dust is blown off with compressed air in a Dust Hog sanding booth.
Pallet loads of cleaned-up doors are moved to the finishing line and hung one after the other on the overhead conveyor; up to four doors are suspended vertically in line to maximize production.
The suspended parts move into a preheat oven set at about 400F. The 12-minute journey through the oven helps ensure that the moisture content is stabilized and consistent throughout each workpiece.
Upon leaving the preheat oven, the pieces immediately enter the company's spray booths where two sets of six to eight ITW Gema automatic electrostatic spray guns apply a textured Lamineer powder coated finish to each side of the workpieces. The spray booth is housed in a dust-proof, temperature controlled environmental room.
As soon as the doors exit the spray booth, they travel through a curing oven set at about 425F for eight minutes. The doors remain on the hooks to air cool. Once they reach about 100F they are unhooked and stacked.
The one value-added machining operation that Adept performs Involves drilling European hinge holes. "We learned that if we bore the hinge fittings before finishing, that taking a big chunk out of the substrate leaves that area very thin," Clemmons says. "It gets very hot and changes the total cosmetics of the front side."
Why Powder Coating?
"Vinyl laminating is a good process and is very flexible in terms of design pallet because you can't currently do woodgrains or highgloss finishes with powder coating," Clemmons says. "However, powder coating gives you much greater freedom in terms of the wild shapes and profiles you can do without any seams."
Clemmons adds, "If you look at the physical properties side by side, the two applications are almost a push. Vinyl might win out for hardness but powder, because it is seamless, wins out for heat and moisture resistance. Plus, cost is always a driving factor and powder wins out because there is little waste, requires no glue and overspray can be reclaimed and resprayed.
"Powder coating is not for everybody, but I think that some of the limitations that exist now will be addressed by future research and development. And from an environmental standpoint, I don't think powder coating can be beat."