Quality and innovation are the tenets that drive Tote Cart Co., a shopping cart manufacturer based in Rockford, Ill. The 63-year-old company prides itself on its highly durable nickel-chrome plated product, and also offers a plastic cart as a lighter-weight alternative. But when the market started shifting toward electrocoated ("painted") shopping carts several years ago, Tote Cart had a problem: The company didn't have an e-coat system, and it had a limited amount of space in its facility to install new equipment.

"In the supermarket industry, many of the smaller stores are being bought up by larger companies. To remain successful, shopping cart manufacturers need to be a one-stop supplier, offering plastic, painted and chrome-plated carts. We were not able to do that, so we were missing out on market share. We knew we had to integrate e-coat into our facility; we just had to figure out how," says Jesse Leigh, finishing manager.

A Compact Solution

Leigh and his team began investigating a number of different options. In late 2004, they settled on PPG to supply the e-coat and polyester topcoat for their new product. With the material selection out of the way, the company turned its attention to finding the right equipment.

"We wanted to get the vendor of the powder, pretreatment and e-coat to buy in on whose machine we were going to purchase. That buy-in was crucial to the success of this project," says Leigh.

After carefully evaluating several e-coat systems, the team decided on the SlideRail Square Transfer™ (SST) system from Therma-Tron-X, Inc. (TTX), Sturgeon Bay, Wis. In the SST technology, parts index along a pair of low-maintenance slide rails rather than a traditional chain conveyor. Racks of product suspended from load bars are lowered into and raised out of several process tanks simultaneously before moving on to the next stages in unison. All paint system components - including cleaning, pretreatment, application and curing - are contained in one compact unit and managed by a programmable logic controller (PLC). Because parts index vertically into process stages on the system, immersion treatment can be accomplished in tanks only slightly larger than the maximum work envelope, which greatly reduces tank charging costs for water, chemicals and paint.

"The compact design of the SST system made it really attractive for our facility," says Leigh. "We also liked that it was conservative in its water and energy use. Everything that TTX did on this machine, they did with conservation in mind."

Unlike most SST systems, which locate the cure oven and cooling tunnel directly over the process tanks, the Tote Cart system has its oven on the roof of the building due to ceiling height restrictions.

A Roof-Mounted Design

Tote Cart began working with TTX in the spring of 2005. Ceiling height restrictions in the facility prevented the cure oven and cooling tunnel from being located directly over the process tanks; instead, Leigh suggested that these components be installed on the building's roof.

"Tote Cart's management looked at me like I was crazy when I suggested it. But I got that idea from powder coat companies - if you don't have enough room in your powder coat shop for a cure oven, you put it outside. I thought we should be able to do the same with an e-coat machine," he explains.

TTX agreed, and its engineers integrated a roof-mounted cure oven into the design. The new system was installed in Tote Cart's facility with little interruption to the rest of the company's operations.

"We had cleared out an area in our shop that was separate from our existing finishing line, so other than an occasional power interruption, we didn't lose many days of production. The whole installation took less than six months from the time TTX started delivering equipment," says Leigh.

In December 2005, the first e-coated shopping carts began rolling off the new line. At first, operating the highly automated system with its sophisticated controls seemed daunting. However, the company quickly discovered that the machine wasn't as complicated as it looked.

"The machine is very user-friendly, and the e-coat process was right along the line of what we had been doing already with nickel-chrome plating. Additionally, we didn't have to wait until the end of the project to start asking about it. TTX's installation crew explained everything to us along the way throughout the installation, which really helped us learn about the machine from the ground up. As a result, there wasn't much of a learning curve once the system was installed," says Leigh.

A Bigger Piece of the Pie

Tote Cart was able to hit the ground running with the new system. By April 2006, the company was operating two shifts on the new machine to keep up with market demand. Tote Cart expects to add a third shift soon, and is also considering taking on some contract work for other industries.

"What I really like is that the new system is all PC operated and PLC controlled. It has remote diagnostic capabilities - TTX can dial into it from their location in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and help me troubleshoot it right from their office - and we can also change the program remotely rather than having an operator come down to the floor to reprogram the system. It's made us a lot more flexible," says Leigh.

The entire project came in under budget and ahead of schedule. Although the new equipment required a substantial investment, Leigh believes it was an essential part of the company's growth strategy.

"Whenever we make a big investment, it's both an opportunity and a challenge. I'm sure there were some long nights that management wrestled with purchasing this system. But for the long-term growth of the company, it was very necessary," he says.

The system has allowed Tote Cart to increase its cart sales by a projected 30 percent because of the new product line; the company expects to see a complete payback on its investment in five years as a result of this increased market share.

"We might have spent a little more money than we expected, but we got the quality cart that we were looking for. In the long run, we think this will give us a competitive edge," says Leigh.

TTX can be reached at (920) 743-6568, sales@ttxinc.com or www.ttxinc.com. PPG can be reached at (216) 486-5300 or (888) PPG-2001, or www.ppg.com/car_indcoat. For more information about Tote Cart, visit www.totecart.com.