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issue: June 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

Metals & Metal Parts
A Strong Counterpart


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by Jill Russell, Assistant Editor

Despite an increasing use of plastic parts and components integrated into final products, appliance makers are still standing strong to the use of metal and metal parts in both appliance design and production.

Appliance makers know—metal and metal parts often offer the strength, durability, and consistency other plastic counterparts cannot, in both product design and manufacturing. As design and aesthetics increasingly become a top priority for consumers, the integration of metal into products has only increased. And although plastic parts may offer some versatility, the use of metals and metal parts still prevails in many appliance applications.

“Plastic is often more versatile; however, there are still many applications in the appliance industry where metal is the better choice,” confirms Kevin Casey, process engineer for GM Nameplate (Seattle, WA, U.S.). “In regards to stoves and washers and dryers, companies still use metal the most. Design requirements for these appliances require corrosion and heat resistance of up to 400°F,” he explains. “Large panels still use metal for structural reinforcement, strength, and support.”

Atlas Steel Products Co. (Twinsburg, OH, U.S.) President Lawrence J. Burr agrees that although plastic parts do offer certain advantages, metal continues to offer the stability manufacturers depend on. “Metal’s advantages continue to be in areas such as longevity, durability, heat resistance, and relative low cost,” Mr. Burr tells APPLIANCE.

 

Northern States Metals (West Hartford, CT, U.S.) produces a range of metal parts that were previously considered difficult to produce due to costs and technological limitations. The company says that now, however, metal-part wall thickness can be reduced by as much as 50 percent. Extrusion walls as thin as 0.030 in and circle sizes up to 35 in are available. A variety of finishes, including conventional anodizing, powder coating, and electrophoresis methods, can be applied and are available with a machine-applied, peel-away tape to protect the finish.

Needs and Wants

In fact, many appliance suppliers predict that the use of metal and metal parts will continue to increase as appliance trend patterns follow those of other industries such as the automotive market. Lima, OH, U.S.-based metal part supplier American Trim, L.L.C. says it has found that the use of metal trim, various finishes, and overall shapes and designs used in the automotive industry are now being applied to appliance production processes.

“Design trends usually start in textiles and furniture. You’ll see a lot of bright materials in furniture along with the grains and colors of woods, which then migrate into the automotive industry, which migrates into appliances and other areas of product design in the world,” explains Bob Byrne, vice president of New Product Development for American Trim.

As the look of stainless steel and a bright metal bring consumers a feeling of status, appliance producers are anticipating that the metal “color” itself will become integrated with the other classic colors typically found within the appliance industry. “Today in the U.S. there are four main colors—white, black, bisque, and stainless steel,” Mr. Byrne tells APPLIANCE. “Stainless steel has itself become a color category. In Europe, the main colors are white, stainless steel, and aluminum. We’re beginning to see trends in domestic appliances in North America where aluminum is becoming the bright metal. We predict that it will become a color of its own in the U.S. as well.”

Even with the ever-constant issue of cost, appliance makers have increased the use of stainless steel into designs. Some companies believe the bright metal not only offers durability that other metals do not, but that it also brings with it a feeling of status and importance to the consumer. “There is a perceived quality with metal that makes it more attractive than plastic to many consumers,” says Bob Lewis, assistant vice president of Product Development for kitchen appliance maker Dacor (Diamond Bar, CA, U.S.). “In the case of appliances, the look of a commercial restaurant is all stainless steel. The consumer assumes that restaurants have the best equipment, so stainless in their home will bring at least some of the same qualities that restaurants have.”

Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Sub-Zero Freezer Company, Inc. and Wolf Appliance Company, LLC (Madison, WI, U.S.) agrees and says bright metals and the use of stainless steel in appliances create a feeling of mystique for consumers. “Everybody likes the classic stainless steel,” he says. “It brings with it the ‘I’m cooking and I’ve arrived’ type feeling.”

An Atlas Steel associate operates the Red Bud Industries precision blanking system. Metal sheets are moved down through a feeder to a looping pit, where the sheet will be moved behind the feeder and a metal blank will be punched for use in a variety of applications.

A Distinguishing Factor

Designing an innovative and truly unique appliance, however, does not always reside in the initial material selection. Sometimes developing a differentiating factor is achieved by applying new methods and finishes to the material.

“When it comes to finishes, there is a wide range of options for metal,” Mr. Casey of GM Nameplate says. “The metal finishes we use the most include circular spin, continuous spin, selective spin, engine-turn, selective brush, and diamond carving on bright surfaces. Cleanability is a major issue with consumers”

While many companies have increased the use of stainless steel due to consumer demand, they are finding that preventing or reducing the appearance of fingerprints on the metal panels is also a priority. “Stainless steel and bright metals are here to stay,” says Mr. Byrne of American Trim. “There’s a great deal of focus to provide a fingerprint resistant finish on bright surfaces. Cleanability is a major issue with customers.”

Dr. Wolfgang Schlump, materials and applications technology, ThyssenKrupp Nirosta GmbH (Dusseldorf, Germany) agrees. “Fingerprints can be seen on all metal surfaces for physical reasons related to the way metals reflect light,” he explains. “The visibility of fingerprints can be minimized by microstructuring the surfaces accordingly, for example, by rolling in depressed and raised areas, while at the same time slightly matting the surfaces.”

ThyssenKrupp’s NIROSTA® steel is said to help to eliminate unwanted effects while maintaining the appearance and integrity of the metal. Using a conventional decorative surface, called standard designation 2R, a reflective shine is used to create a base for other finishes. Applied during the cold-rolling process, the 2R surface method is produced by using polished rolls. A second method, referred to by the company as a silvery matte appearance or 2B surface, is annealed and pickled after the cold-rolling process, which roughens the metal.

After the metal’s surface has been treated, a variety of methods are used to produce a final finish. NIROSTA finishes rely on grinding, polishing, blasting, and patterning to achieve desired results.

Several metal companies have started to develop and apply different coatings and finishes to the metal in order to help alleviate the problem of fingerprints due to consumer demand. The process of blasting the metal surface is increasing with popularity, as it creates a sleek, satin finish to stainless steel and aluminum. According to Dr. Schlump, blasting results in an even, non-directional matte finish. In the process, sharp or rough materials such as glass beads, sand, or ceramic particles are used to decrease the brightness of the metal by creating a matte look or a smooth finish.

Unlike traditional brushed finishes that leave unidirectional patterns, bead blasting stainless steel leaves a multidirectional finish, which reportedly allows it to withstand scratches from scrubbing and use.

American Trim is achieving similar results on stainless steel and aluminum using a different method. Instead of actually blasting the metal with physical objects, the supplier is applying a screen-printed coating to achieve the look of bead blasting without going through the actual process. The unique coating is applied and cured and provides an artificially frosted finish to the metal.

Dacor (Diamond Bar, CA, U.S.) is just one of the many appliance companies offering products in stainless steel in a variety of finishes. The company’s Epicure 30-in range and raised vent features a bead blast finish, helping the metal to resist scratches while providing an alternative look to classic stainless steel. The oven features an IR ceramic heater, and the range features 15,000 BTU and a simmer plate that allows users to evenly distribute a low, constant heat without further cooking foods. The Dacor Epicure 30-in Single Oven, 30-in Warming Oven, and Convection Oven are also pictured.

Forming Priorities

The influence of design is also affecting appliance production methods, especially when working with metal. “We’re seeing a lot more sculpted appearance in brands for differentiation to get away from the white-box look,” says Mr. Byrne of American Trim.

“There’s an incredible amount of effort to differentiate particular aspects to draw high-end products,” he continues. “Companies want brand differentiation. They are asking ‘How do we change the design so we can manufacture it everyday?’ They want low-cost and high-quality products.”

Dave Leuck, senior vice president of Northern Engraving (Sparta, WI, U.S.), agrees that the design aspect of appliances, specifically their shape, is becoming a top priority among OEMs and consumers. “The customers are looking for edgier and straight looks, but at the same time they are asking for a more organic, or overall rounded appearance to the appliance,” he says.

To accommodate such desired looks, production methods are being altered. Contrary to simply welding corners and parts together to form the basic shape of an appliance, parts are now being formed from single panels. Suppliers, to meet demands, are developing methods to provide drawn components without stretching the finish, graining, or coloration of the metal. “We are currently drawing up to 3-1/2 in to 4 in, which is a challenge,” says Mr. Leuck.

Mr. Byrne of American Trim says that the use metal and metal parts provides an advantage when drawing components, as it is easy to weld, grind, polish, and draw to make the end product appear seamless—an important aspect to the rounded trend. “One of the biggest trends we are seeing in the industry is the use of drawn components to eliminate seamed corners, particularly in stainless steel,” he says.

According to Mr. Byrne, the application of drawn components is typically found on dishwashers, laundry consoles, and cooking back splashes. “It’s a cleanability issue, and it’s more cost effective, as you eliminate a production step forming the product from one single panel,” he explains.

The use of metal and metal parts can also offer other design advantages, including the use of brand identification, trim, and parts such as handles or knobs. “Another benefit of metal is being able to emboss parts in a more defined way,” Mr. Casey of GM Nameplate tells APPLIANCE. “Embossed metal parts are crisper, making the logo or name stand out and create a richer finish.”

In addition to embossed metals, pre-painted metals are also increasing in popularity and use. Mr. Leuck of Northern Engraving says that 90 percent of his company’s work deals with aluminum that is pre-painted or tinted to the color of stainless steel. “There are a lot of appliances out there that have stainless steel panels, and they are usually fabricated on turret punch presses, where the corners are welded and the process is entirely different,” he says. “With our materials, we are able to manufacture that look but with a panel piece of equipment and the tooling process.”

As appliance OEMs research new metal companies and materials to save costs, they are often challenged with working with a variety of metal materials. “The competitive nature of the appliance business and rising steel prices are driving manufacturers to source steel from a wider range of suppliers, and that steel often will have differing properties such as tensile,” notes Brett Butterworth, general manager of New Zealand appliance maker Fisher & Paykel’s Production Machinery division.

The appliance company says it has developed equipment to handle the wide variety of metals with automatic or minimal manual adjustment. “Our ‘true tangent’ folders will fold doors or cabinets using a wide range of materials without damage by ensuring that the fold bar never slides out on the material during the folding process,” Mr. Butterworth tells APPLIANCE.

“Our ‘feelie’ folder system automatically adjusts the fold angle for different steel tensile,” he continues. “Due to an increase in the variety of options required by the market, we have developed machinery that will automatically change over to new material or models, allowing smaller batch sizes to be processed.”

Money Management

Even as the popularity of metal grows in appliance design, metal suppliers and appliance OEMs continue to struggle with cost and an increasingly competitive market.

“The cost of stainless steel is going up exponentially it seems like,” says Mr. Leuthe of Sub-Zero/Wolf. “We’re always looking for ways to not compromise the product from a functionality and appearance point of view, but at least try to keep costs down to minimum.” To accommodate manufacturers that want the low cost of plastic parts, but need the strength and reliability of metal parts, some suppliers are integrating the two together.

GM Nameplate has manufactured a hybrid part, made by inserting a plastic component into a metal back panel. “The customer wanted a plastic part that looked like metal,” explains Mr. Casey. “It has a spin finish on the front, was formed, blanked out, and resembled a metal washer.” By combining the metal with the plastic, the strength for the part was reinforced, but at a reduced cost compared to manufacturing an all-metal part.

In addition, in order to continue to produce appliances with metals and metal parts, appliance makers and suppliers are researching various metals to produce the look of a more expensive product made out of stainless steel, for example, from a less expensive metal to reduce overall costs to the consumer. Northern Engraving has started to do exactly that. “In order to meet the challenges, we are working with aluminum to develop a combination to come up with physical developments of the metal and of the coating process to accommodate the desired look,” Mr. Leuck says.

The continuous threat of international competition also presents a challenge to both appliance suppliers and OEMs. “Appliance producers are dealing with offshore companies, particularly those in China, as they wrestle with their own costs,” says Mr. Burr of Atlas Steel Products. “We confront this offshore challenge by working to help our customers reduce the cost of their products. An example is helping customers adjust their processes and specifications so they can use 200 series stainless steel in place of more expensive 300 series,” he continues.

Companies are also starting to use different grades of stainless steel, depending on the application. “We are seeing more applications where polished 409 stainless steel is replacing 430 bright annealed,” says Mr. Burr. “We have also seen substitution of 430 stainless in place of 304 in applications that do not involve food contact,” he tells APPLIANCE. “We remain vigilant about lowering our costs so we can help our customers gain competitive advantages.”

Despite rising costs of materials, increased international competition, and the popularity of cost-effective plastic parts, the staying power behind the metallic material remains strong. Design has, and will continue to play a large role in the future development of appliances, and as long as it does, it looks like the use of metal materials within those designs will continue as well. As appliance OEMs focus on meeting the future needs of consumers, the use of metal and metal parts will continue to stand strong among its material counterparts.

Also from the June 2004 report on
Metals & Metal Parts:
A Finishing Touch

 

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