PWP Perfecting A New Furniture Industry Technique

May 30, 2002
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WYOMING — They say there’s nothing new under the sun.

Well, they’re wrong . . .

. . . at least they’re wrong in the case of a family-owned company named Precise CNC Routing Inc., which has become a sort of unofficial laboratory and proving ground for the realization of a long-term wood manufacturing dream.

Now, just as its name says, Precise is a shop that produces precisely cut and shaped parts from soft metals such as copper, brass and aluminum, plus plastics, plywood and — here’s the story — medium density fiberboard panels.

Precise has spent the last 2 1/2 years experimenting with and perfecting the process of powder painting wood.

Technically, Precise’s painting division — Precise Wood Powder Coating — refers to itself as a certified Lamineer powder applicator. And according to its president, Rick Lemsen, it is the first firm in the nation to have undertaken and perfected the process.

“Others are coming along,” he grinned, “but we’ve got the learning curve behind us.”

As Lemsen and his son, Scott, explain it, the process is similar to that of powder painting steel.

But whereas the initial bonding between steel and powder paint is electronic, the bonding in wood powder painting is accomplished through a surface moisture build-up produced by an initial baking of the cut and sanded board.

The result is a hard, faintly granular surface reminiscent of the Parkerizing finish used in many military firearms.

The water-repellant 4- to 6-mil coating has enough flexibility — according to Scott Lemsen, the company’s vice president for marketing — that no blow will damage it unless the blow is hard enough also to dent or gouge the wood beneath.

“It’s also seamless,” he explained to the Business Journal, making the coating attractive to the health-care industry. Seams at the meeting place between ordinary veneers and, say, urethane-coated wood are sites in which streptococcus bacteria and similar microbial opportunists can reside, waiting to infect surgical patients.

“The first trial run we did with this powder really impressed us,” Rick chuckled. “But if we had known then what we know now,” he said, “it would have really depressed us.”

“For instance,” Scott said, “we didn’t realize at first that you can’t powder paint sharp corners. If you do, you can take the coating right off with a fingernail.” Fortunately, having a routing operation quickly enabled them to round all the edges on wood forms they were painting.

And that seems fitting since it was precision routing that directly gave rise to the new division.

And the company itself grew out of a single CNC router which Bryan Lemsen, Scott’s brother, set up in the family’s garage six years ago.

The firm, which the president terms to be essentially a job shop, has done nothing but grow ever since. In 1999 it did $1.2 million in sales and last year $2 million. And Scott says right now it appears that this year it will have one big order worth about $5 million alone.

Meanwhile, Rick says that though Precision CNC Routing certainly sent no entries to NeoCon, “we were there this year in Haworth and Steelcase displays and in several others.”

What led the company into powder painting was sheer frustration. Many of the firms to which Precision supplies parts wanted those parts painted.

“And that’s something we just didn’t want to get into,” Rick said. “It wasn’t because we didn’t want more business,” he stressed. Rather, he said, the concern was that painting meant using volatile chemistry fraught with hazards for employees, high handling and insurance costs for the firm, and because so-called wet painting would portend having to deal with the EPA about every other day.

“Powder painting was tried some years back,” he added, “but it was a failure. And we had tried some things that didn’t work.”

But then they came across Morton’s new product and, with no orders in hand but suspecting the business would be there, they built a 120-foot-long prototype line consisting basically of pre- and post-application ovens with a hand-application painting station in between.

Today the ovens are mounted either side of an automated station that eliminates the variables that come with hand application of powder paint. Ironically, Precise began using Morton powder paint for production purposes before Morton had certified it to do so.

“We were placing an order one day last year,” Rick said, “and the salesman looked at us kind of sheepishly and said, ‘You know, you guys are supposed to be certified to buy this stuff.’”

Precise quickly sought certification, and received it in January based primarily on its practical development of the process.

“A lot of other people want to use the powder,” he added, “and they’re getting pretty angry because Morton’s taking its time. The certification process is pretty rigorous.

“I tell you,” he added, “I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg for this process.”

Like any other industrial process, he said, powder painting has its strengths and weaknesses — and its complexities — which every firm will have to master on its own.

“I tell our customers the process is a bit like baking a cake,” Rick said. “Times vary according to the size of the pieces you’re baking.”

What happens is that the boards — having been cut, bored, grooved and inlet to client specifications, drilled with suspension holes and then put through a numbers-driven sander that smoothes it to baby-skin texture — are suspended from wire hangers for their trip through a painting process that takes 15 minutes, more or less.

Within an hour of painting, a given board is ready for shipment.

“And the thing is,” Rick added, “that it’s a completely ‘green’ product. There are no pollutants or contaminants, no danger to employees, no danger to the environment.”

The firm’s paint line takes up a modest amount of room toward the back of a 66,000-square-foot plant on Thornwood two blocks west of Byron Center Road in Wyoming.

More room is available in the shop for additional lines, plus routers and sanders and paint lines, should new orders come in at the pace which Precision expects. 

Moreover, Rick says, another site is ready and waiting should the pace of orders overwhelm the Thornwood site.

In addition to supplying the office furniture industry, Precise’s client list also includes manufacturers producing hot tubs, store fixtures, restaurant furniture, autos and recreational vehicles, display units for trade shows and the gaming industry.  

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