Radex Banks on the 'UV Cure'

RadEX's gamble on a million-dollar ultraviolet-curing line has made short work of curing powder coat finishes on MDF.

By J.D. Piland

 Five years ago, RadEX took a leap of faith in deciding to use ultraviolet light to cure powder coatings on MDF.

It was a new technology to North America. So new, in fact, that only one other company in North America was doing it. General Manager Glen McLean and Plant Manager Rick Grim, both of whom already had experience in thermal-curing powder coatings on metal for H&G Powder Painting, researched UV-curing wood powder coatings for two years, including making two trips to England to compare and contrast thermal- and UV-curing operations at woodworking companies there.

Ken Giles, owner of H&G and RadEX, both of London, ON, backed McLean and Grim's decision to go UV over thermal cure. The company invested $1 million to install a line for powder coating MDF on a contract basis.

Being only the second UV-curing line for this application on the continent presented its share of drawbacks, though. Convincing customers, who were unfamiliar with the UV-curing process and powder coatings in general, to switch to it from their trusted finishing methods, despite the many benefits of UV curing, was tough, McLean admits.

"It's hard getting people to change from what they already know, especially when it is a new technology," he says.

On the bright side, RadEX managed to line up deals with potential customers, including Global, a Canadian office furniture manufacturer, Steelcase, Starbucks and HMV, a Canadian CD and DVD retailer. McLean says RadEX expected to have more than $1 million in sales its first year. Not bad for having not even opened yet.

But, only a few days after officially starting production, September 11 occurred.

The deals RadEX thought it could count on were derailed by the economic uncertainty that the terrorist attacks created. Businesses all over North America - and not just woodworkers - clammed up their orders.

RadEX had to start over.

McLean and Grim set out to reclaim RadEX's business and educate the industry about its services. They visited office furniture manufacturers, store fixture manufacturers and anyone that might want powder coated MDF parts so they would no longer have to contend with edgebanding, T moulding or hard edges, all while getting a harder, more stain-resistant and seamless finish.

McLean and Grim told their potential clients that RadEX's products are cost competitive with high-pressure laminates. They told them that the complaints with older, thermally cured powder coatings were not valid in UV curing. The low-temperature requirements in RadEX's line would not scorch the substrate, which results in a loss of structural integrity or moisture evaporation that causes coating failure or dries out the hard edges and corners of a part.

McLean and Grim produced hundreds of samples to illustrate this, but had a difficult time hooking businesses. That is not to say there was no business after Sept. 11, 2001, but the office furniture market RadEX specifically targeted suffered particularly bad times.

Slowly but surely, their efforts over the last four years have reversed that trend. McLean admits that more customers are needed still. Right now, a medical products manufacturer in Wisconsin is RadEX's biggest customer.

Most of RadEX's business is repeat business, but new customers are also coming on board. RadEX is looking for customers who need something every month, rather than once a quarter or once a year, which is how a lot of the company's customers order now. Though each month proves better than the last, McLean, Grim, CAD/CAM Manager Bob Jones and U.S. Sales Manager Steve Couzens still find themselves having to educate the industry on the merits of the company's services.

"[Thermal-curing, HPL and paper laminates] are all good, and they all have their place," McLean says. "We are an alternative. If you like what we do, you like the finish and you like the price, then here we are."

In the Office

Jones is the first to see the 2-D or 3-D drawings sent in by customers. He prefers the images come in a neutral format (DXF or IGS).

Either way, Jones extracts the data from the files and then determines how to make the piece. This step, Jones says, is the most difficult and time-consuming - or at least it can be.

The production cycle: 1) An MDF panel is machined on this Anderson twin-table CNC router; 2) After being loaded onto the overhead conveyor, the panel goes into the Coyote infrared/convection oven. The black strips emit infrared heat while the cones emit convection heat; 3) The panel is sprayed with 3 to 4 microns of powder after a quick heating in the oven, then enters the "gel" oven (not shown), where the powder is activated to melt and flow over the part surface; 4) After "gelling," the part moves through the UV chamber and is cured within seconds.

 Jones goes to work importing a 2-D or 3-D file into AlphaCAM, drawing up the details, figuring out how to arrange the router tool paths and how to soften the edge, which RadEX recommends on all its finished products. This process could take him several hours if he has a complex 2-D drawing, or no drawing to work from. Often times, though, because of his background in aerospace drafting and engineering - and assuming the image is submitted correctly - Jones can program the part rather quickly.

"I'd say a couple hours later, you have code at the machine," Jones says. He and Grim agree that the process is so fast, a part could come off the UV line completely finished in about two hours - though, they add it is highly atypical for them to get an order that requires

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