When California's Rule 1132 was adopted, HON Industries, like other manufacturers throughout the state, had to cut its VOC emissions by 65% before the law took effect. The office furniture manufacturer cut emissions by 70%, winning its environmental battle as successfully as it has overcome California's volatile energy markets and issues related to foreign competition. But that's what one would expect of a company that has been named one of the nation's "most admired" companies by Fortune magazine for the past six years in a row.

For manufacturers like HON Industries, one of the world's largest manufacturers of office furniture, the constant challenge of meeting more-stringent regulations is part of the company's commitment to environmental excellence and social responsibility. Keeping an eye on environmental regulations is a key responsibility for specially designated employees at each of the HON facilities located throughout the United States. Having staff experts that are directly involved in overseeing environmental practices is part of an environmental policy established by the company in 1990.

HON's Corporate Pollution and Waste Elimination Standard Practices is an extensive policy that defines the company's readiness to reach beyond legal compliance, and includes a commitment to proactive stewardship of natural resources. The 11-point document emphasizes the appropriate elimination of waste materials, recycling and the use of recycled materials, designing and manufacturing products that will have minimum impact on the environment, and preparedness for possible environmental emergencies. The company's approach to environmental quality influences how products are manufactured and which products are used throughout the process.

The ultralow-VOC polyester baking enamel is applied using electrostatic spray equipment. (Photos courtesy of Bella Lingua)

The road to compliance

At HON's manufacturing facility in South Gate, CA, four people are in charge of keeping the plant up-to-date and in compliance with federal and company guidelines. More than 300 employees work at the 480,000-square-foot plant, which produces products such as vertical and lateral filing cabinets and book cases. In addition to manufacturing these products, the South Gate facility is also responsible for receiving, forming, assembling, welding, painting, packaging, warehousing and shipping.

Along with other manufacturers in the state, members of the HON environmental team closely followed the emergence of the new emissions regulation from the time it was first proposed in November 2000 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) until it took effect last year. At the time, HON was using a low-VOC polyester baking enamel system that had an average VOC rating of 2.3 pounds per gallon. HON had turned to long-time supplier Sherwin-Williams (Cleveland) for the low-VOC product in 1999 as a response to state-wide mandates for lower VOCs.

Faced with another major reduction in VOCs, Val Fifield, environmental coordinator at the South Gate facility, along with Bill Taylor, facility manager, and Jim Keith, plant manager, were charged with the responsibility of assessing compliance options for the company. At first, the team looked at several different abatement systems, including biological remediation and thermal destruct equipment, such as after burners or regenerative oxidizers. However, each of these methods had its own problems.

"Most of these technologies are extremely cost prohibitive," says Fifield. "Not only are they expensive to install, but they also have high monthly operational costs." (Fifield estimated these costs at more than $1 million for installation and $30,000 per month for operation.) These methods also have the potential to contribute to another form of air pollution, green-house gasses.

Fifield also was concerned about the fire-causing potential of abatement systems that use absorbent materials to remove VOCs from the airstream. Over time, VOCs can build up and cause the atmosphere in the system to become combustible.

"It's especially true of systems that use charcoal," Fifield says. "A fire can start that's difficult to put out, and that could put you out [of commission] for quite a while."

Switching to a waterborne coating was another alternative, but that option had drawbacks as well. The HON production line uses electrostatic equipment to apply solventborne coatings. To replace solventborne coatings with waterborne coatings would require all new application methods or the installation of insulation and special safety barriers around existing metal paint lines and tanks to prevent the possibility of electric shock to employees.

"Most waterbornes will air dry, and unless you're real careful and have something like a nitrogen purge over your containers, or switch containers frequently, you can have skin-over on the top," Fifield says. "And that skin doesn't redissolve, so you can have a filtering nightmare."

Once painting and assembly is complete, every HON product is inspected for quality.

A quick turnaround

Fifield contacted Sherwin-Williams to see if an even lower VOC product was available. Before the latest regulations, HON had been very pleased with the Permaclad polyester baking enamel product and hoped that a product with similar capabilities could replace it. The baking enamel was first selected by HON for its high durability against scratching and marring, its easy application, good flow and leveling, Fifield says.

In less than three weeks, Sherwin-Williams had shipped the reformulated product to HON, which tested it and verified it would work. "That was quick," Fifield says. "They actually shipped it out in about two weeks."

HON discovered that the new product had a slightly higher level of VOCs than it wanted, due to the solvent used in the resin. So Sherwin-Williams had the resin manufacturer switch solvents, and the problem was solved.

"It was just ‘put it in and use it,'" Fifield says. "There was no slow down in the process, no changes in equipment." And the performance properties remained the same-superior one-coat hiding, excellent hardness and resistance to marring.

The painters needed just a few days to get used to the new paint, which has a slightly different viscosity than the original. In fact, the painters like the new product a little better because, with the previous product, the black paint was slightly thicker than the other colors. That's not the case with the new product.

"Other than that, everything else is the same," Fifield says. It costs a few dollars more per gallon, but it's not as expensive as if we had gone to an RTO or something like that."

The new coating emits less than one pound of VOCs per gallon. To assure low VOC standards are being met, Fifield conducts daily VOC calculations, which are used to compile monthly reports.

HON sprays eight standard colors, and painters may change colors as many as 80 times per day.

The finishing line

After HON's products are assembled, they are sent by an overhead conveyor to one of two standard, three-stage pretreatment systems, where oils and some dirt are removed.

The first stage is a phosphate cleaner where products reside in 3,000 gallons of solution heated to 110°F for 45 seconds on one line and for about 55 seconds on the other. The second stage is a fresh water rinse; the third stage contains a sealer surfactant. These two stages require about half the amount of time as the first stage and operate at ambient temperature.

HON monitors the pretreatment system with a GL-100 from Coral Chemical (Waukegan, IL). In the iron phosphate wash stage, the system monitors and adds chemical based on the solution's conductivity. It also monitors the temperature and pH. In the second stage, the system monitors the bath to ensure that contamination is minimal.

In the third stage, the system monitors conductivity and pH, which varies, normally in the range of 5 to 5.4. The conductivity varies according to the age of the bath and is in the range of 4,000 to 8,000 mS/cm. The chemicals in the pretreatment system last about six months, though HON tries to change them quarterly, Fifield says.

Following pretreatment, products move to the paint room, where they first go through a dry-off oven heated from 345 to 370°F. The products move through the 100-foot-long oven, turn around, and come back out the entrance traveling at speeds of 23 to 25 fpm. Products move along the conveyor for a five-minute cool-down period before reaching the paint booths.

The pressurized paint-room has an air makeup system with a huge fan that pulls air through three stages of filtration to eliminate dirt. The air temperature is kept around 90°F to ensure that the texture of the paint doesn't change as it is sprayed onto a product. The paint, too, is heated because of its high solids content, which makes it relatively thick.

Both of the independent finishing lines have two paint booths that exhaust air at 27,000 cfm. Two painters with manual spray guns from Graco (Minneapolis) work together in each booth. For fast color change, each painter has two guns, one for darker colors and one for lighter colors. Fast color change is important because painters may change colors 60 to 80 times a day.

There are eight standard colors, Fifield says, adding "but we'll paint just about any color a customer asks for." All of HON's products receive one coat, which is typically 1 mil thick, and move through the booth at about 23 fpm.

Cabinet products are run by model, each of which has three, four and five drawers. Painters will paint all the colors that are on a list for a particular model and then repeat the process for the next model. All of the company's products are made to order.

Each line also has its own gas curing oven, which is similar to the dry-off oven, and operates at 430 degrees F. The first line's oven is 100 feet long. The second line's oven, which cures the larger metal cabinets, used to be 100 feet, but that required slowing the line speed down to 16 fpm to ensure a proper cure. To move the line faster, HON added 85 feet to the oven.

Further down the line

Through innovations in its manufacturing and finishing processes, and with a little help from its suppliers, HON has more than met its emissions requirements and has managed to stay competitive in the global marketplace. And Fifield is optimistic for the future.

"We're pretty good at making our products here," Fifield says. "I don't see any more outsourcing on the horizon-the chair line was a sad situation," he says, referring to a line of chairs that had been made at Fifield's plant but now is manufactured at a HON plant in Monterey, Mexico. Making chairs is labor intensive, and labor costs in Mexico are substantially less.

But competition in the office-furniture industry is pretty tough, Fifield admits. "Quite a few companies have gotten out of the business or have been bought out," he says. "In the last few years, there has been quite a drop in the number of manufacturers."

Still, there are plenty of competitors north and south of the border and overseas trying to take a greater share of the market. "So far we've managed to keep them from doing that," Fifield says.

"China hasn't been too much of a problem when it comes to cabinets and files," Fifield says. "Shipping products like that is expensive because, volume-wise, they're shipping a lot of air. With chairs, they had a bigger impact."

Improvements in manufacturing and finishing have led to cost reductions, which benefits HON and its customers. "We've gone a long time without increasing our prices while many of our competitors were increasing prices," Fifield says. And that's despite price increases in steel and in other areas. "We've held the line for a long time."

And that, as another magazine has noted numerous times, is admirable.

Sidebar: HON: One of America's Biggest-and Best

HON Industries was founded in 1947 when it began making card files from pieces of scrap metal. From those humble beginnings, it grew into one of the United States' largest 1,000 publicly held companies. Highly commited to the environment, its emplyees and its customers, HON has earned a reputation as one of the country's most respected companies.

Back in the 1940s, Max Staley, an engineer, and Clem Hanson, an ad executive, were brothers-in-law and good friends. The two spent long hours imagining how American industry could be improved, according to the company's story of its history. Their colleague H.Wood Miller, an industrial designer, agreed with many of their views.

As World War II was drawing to a close, there was widespread concern, shared by the three men, that returning soldiers would not find a good job. So they decided to start a company that would provide good jobs. The endeavor would also give the founders a chance to try out their vision of a workplace where all workers were treated respectfully and fairly as "members" of a productive industrial enterprise.

Here are some of the many highlights of the company they founded.

1947- First products sold: hoods, coasters and recipe boxes

1948- Decided to direct efforts to office supplies and equipment

1950- Unifile introduced; first profit-sharing paid

1953- Sales exceed $1 million

1954- Sales of office products up nearly 100%

1957- Common stock split 10 for 1

1961- Acquired Luxco chair co.; sales exceed $5 million

1962- Common stock split 5 for 1

1965- Sales exceed $10 million

1969- Sales exceed $25 million

1971-75-Several furniture manufacturers acquired; new plants open

1976- Sales exceed $100 million

1979- HON Industries enters Fortune 1,000

1983- Sales exceed $300 million

1986- HON becomes a Fortune 500; sales exceed $500 million

1992- ESOP increases member ownership

1997- Several companies acquired; net sales exceed $1 billion;

public stock offering

2004- Named by Fortune magazine as one of America's most admired companies for the sixth consecutive year

Source: HNI Corp.'s Web site