An Industry Leader among Coating Applicators

Curtis Metal Finishing Company

The Curtis Metal Finishing Company has a lineage going back nearly a century, a client list that includes some of the biggest names in automotive and construction equipment manufacturing, and a reputation as a top-notch coatings applicator.
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When asked what else makes Curtis Metal stand out from the competition, Vice President of Technical Services Duane Drobnich says, “Number one would be the diversity of the coating systems that we apply. Number two would be the quality and technical services that we offer and our fast and reliable turnaround.”

Curtis provides several pre-treatment processes which include chemical and mechanical cleaning as well as a variety of phosphate technologies. “The proper cleaning of products and application of phosphate coatings is critical to our business. Basically, pre-treatment is the cleaning of the steel substrate to remove any residual oils, scale and/or oxides and to prepare the surface to promote greater adhesion and corrosion resistance of the additional coatings that we provide – it’s the foundation” explains Drobnich.

The company applies engineered coatings on metal components and fasteners. Services include dip-spin coating and electrocoating. Dip spin coating entails “dipping bulk product into a vat of coating material, spinning off excess material via centrifugal force and then curing in an oven to provide a dry thin finish,” he says. Electrocoating, or e-coating for short, involves immersing parts into a water-based conduction paint solution and then introducing an electrical charge. This has the effect of making the coating or the paint adhere uniformly to the part after curing.

Regardless of the application, the company self-performs every step. “We don’t subcontract anything. Everything is done in-house,” notes Drobnich proudly.

Curtis Metal Finishing’s main plant is in Sterling Heights, Michigan. There is a second plant in Machesney Park, Illinois, which provides similar services and the firm runs an operation called Curtis Thermal Processing in the same city which offers a variety of heat treatment services. While these operate as standalone facilities, the separate branches can join forces to offer complete services.

Curtis serves the industrial, automotive, appliance, military, off-highway, and agricultural sectors. Of these, automotive is the largest revenue generator, which makes sense, given that this is the biggest full-service, automotive, fastener coating applicator in all of North America.

“Primarily we work with Tier One suppliers of the [automotive] industry, but we also work with original equipment manufacturers, and we work with major chemical providers. We act as a conduit between the chemical providers, the original equipment manufacturers, and our Tier One customers to provide a chemical solution for whatever their challenges are,” explains Drobnich.

“We have a fairly extensive list of chemical providers. We don’t manufacture our own chemicals. We’re a licensed applicator of coating systems,” he continues.

The origins of Curtis Metal can be traced to 1927 when brothers Anthony and Ralph Hoensheid founded the Commercial Steel Treating Corporation. This Detroit-based heat-treating business primarily served the automotive market.

The Commercial Steel Treating Corporation grew over the decades, expanding into different services and markets. Eventually, the Curtis Metal Finishing Company was launched as a separate entity to perform coatings when Ralph’s son Merle recognized the applications of dip-spin technology for automotive parts.

Commercial Steel still exists in Madison Heights, Michigan, and the Hoensheid family is still active on the Board of Directors. It has become one of the largest commercial heat-treating operations in the United States. This parent company provides heat-treating services for its offspring.

From the beginning, Curtis Metal has been known for excellent work and support services, attracting a series of high-profile customers. The company has worked with Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen, and outside of the automotive sector, it counts John Deere, Caterpillar, Bobcat, Paccar, Volvo Truck and Daimler Truck as clients.

Curtis has thrived through a dual strategy of continuous improvement and staying ahead of the technology curve. Becoming complacent would be a huge mistake given that coatings application technology changes rapidly. The company places a huge emphasis on acquiring new technology and new equipment and has purchased $17 million worth of machinery and technology in the past few years alone, says Drobnich.

“We are among the industry leaders in bringing over new equipment technologies from Europe,” he states. “Among any of the applicators, we have the most diverse portfolio of application equipment out there.”

Curtis Metal is partial to equipment from Reinhardt, a well-respected German manufacturing company that makes coating systems and other products. Reinhardt barrel and basket systems have all been installed at both the Sterling Heights and Machesney Park facilities.

However, this is not the only European equipment manufacturer favored by Curtis. “We have systems from WMV and just added a 30,000 square-foot addition for a new piece of equipment from Sidasa out of Spain,” says Drobnich. Sidasa Engineering specializes in surface treatment systems, especially planetary technology to evacuate coatings from complex shaped parts.

Curtis Metal Finishing participates in several professional associations and standards development organizations to stay current with industry trends. It is involved with ASTM International – known formerly as the American Society for Testing and Materials, the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG), and the Industrial Fasteners Institute (IFI), among other groups.

The company has also been an industry- leader on the environmental front. “We’re highly environmentally focused. We were one of the first coating companies to put in comprehensive wastewater treatment and regenerative thermal oxidizers to protect water and air quality,” states Drobnich.

Curtis Metal Finishing currently counts over four hundred employees. The company looks for “active thinkers. We have people in the plant that are directly responsible for the quality of product we provide so we are looking for people with an attention to detail,” says Director of New Business Development Darlene Collis.

Curtis’s operations in Machesney Park and Sterling Heights are both ISO 9001:2015 certified. The company’s lab testing facilities have certification from the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation. It is determined to maintain these high standards through a renewed spirit and intense dedication to its quality control and recently hired a new quality manager and established continuous improvement procedures.

Quality control extends to the companies in the Curtis supply chain. In many cases, it is either a licensee or approved applicator for the chemical suppliers with which they work.

“We are constantly evaluating alternative coating systems and providers of those chemistries because we’re constantly seeking new solutions for our customers. That’s part of how we stay current with technology. We challenge our current chemical supply base by looking at what our customers want and the competition has to offer,” says Drobnich.

The company plans to introduce new products, services, and processes over the next few years. “We’ve been bringing on several new people who have extensive backgrounds in quality and manufacturing methodologies. We’re incorporating lean technologies, value-stream operations, and related ideologies. We’re implementing many new quality and manufacturing concepts. We’re looking at ways to eliminate waste internally and externally and to reduce lead-time for our customers. Part of that process involves looking at increased vertical integration. We’re working with customers to identify new processes and/or product opportunities,” he says.

Curtis typically attends two to three trade shows per year. “Other than that, we spend time traveling to our customers, providing ‘lunch and learns’ and offering technical resources as required,” adds Drobnich. The company also participates in local charitable initiatives, including the Toys for Tots program at Christmastime and programs for patients with juvenile diabetes.

While the company remains eager to grow, being an industry leader is a formidable endeavor. “The industry is continuously striving for zero defects. We’re a bulk applicator. Trying to bridge that gap between being a bulk applicator and maintaining zero defects is probably our biggest challenge. This is why we’re constantly investing in new application technology,” notes Drobnich. “We are dedicated to closing that gap between what we’re able to do as a bulk handler while embracing a zero defect mentality,” he says.

“Another challenge we face is handling the increasing complexity of customer requirements on a global scale. Many of our customers, whether it be John Deere, Caterpillar, or any of the automotive companies, function in a global arena. This requires us to be on top of a varying degree and multitude of customer requirements. Our goal is to incorporate these demands into our processes while remaining a very efficient company,” he continues.

“We are on an aggressive growth path via organic growth or strategic acquisitions,” says Drobnich. However, the company will still work “to be a resource for our customers in terms of testing and quality requirements, while maintaining aggressive turnaround lead-times and offering the most current finishes. We strive to maintain our processes and improve production efficiencies and build our customer base. All those things are in the mix as well,” adds Collis.

Working Smarter

A key goal of any successful manufacturing operation is a continual drive toward improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Traditionally, this has been accomplished through the adoption of lean production principles, waste reduction using the Six Sigma approach, and similar productivity solutions. These systems have been widely incorporated throughout the manufacturing industry and have significantly improved product quality, production speeds, and perhaps most importantly, the safety of those working in manufacturing plants.

Past Issues

October 15, 2019, 6:54 AM EDT