MRO Magazine

Case History: No Excuses

At Kuntz Electroplating Inc. in Kitchener, Ont., the maintenance technicians have only themselves to blame if they are snowed under with ongoing repairs.Throughout the company's 50-year history, the m...

December 1, 2002 | By Judy and David Van Rhijn

At Kuntz Electroplating Inc. in Kitchener, Ont., the maintenance technicians have only themselves to blame if they are snowed under with ongoing repairs.

Throughout the company’s 50-year history, the maintenance department has been fully involved in designing, assembling and installing production equipment used in the nickel-chrome plating of automotive parts.

Built with hands-on experience and an agenda to cut down maintenance wherever possible, the equipment is as trouble-free as the maintenance staff can make it in the harsh chemical environment.

Far from being stuck in a small maintenance shop in a corner of the 400,000 sq ft site, the maintenance department at the facility occupies a building of its own. It has a millwright shop, a carpentry shop, a paint shop, a job shop, an electrical department, the front office design area and a storeroom with spare parts for the whole plant.


The 40 to 50 maintenance staff members operate on a budget of $11 million to $15 million. Jim Kuntz, the maintenance department manager, estimates that the department spends about half its time on new projects and half on regular maintenance. He agrees that this is not the normal role of maintenance crews. “We have $12 million in capital projects right now, including an aluminum line, automated polishing lines and robot polishing for Harley Davidson parts. We are in the early stages of designing a new plating line.”

Kuntz explains the design process. “If a new area is being developed, the first stage is the design of the production floor. That layout is checked by the production department, right down to the shop floor workers. When the floor layout has been decided on, it goes back to the design people. The maintenance staff look over the design and decide if it’s to be subcontracted out or built in-house.”

He advocates the use of prototyping in the design process. “We are constantly prototyping new equipment. For any radical changes, we usually build a small-scale model to make sure it runs well. Then we evaluate it and decide how to implement it.”

Kuntz Electroplating used to do all types of plating, including zinc and phosphorous and military hard chrome. About 12 years ago it began to specialize in nickel-chrome with auxiliary plating. “We’re going after the cream of the crop now — the difficult work,” says Kuntz. “It means that more equipment, more maintenance, more investment, and more control systems are required.”

The production area now consists of a large polishing area and the plating lines. Kuntz estimates that as much square footage is devoted to polishing as to plating, as every part has to be polished first. Passing through each year are 500,000 steel bumpers, one million aluminum wheels, 200,000 steel wheels, 750,000 Harley Davidson motorcycle parts and 600,000 Dee Zee 2 running boards.

The in-house building projects call for a very broad skill base in the maintenance department — with specialists in plumbing, hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical systems, motor controls, rectifiers, programming and more.

Rick Warren, who was the maintenance supervisor for 12 years and now works on special projects in the design/engineering department, always found that the design and manufacturing component made his work more rewarding. It also makes the equipment more maintenance friendly. “People are in the loop for design. They are more in key with what works. If there’s a problem on the line, and you’re replacing a part every two months — you can say ‘try this’. You build for what experience dictates.”

Dealing with corrosion

One strategy of the staff is the introduction of materials that can stand up to contact with the aggressive acid cleaners and heavy chemicals used for plating. This approach has seen co-polymer tanks replace steel rubber-lined tanks. All decking and structure is now made with stainless steel and glass fibre, and poly belting has replaced steel wire cables on the lifting carriages on the hoists.

“Before, the steel would rust and have to be replaced every five years,” says Warren. “No steel means no rust and no paint. It’s more expensive in the first place but it’s worth it.”

Special projects take up a great deal of hands-on time. Maintenance foreman Vasko Arbutina imagines what it would be like to only do normal maintenance. “That would be a breeze,” he says. “We could pull that off in two days time.” He adds that he spends more than half his time on building, adding to and altering the lines.

Still, there is plenty of other equipment to deal with. Two thousand pumps will always take up plenty of maintenance time. “Most other things in the plant are designed around the fact that they are in contact with chemicals,” says Kuntz. “With polishing grit and compounds, you pretty well chew up pumps no matter what you do.”

A pump tracking system has been implemented to evaluate each pump’s problems. “We’ll either eliminate the problem or learn to live with it,” says Kuntz.

Warren estimates that lack of downtime is the biggest challenge for normal maintenance. The production schedule is not set in stone, although the plant runs roughly 24 hours a day for five-and-a-half to six days a week. Large jobs like tank patching or replacement and the installation of new equipment are always planned for the weekends, but production may still be running. “It’s hit and miss to know what’s planned for the weekend,” Warren says. “Demand changes daily.” The maintenacne crew has to make full use of the two weeks of shutdowns at Christmas and in July.

Zero downtime is a goal

The overall goal is for zero downtime on the plating line during the week. In polishing, this is not so critical as the robots can catch up during the breaks. Robots have been used for the past seven years and have been found to be almost maintenance-free. They are seldom pushed to capacity in terms of weight and speed. “We don’t even know they’re there,” Warren says. “They’re not working that hard. They are doing what a human would do, but doesn’t want to do.”

“And they don’t take breaks,” Kuntz adds.

There is still a lot of hand-polishing done, but when there are enough parts to warrant it, the maintenance team will build a new polishing line. The introduction of a new part causes more of a challenge in polishing than in plating, where different parts can fit into the racks.

“From a maintenance point of view, polishing is worse for changes than plating,” Kuntz confirms. “There are a lot more changes in tooling and if we have to make automated polishing parts, we have to make the whole machine — the polishing heads and the table. In polishing specifically, we build almost all the equipment.”

It is a huge investment to create a new line for one part, and there’s always a risk that the part will change. “We try to make the lines a little diversified, just in case,” says Kuntz. “We always look further than the part in hand.”

The building of equipment in-house is a well-established part of the Kuntz Electroplating culture. When the company orders equipment from outside, it invariably will have to retrofit it.

“No matter what the salesman says, he’s wrong,” Kuntz laughs. “They all say, ‘I’ve never seen that go wrong before.'” Warren agrees. “If we made a buck every time we heard that, we’d be rich!”

Judy van Rhijn is a freelance writer and David van Rhijn is a systems integrator and prorpietor of SD Controls Systems. Both are based in Kitchener, Ont.


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