Terry Graham

Terry Graham

Coatings specialist Zircotec recently announced that it had secured a number of new OEM contracts for both OE automotive and motorcycle exhaust coatings, marking a step change in the volumes its UK-based factory is now producing. Matthew Beecham spoke to managing director Terry Graham about the transition to volume manufacturing and challenges of supporting these new projects.

You recently announced that Zircotec has been awarded OE contracts with motorcycle manufacturers. Could you tell us who?

We can't publicly state the customers but one references the coating on its website, in fact they are using the Zircotec brand name in their marketing material, so the information is out there! The second contract is via the exhaust manufacturer and we cannot state the maker in this case. What I can say is that they are both European and represent a shift in volumes, following the selection of our Endurance Range coatings, a coating we developed for motorcycle applications.

What are the volumes involved?

Each programme is a batch of 2,000 units with further batches expected shortly. Whilst that may appear small for some suppliers, it is a significant step up as we have had to deliver within a short time frame, around three months. To achieve this we have invested around £250,000 in tooling and materials handling equipment. We now have a permanent night shift too.

Our manufacturing team has really risen to the challenge of flexible working. One minute we have 250 exhausts to process, the next job might be a one-off racecar exhaust and the next a prototype composite part. We had to really look at ensuring we could be that flexible and still be able to cater for our F1 customers that require turnaround in just a few hours.

What has really impressed me is how some of our younger staff have taken the chance to lead the shifts and decide how to make the most of the capacity we have. We are an engineering-led company and I think we lacked manufacturing or process knowledge. The teams have developed this, using their experience. It's been critical to our capability and I'm very proud of the improvements they made.

We've spoken in the past about your automotive coatings but not motorcycle coatings. Is this a new product or migration of car products to 'bikes?

It's a new product. It had to be. The motorcycle manufacturers have a different requirement for durability and arguably it's a tougher specification to achieve. The motorcycle OEMs have tried paints but they tend to struggle on the lifetime tests on a surface that sees regular heat cycling as well as maintaining adhesion during aggressive tests such as jet washing. We had to show we offered something that would last up to 2,000 hours operation in harsh conditions. Unlike our car systems, motorcycle exhausts are more exposed to the elements and sunlight. We've changed the coating specification to be more UV stable and added an extra automated finishing process that results in a smoother finish that doesn't trap the dirt and can be washed with soap and water.

Is the car side equally as buoyant in the OE sector?

Yes, we have a further two new projects alongside our existing work with manufacturers such as Aston Martin and Koenigssegg. For one of these OEMs, this is our first project which is always exciting. It is for a limited edition car but nonetheless it is again good volumes for us with multiple parts per car.

What is driving the automotive business - is this thermal management?

Not especially. The OEMs are looking for long lasting durable finishes that stay looking good even when exposed to high temperatures. At a recent meeting with automotive designers, they suggested that they wanted to enhance the visuals in areas where it hasn't really been a priority. Underbonnet beautification and it appears that the trend to mask the engine with plastic shields and covers is diminishing. We have a range of finishes and through work with other companies in the Zircotec Group, we now offer around 100 surface finishes and colours.

Your product is an expensive option for a part, particularly if its main benefit is aesthetics. Within these 100 products are there some that are more affordable for OEMs?

We have worked hard to reduce costs to capture OE business. The proof that it's working is that we are securing these projects from new OEMs and I think we can do even more.

We already had a low cost coating that was suitable for engine compartment applications called Primary, we have a Performance Diesel Range specifically for diesel vehicle applications. Moving on from our plasma sprayed solid ceramic coatings we are now offering a range of liquid ceramic finishes to OE customers, specifically aimed at offering aesthetics in high temperature environments.

We have never done paint finishes before and, to be honest, it was always a differentiator for Zircotec that we didn't, though customers would often ask for a heat resistant paint that didn't necessarily have thermal barrier properties, often to complement our thermal barrier range or to offer a lower cost option. We have branded this offering as "Performance 1 Coatings" and have established a new division to service the demand. This is a paint, but has a high proportion of ceramic to offer improved heat resistance. We can now offer this product to our OE customers who are more focussed on a high quality finish without the thermal barrier performance Zircotec is known for. Typical applications for an OEM customer might be to improve the aesthetics of heat shields or engine parts, so those parts that might themselves get hot making conventional finishes unusable.

There is a significant interest in improving the appearance of these parts, with car manufacturers striving to improve the appearance of their entire engine compartment. The Performance 1 Range is also available in brighter colours than the Zircotec range, which we believe will appeal to some OEMs.

Was creating these products a bigger challenge than achieving the volumes needed for OEMs, coupled with quality and accreditation needed?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto's QUBE Global light vehicle materials market- forecasts to 2030