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“There’s More to Plating than You Zinc!”

Zinc Plating Done Right
Zinc Plating Done Right
Written By: Jim Schweich, Chief Executive Perfectionist

I have been in the zinc plating business for over 25 years, and I love it. What we do is important, and we get to do it for some truly wonderful customers who really appreciate what we offer to them.

However, whenever we introduce our company to prospective customers, there is one obstacle we almost always need to overcome:

The misperception that “all platers are alike,” and that zinc plating is an uncomplicated, unsophisticated process.

While this misperception poses a challenge for truly superior zinc plating companies, it can also lead to unfortunate decisions by any parts manufacturers who believe it. If you have been told that all platers are alike, I hope the following pages will persuade you to “zinc” again! The fact is that – done properly – zinc plating is a very complex process requiring advanced technology, highly specialized expertise, and leading-edge management processes.

This is not to say, however, that all zinc platers adhere to the same standards. Too many manufacturers have been burned by sending their metal parts to a plating company simply because it offered the lowest price or was located around the corner. Metal parts manufacturers need to demand more from their zinc plating vendors. To be specific, we recommend that you demand of the following:

Planning
Laser-Focus
Accuracy
Turnaround
Eco-friendliness
Cleaning
Optimize
The importance of each of these demands will be discussed on the following pages.
PLANNING
In explaining Apple’s amazing success, Steve Jobs said, “We had a fundamental belief that doing it right the first time was going to be easier than having to go back and fix it.” We could not agree more! That is why I do not understand why so many zinc platers try to cut corners when deciding which processes to use when plating new parts sent to them by their customers. If they do not plan properly, three bad things can happen:

  1. The plating will be done poorly.
  2. The project will be delayed due to unanticipated problems.
  3. Unexpected complexity will cause a price increase above the estimate.

Here are some questions your zinc plater must investigate to ensure excellent results:

  • Which plating process is optimal: barrel electroplating, rack electroplating, mechanical plating, or mechanical galvanizing?
  • If barrel plating is best, which barrel line will yield the ideal finish? Will the parts mix well enough to ensure full zinc coverage to the requested thickness? Will the parts dry properly?
  • If rack plating is best, which rack design will ensure the best plating distribution over all current densities? Will there be any issues with trapping process solution or air pockets?
  • What level of cleaning is required to ensure adequate adhesion and coverage?
  • What is the ideal chemical formula and temperature for each process tank?
  • What is the exact surface area to be plated? How many amps per square foot will be required for that surface area? What is the necessary process time?
  • Which chromate should be applied to reach the proper corrosion resistance?

There is no shortcut to answering these and other critical questions responsibly.

LASER-FOCUS

Many plating companies opt to offer a wide range of plating services beyond zinc plating, including gold, silver, copper, chrome, tin, nickel, and alloy plating. The fact is, however, that zinc plating is an extremely complex and challenging process. Only by focusing solely on one type of plating can a plating company develop the necessary expertise and technology to give the truly exceptional quality and service that you and your customers deserve.

ACCURACY

In our world, “accuracy” means that zinc plating a) does precisely what the customer needs it to do and b) does not lead to high return rates. In our annual customer surveys, our customers continually tell us accuracy or quality is the single-most important criterion by which a zinc plating company should be measured.

 If you are vetting a new zinc plater, I strongly suggest asking them a simple question:

“What is your customer return rate?”

If they do not have a ready answer, I would be concerned. Any zinc plater that is not constantly monitoring return rate is probably experiencing a higher rate than would to be comfortable with. I would also be concerned if they do know their return rate and its over one percent, especially if they do not have a plan to reduce it.

TURNAROUND

Our customers then tell us that rapid turnaround time the second most important plating criterion. We know that while many plating companies talk a good game in terms of their turnaround times, they too often fail to deliver when promised.

 It is one thing to promise quick turnaround; it is another thing to deliver it consistently, as opposed to just when the spotlight is on. I suggest asking your current or possible future platers what kind of turnaround time they will commit to. If they tell you anything less than 3 business days, I would question if they would be able to consistently commit to that lead time.

 If product is scheduled properly, it will be processed correctly and not yield any non-conforming product. However, if product is not scheduled properly, the product will be either over plated or under plated and not meet the required specification. To meet the committed lead time of less than 3 days, the plater will have to decide; send product that is not conforming or miss the delivery date and re-process until the product is conforming. 

ECO-FRIENDLINESS
There is no other way to say it: plating is a very dirty business in which large quantities of water that have been exposed to harsh chemicals are returned to the local water supply each day. If your company is concerned about its environmental footprint, you will probably want to make sure that your zinc plating company is too.

Being an eco-friendly zinc plater requires quite a commitment in terms of time, technology, and money. A company that is willing to make this kind of commitment is a company that “does the right thing.”

CLEANING

Here is a little secret that a lot of plating companies do not seem to understand, a critical key to exceptional plating is exceptional cleaning. When steel parts are manufactured, the heat treating, welding, and brazing processes can dehydrate and bake scale or flux onto the surface of the parts. If a part is covered in scale or flux, the zinc is simply not going to adhere properly. Cleaning these contaminants from steel parts is not easy. While you might attempt to clean your parts before shipping them to a plater, those parts will almost always require additional cleaning. The question is: Does your plater provide an adequate level of cleaning? It is certainly a question worth asking.

OPTIMIZE

To meet and exceed customer expectations, plating suppliers should focus on perfecting their processes to make them highly effective and functional. They key to optimization is to distinguish between what is possible and what is necessary. To determine what is possible and what is necessary, plating suppliers should measure their key performance indicators to determine what their current capabilities are and, in return, be able to determine what their goals are. Once the goals have been set, plans need to be put in place and the progress needs to be tracked. Key areas of optimization can be retaining good leadership, process control, continual improvements, or the use of automation.

WHAT PLATER COULD POSSIBLY MEET THESE SEVEN DEMANDS?
Here is the approach my company, Plateco, takes:
PLANNING

We have an Engineering Planning Department that determines the perfect game plan for each new part. The minute a customer sends us a new part, our engineers take hundreds of factors into account to ensure that each part is plated perfectly and on time. Our engineers then create a configuration that is specific to each part number in our system. Every part is different from another and we treat them as such. This configuration includes specific details and photos of how the product is going to be processed each and every time it is at our facility. This allows us to provide our customers with high quality and consistency with each order processed.

Engineering Planning Department
LASER-FOCUS

Zinc plating is the ONLY kind of plating we do and our team has over 110+ years of combined expertise. Each day, our team has multiple meetings in the morning and afternoon, to review product and ensure that we are getting things done right the first time. We focus on creating efficiencies that allow us to meet and exceed our customers’ expectations. Our attention to detail and laser focus is what brought us to our self-proclaimed, Plating Perfection.

ACCURACY

We not only monitor our return rate daily; we publish it on our website for the world to see. At any given time, you can go on to our website and see our customer return rate for the last 6-month period. We think you will be hard-pressed to find a zinc plater anywhere that can beat a return rate less than 1%!

 To keep that return rate heading in the right direction, our team has a Quality Control Meeting at 9:00 am every day to review every single part from the prior day that did not meet our plating specifications. We do not leave until we have determined precisely what the problem was and what we need to do to ensure it does not happen again. In the spirit of full transparency, the meeting is held on our factory floor in full view of all employees and visitors. Here is a photo of a typical meeting:

Quality Control Meeting
TURNAROUND

For standard zinc plating processes, we commit that parts will be ready to be shipped or picked up within four days of their arrival at our loading dock. This commitment is in big, bold font on our website. We have made major investments in ensuring that product is scheduled properly, resulting in the product being plated to specification, the first time and meeting delivery dates. Our on-time delivery percentage is 98%!

Turnaround
ECO-FRIENDLINESS

Each day we treat and release roughly 100,000 gallons of water into the Reedsburg, Wisconsin municipal water supply. Despite the fact that this water is exposed to some extremely potent chemicals during the course of the day’s electroplating, the treated water is actually purer when we release it back into the municipal water supply at day’s end than it is when we bring it into our facility. We have a specially designed rinse system that uses 1/10 the amount of water but yields 10 times the rinsing capabilities.

ECO-FRIENDLINESS
CLEANING
We process our customers’ parts through a series of alkaline cleaners and acid pickle baths to remove oil, scale, flux, and other contaminants prior to applying the zinc coating. We also take a very different approach to cleaning than most of our competitors. All our cleaning processes are built into our fully automated production lines. This means that every part is cleaned the exact same. We do not function off a “guess and check” system that has our employees picking and choosing which parts they believe need more aggressive cleaning, and which do not. For proper adhesion of the zinc coating, cleaning the part is just as important as the plating itself.

Our obsession with cleaning is a big reason why our return rate is under 1% and why we get results like the ones you see below.

Cleaning
OPTIMIZE
Daily, we track our progress with our key performance metrics, and monthly, our management team reviews these. Examples of our key performance metrics include internal rejects, customer returns, good loads produced, amount of down time, and many more. However, just monitoring these numbers does not lead to results. Over the years, we have optimized our processes with process control and by a designated lab department with automated controls for tank management and, promoted continual improvement by hosting a daily meeting to investigate root causes for any non-conforming product. Other important efficiencies we have include creating an automated schedule for production, compensating employees based on their performance, and testing our processes on a routine basis.
CONCLUSION

Your customers demand a lot of you as a vendor. In fact, they are probably demanding more of you every year, and that is a trend that is not likely to change. That is why you should demand more out of your vendors, particularly your zinc plating vendor. After all, the quality of your zinc plating will be a big determinant of your ability to keep your customers happy.

 As you are not “just another parts manufacturer,” make sure your zinc plating company is not “just another zinc plater.”

 If you are looking for a way to make it easier to remember the seven things you should demand of your zinc plater, perhaps this graphic will help:

PLANNING
LASER-FOCUS
ACCURACY
TURNAROUND
ECO-FRIENDLINESS
CLEANING
OPTIMIZE

Plateco family
Jim Schweich is the Chief Executive Perfectionist of Reedsburg, Wisconsin based Plateco Inc., a family owned business that has been pursuing zinc plating perfection since 1974. He and his cousins, Chief Engineering Perfectionist Jerry Schweich and Chief Operations Perfectionist Tom Schweich, are the sons of the company’s co-founders. Jim’s daughter, Senior Sales Perfectionist, Monique Guyse is the first member of the family’s third generation to join the business. The company takes great pride in the fact that all its talented, passionate employees are highly valued members of the Plateco family.