Rite of spring

All-Color Powder Coating brightens Memorial Union’s famous terrace chairs.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

People seem to have their own definitions of when spring begins, whether it’s the first glimpse of a robin, the first crack of a baseball, or tulips popping through the soil.

In Greater Madison, however, many mark the arrival of spring by another widely anticipated event — the opening of UW–Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace, where the signature green, yellow, and orange sunburst chairs have become as recognizable as the campus itself.

Earlier renditions of the chairs have been around since just after World War II. But when their second manufacturer — a Chicago firm — suddenly closed in the mid-1980s, the tool and dies used to create the sunburst design were destroyed.

Together with some UW–Madison business school graduates, Oregon-based WISCO Industries helped solve the problem, creating a special tool and die design for the Memorial Union Building Association.

WISCO has been the exclusive sunburst chair manufacturer ever since.

Mark Mortensen, who once worked at WISCO, launched All-Color Powder Coating in 1996. Under his watch, the company has moved and expanded from a 6,000-square-foot building with three employees to an 80,000-square-foot plant employing more than 50. “Every fall, the UW sorts the chairs and tables and pulls out [those] that have seen better days and are scratched, chipped, rusty, or faded,” he says. His company handles all Union Terrace chair and table refurbishing, from tiny replicas to the much-loved, super-sized versions placed prominently on the patio each summer.

The chair painting project has been a small but unique part of All-Color’s repertoire ever since, but it represents only about 1 percent of All-Color’s total business, Mortensen notes.

On a more typical day, employees might be applying fluidized paint powder to humidifiers for Research Products Corp., or coating farm equipment, manhole covers, electrical transformers, or other parts the average consumer may never see.

The company also handles special orders like metal railings, wrought-iron patio furniture, spiral staircases, motorcycle parts, and tire rims.

“I can’t tell you how many times people bring their rims in to be powder coated with the tire still attached,” smiles General Manager Dan Anderson, shaking his head.

Rubber doesn’t stand a chance under the extreme temperatures used here.

Powder coating is the process of adhering colored powder to metal. It is an environmentally friendly way of coating or painting parts, Anderson explains.

“Compared to liquid paint, there are no VOCs [volatile organic compounds] often associated with other substances, and here, about 95 percent of what settles gets reused, or ‘reclaimed’ into the system [rather than discarded].”

As we enter the facility, the skeletons of dozens of sunburst chairs and patio tables hardly seem recognizable. Stripped down to brown metal, any hints of color have already been incinerated in an onsite burn oven (four hours at about 800 degrees) and then sandblasted by another company to remove any remaining ash.

“You don’t know how durable powder coating is until you have to remove it,” Anderson quips.

With the steel patio furniture in its raw form, time is of the essence, he explains, as corrosion could begin within 24 hours.

By the end of this day, 106 sunburst chairs will receive a fresh, long-lasting blast of color.

Automation fascination

Setting the powder-coating process in motion, employees place the chairs on hooks suspended from a one-way conveyor cable. Over the next 90 minutes or so, the chairs will slowly and continuously weave through the system like a perfectly orchestrated marching band.

Among All-Color’s employees are several from the nearby Oregon Correctional Institute, Anderson notes. “I started that program about 15 years ago, and it’s been great. We treat them well here,” he adds, keeping an eye on the conveyor line slowly chugging above.

Like an automated carwash, chairs move through a long tunnel where residual oils or lubricants are removed with an alkaline cleaner. They are rinsed and pretreated with iron phosphate to promote adhesion, rinsed again, and sprayed with a sealant before being dried in a 300 to 350-degree oven for about eight minutes.

Suspended about five feet off the ground, the chairs enter a powder application room where the magic truly happens.

Color is applied electrostatically, Anderson explains. “The powder itself isn’t charged, but our powder guns put out a negative charge, so it sticks to the grounded parts.”

Instantly bathed in bright yellow, the chairs move between two employees who manually touch up areas around hidden curves or crevices that may have been missed by the automated sprayers. Powder coating flat objects is easy, but chairs present more of a challenge.

Continuing on, they bob along into a massive cure oven heated by a long, gas burner that stretches the length of a dark tunnel. It takes about 10 minutes at 400 degrees to raise the metal’s temperature enough for the powder to process.

Sheen is a good sign, Anderson says, because it indicates the colored powder is curing. When the chairs fully emerge from the oven, they are warm, dry, checked for defects, and ready to be stored.

All-Color has two separate rooms set aside for larger or small-batch items. In one of them, an employee transforms a tall sunburst bar chair from bare metal to brilliant orange.

System growth

Currently, the company has two powder-coating lines and can run multiple painting projects simultaneously. The second line, behind the first, is slightly smaller than the main system. Floor space is also being cleared in the center of the facility to make way for a third system that will be installed this summer.

The main line can accommodate as many as eight to 10 color changes in a day. The smaller systems, five to seven.

Anderson still marvels at the technological advances, even after a 24-year career in the industry. “When I first started in 1996, we had a little home-built system,” he recounts. “The people today have it very easy compared to what we had.”

Prepared for another season of fun on the terrace, the chairs and tables will remain in storage until the university calls and an opening date is determined.

Anderson smiles.

“We have no shortage of volunteers here to help us load up a truck and head out to the Union Terrace,” he says, “and we greatly appreciate the students keeping us profitable.”

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