Sherwin-Williams Site Takes Flight
The Aerospace coatings business unit recently completed a major investment that is expected to help the business continue to gain altitude in the relatively small, but highly specialized, niche of supplying coatings for the business-aircraft industry. The company has begun operations at its new Aerospace Service and Training Facility in Andover, KS, a small community located just east of Wichita on the edge of the Great Plains. The 25,000-square-foot unit, located in a new industrial park within sight of Sherwin-Williams’ existing production plant in Andover, was created to help the Aerospace Coatings division and its customers stay focused on advances in aerospace coatings and their application methods. Training programs for coatings users, in fact, are a centerpiece of the new facility’s operations, with application activities carried out in spray-painting areas that can simulate the temperature and humidity conditions encountered at aircraft manufacturing and refinishing sites.
Overall, the new site consolidates a number of Aerospace Coatings operations, including marketing and sales offices; the color-service group and color-blending operations; the customer-service organization; a product-development laboratory; a warehouse for finished goods manufactured at the Andover plant; and training classrooms in addition to the spray-painting booths.
During recent grand-opening ceremonies, Aerospace Coatings Business Unit Director George McCarthy singled out the coatings-application function as a particularly important aspect of the site’s operation. “The science of aerospace coatings is advancing so rapidly that application technicians must constantly upgrade their skill levels,” McCarthy said. The Service and Training Center’s spray-painting capabilities “allow us to simulate the climate conditions our customers will encounter wherever their base of operations, anywhere in the world.” McCarthy noted that temperature and humidity can dictate application techniques and parameters in conditions that range from the bone-dry heat of a desert to the steam-bath humidity of the tropics.
McCarthy also said the new facility will improve the Aerospace Coatings unit’s customer service and support functions by coordinating service and marketing activities worldwide.
Company Entered Segment with Pratt & Lambert PurchaseSherwin-Williams entered the aerospace-coatings market with its 1996 acquisition of Pratt & Lambert Inc., which formerly operated the Andover production site. Sherwin-Williams executives say the business unit is a significant coatings supplier to the business-aircraft segment — corporate jets manufactured by companies such as Cessna, Raytheon, Bombardier, Learjet, Falcon Jet and Gulfstream. The company, however, does not disclose sales figures for its Aerospace Coatings unit.
Wichita has long been a center of manufacturing activity for the business-aircraft industry, and has been dubbed the “aircraft capital of the world,” said Julie Wellner, Marketing manager for Sherwin-Williams Aerospace Coatings. Sherwin-Williams has expanded on Pratt & Lambert’s longtime presence in the business-aircraft segment, and currently commands a major share of the market, the company says. Sherwin-Williams is a small player in the aerospace business for the military and commercial-aircraft markets, but is looking to expand its sales in all aerospace segments, said Wellner and Dallas C. Finch, Aerospace Coatings technical director and director of the Aerospace Service and Training Facility.
During an informal tour of the Service and Training Facility, Finch said the Pratt & Lambert acquisition brought Sherwin-Williams back into the aerospace-coatings market after an absence of many years. Sherwin-Williams enjoyed a significant presence in aerospace coatings during World War II, when the products — mostly alkyds and solution acrylics — were decidedly low-tech as compared to current high-performance polyester, urethane and epoxy coatings technologies. Sherwin-Williams gradually phased out of the segment, in the aerospace-coatings cockpit after it acquired Pratt & Lambert’s diversified coatings portfolio.
It’s been full throttle ever since, thanks in part to good timing - the business aircraft industry has been riding the tailwind of boom times, particularly in the United States.
“The business-jet market just has been phenomenally strong,” said Finch, who observed that the addition of an airplane to a company’s fleet of assets is viewed as something of a status symbol, a “prestige” purchase. The dizzying ascent of Silicon Valley’s fortunes and the overnight-sensation success stories of many Internet businesses, combined with the strong performances of more conventional industries, have only accelerated the business-aircraft market’s upward trajectory.
The flip side for aircraft manufacturers and coatings suppliers, however, is the increasing demand for top-flight product performance and appearance — while managing to meet new environmental controls on VOCs and HAPs. The environmental mandates only serve to add to the importance of the types of R&D and coating-application activities housed at the new Aerospace Service and Training Center, Finch said. A major milestone in the aerospace-coatings industry’s environmental evolution was the 1998 enactment of new EPA regulations on HAP emissions from coating-application processes.
“That’s an ongoing, strategic project, to constantly push that envelope,” said Finch, a 25-year Sherwin-Williams veteran who was recently appointed to the key Aerospace Coatings position. Finch gives high marks to aerospace manufacturers for their willingness to adopt new high-solids and waterborne systems. “I think we’re looking at a whole new era ahead in the aerospace industry, in terms of water-based alternatives to products that have traditionally been exclusively solvent-based,” he said. Considerable R&D efforts also are focused on alternatives to chromate-based anticorrosion materials, due to concerns about hazards.
Business Targets High-End MarketThe Sherwin-Williams aerospace product line centers on JET GLO® polyester-urethane premium coatings for basecoat applications on medium and large aircraft and ACRY GLO® acrylic-urethane basecoats for smaller aircraft and striping and detail finishing on larger planes. The business also supplies interior coatings under the JET FLEX™ label, which are offered in solvent- and waterborne versions. White is the dominant basecoat color for business-aircraft bodies, while metallic-pigmented colors are popular choices for accent finishes. A clear topcoat is usually applied to give metallics the desired depth of image.
In a brief review of aerospace-coating technology, Finch said most aircraft exterior surfaces are aluminum, and thus require anticorrosion pretreatments. Generally, a vinyl butyral wash primer or a chromate-containing anticorrosion primer is applied. Epoxy sanding surfacers are used to fill small surface defects and provide a smooth surface prior to application of the finish coat. Polyester-urethane topcoats offer a highly chemical-resistant, hard surface that holds up to weather extremes and chemical substances such as Skydrol, a commonly used aircraft hydraulic lubricant.
Recent product introductions by Sherwin-Williams Aerospace Coatings include the JET FLEX waterborne polyurethane dispersion for interior surfaces, which Finch said has enjoyed strong sales due to the ease and safety of application in the small, confined spaces encountered in aircraft cabins. The coating can be applied to plastic, metal, composite, and wood substrates.
Advances in coatings technologies and the impact on coatings users figured prominently in Sherwin-Williams’s decision to build the new facility, Finch said. “There’s an obvious need for training, particularly for hands-on application training with these newer, high-technology, high-solids and waterborne products. They don’t apply like the conventional products did. Going from 40% solids to 60% solids, they don’t apply the same.”
Key application issues include the higher viscosity of the higher-solids systems and typically slower cure rates. For the coatings supplier, the challenge is to balance performance properties with the application parameters — temperature and humidity — faced by the user on the production end. “You’ve still got to get these planes coated, cured and out within a reasonable time frame,” Finch said. “And many of these products are moisture-sensitive; they can react with moisture. Relative humidity probably has a greater influence on the cure than the temperature does.”
Most coating application in the business-jet segment is done with conventional air spray, by hand, which Finch calls “an incredible art.”
“You have to have the right pressures, the right combination of air pressure, fluid pressure. The viscosities of the materials have to be maintained uniformly, in all of these different temperature and humidity conditions.
“It’s a very difficult job that these guys in the shop have to do,” he said. "And the new facility was designed specifically to simulate actual shop environments as closely as possible."
The training programs carried out at the new facility cover a range of subjects — mix ratios, surface preparation, mixing of components such as accelerators — and other application issues. The facility’s product-development laboratory houses a wide range of activities, including formulation, accelerated-weathering testing, testing of various coating performance and mechanical properties, and other product-evaluation and development work. The research staff uses advanced accelerated test equipment, while longer-term weathering exposures are carried out in South Florida. Other development methods are employed to evaluate a wide range of properties, including sag, leveling, flexibility, hardness and adhesion.
With high-performance aerospace coatings for corporate jets, appearance and gloss are high priorities, Finch said, adding to the importance of laboratory evaluation of pigment dispersion and other key factors in gloss and color development. The moisture content of raw materials is also carefully monitored, since it can adversely affect appearance.
“This is not a commodity end of the aircraft business,” Finch said. “We’re a high-end, high-quality, high-performance supplier.”
Added Wellner: “It takes a superior product to be involved in this marketplace, and that's definitely what Sherwin-Williams offers."