Powder coating is gaining the attention of the awning industry because it’s durable, environmentally friendly and cost effective.
After decades without much innovation, the sign industry is rapidly adopting new technologies and techniques to make its products look better, last longer and cost less.
While there’s been much ado about digital printing and with good reason there is a quiet revolution beginning in the awning segment of the industry. Call it the powder coating movement and expect the term to become a household name for awning makers in the years to come.
What is powder coating, you ask? It’s an advanced method of applying decorative and protective finish to a wide range of materials and products. The process uses a powder (a mixture of finely ground particles of pigment and resin). That powder is sprayed onto a surface as an alternative to paint.
Here’s how it works: The charged powder particles adhere to the electrically grounded surfaces. The surface is heated in a curing oven and that heat causes a fusion between the powder and the surface to produce a smooth coating.
The result is a uniform, durable, high-quality, and attractive finish. That’s one reason why powder coating is the fastest-growing finishing technology in North America, representing 10 percent of all industrial finishing applications, according to the Powder Coating Institute.
Indeed, powder coating has gained acceptance with appliance manufacturers, automakers, architectural lawn and garden hardware manufacturers, and sporting goods markets, along with a laundry list of everyday products. Now, the awning industry is grabbing hold of this not-so-new technology to transform its finishing process. Awning Innovations and Systems Awnings are two manufacturers on the leading edge of the powder coating trend.
“Powder coating is becoming more and more popular,” says Brett Hodges, vice president of Awning Innovations, a flex-face and awning manufacturer with offices in Indianapolis, Dallas and Winston-Salem, N.C. “We are seeing a lot of Elegance products with powder coated frames. We are working on getting in-house powder coating operations at two of our facilities, which would be a big move for us.”
The Not-So-New Kid in Town
Powder coating as an electrostatic finishing process was first developed in the mid-1950s. The process hit big in the 1980s and gained momentum in the 1990s. North American powder coating production grew from 66 million pounds in 1986 to 269 million pounds in 1996, a 308 percent increase. Today there are more than 5,000 powder coating systems in operation across North America and total annual sales of North American thermoset decorative powder coating materials has reached $1 billion.
Farmers have powder coated tractors and farm equipment. Fitness buffs use golf clubs and golf carts, ski poles and bindings, snowmobiles, bicycles, and exercise equipment that are powder coated. Shop owners have powder coated display racks, shelves, store fixtures, and vending machines. Office workers use metal furniture, computer cabinets, mechanical pencils and pens, thumbtacks, and other desk accessories that are powder coated. And homeowners have lawn mowers, snowblowers, barbecue grills, patio furniture, garden tools, electronic components, bathroom scales, toolboxes, and fire extinguishers that benefit from a powder coated finish.
Why all the hubbub about powder coating? There are many advantages to the powder coating process versus traditional paint. The industry claims that powder is more durable than paint, cost less than paint and lasts at least as long as paint.
“Powder coated surfaces are more resistant to chipping, scratching, fading, and wearing than other finishes,” says Jeff Palmer, spokesperson for the Powder Coating Institute. “Color selection is virtually unlimited with high and low gloss, metallic, and clear finishes available. And colors stay bright and vibrant longer. Texture selections range from smooth surfaces to a wrinkled or matte finish, and rough textures designed for hiding surface imperfections.”
Powder coating is also environmentally friendly. While liquid finishes contain solvents that have pollutants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), powder coating contains no solvents and releases negligible amounts, if any, of VOCs into the atmosphere. That eliminates the need for costly pollution control equipment.
In fact, one of the major catalysts for growth in the powder coating industry has been the implementation of stringent air pollution control legislation over the past three decades. Finishers who use powder coating can comply more easily with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
“Powder coating is a lot easier to clean up than paint. With paint you have liquid paint sludge to dispose of,” Palmer says. “Much of the over-spray powder that doesn’t stick to the part can be recycled and reused. It’s those factors that have really helped the powder coating industry take off.”
With no VOCs, the air used to exhaust the powder spray booth can be re-circulated directly into the plant, eliminating the cost of heating or cooling the make-up air. Palmer says energy is also saved with the curing ovens. Solvent-based coatings must heat and exhaust huge volumes of air to ensure that the solvent fumes do not reach a potentially explosive level, but the exhaust requirements in powder coating ovens are lower. “Powder coating is more efficient because it requires no drying and more parts can be coated automatically,” Palmer says. “Powder coating does not run, drip, or sag, and this results in significantly lower reject rates.”
Setting Up to Powder Coat
In terms of investing in equipment, Palmer says getting set up to powder coat is about the same cost as getting set up to paint, but the powder is less expensive and the payback is quicker.
To get started, you’ll need a powder application gun, powder, a booth or enclosed area within which to spray the powder, and a curing oven to melt the powder. The size of the oven depends on the size of the part.
“One of the criticisms that liquid paint advocates have with powder was that it took too long to clean the guns and change colors,” Palmer admits. “That issue is being addressed by the equipment manufacturers who are finding more efficient methods.”
While powder coating started as an alternative to finishing metal products only, the development of powder that can be cured at lower temperatures is allowing powder coating to expand to non-metal surfaces such as ceramics and some wood and plastic applications.
“Powder coating on wood is growing by leaps and bounds,” Palmer says. “Technology is developing quicker and better ways to do things with powder and providing ways to make powder more versatile on a wider variety of products.”