Performance Coatings

Dec 2, 2009

Shops Should Know

Anyone involved with performance parts is well aware that if they don’t know what they’re talking about, their customers will know it in a second. In a way, performance coatings exemplify this.

On one hand, they’re very easy to explain. “These coatings add wear resistance and decrease the friction,” says Mark Boghe of Bekaert in Belgium.

Yet, their nuances are many, and if your shop is going to offer or recommend coatings, it’s best to learn a little something about them. For example, any customer concerned about thickness would be comforted to know that Calico Coating’s CT-1 dry film lubricant, which is used on engine bearings, valve springs, oil pump gears, timing and transmission gears, is 0.0002″ to 0.0004″ thick and generally speaking does not need extra clearances, says Jerry Ehlert of the company located in Denver, N.C. He adds that Calico’s coatings provide added performance and protection. Calico also offers tech service to help you and your shop’s customers select an application that best suits their specific coating needs.

That’s an important service, says Leonard Warren of Tech Line Coatings in Murrieta, Calif. He notes that it is very important to use the correct coating for the appropriate application.

“For example,” says Warren, “Different parts want a thermal barrier, while others want a thermal dispersant. Look at an intake manifold. You’ll use a thermal barrier on the bottom to reduce heat transfer into it, but you want a dispersant on the top to allow air to flow over it and take heat away. We provide thermal management systems that take care of these processes.”

Warren says the piece of information that performance shops really need to understand about coatings is that it’s just not how to put them on or knowing which coating goes on which part.

“It’s why they work the way they do. The ‘how’ is the easy part; the ‘why’ is far more important. A shop should be able to match coatings to the appropriate application. The ‘why’ is necessary to be able to do that, and that’s why we’re teaching people more than we’re taking orders. Most people really don’t understand performance coatings. Also, there’s a lot of misinformation out there that’s been spread around,” says Warren. He adds that Tech Line is happy to be a resource for shops to call if they have questions.

Richard Tucker of Swain Tech Coatings in Scottsville, N.Y., adds that, “Not all coating companies are the same. Many folks have heard stories or been bitten by coatings that have not been formulated properly for the use they are being applied to by shops that do not process parts properly.”

There is a big difference in having a professional coating company who specializes in high performance coatings formulation and application and a machine shop who buys a “do it yourself” kit as a way to add revenue to their machine shop, says Tucker.

Tucker adds, “When properly formulated materials are applied by professional coating companies dedicated to the high performance industry, coatings can provide properties to engine parts that would not otherwise be possible.”

Coatings 101

There are many hidden benefits to using coatings. Ehlert works with engine builders using coated engine bearings who save time and effort during rebuilds by not having to change and refit new engine bearings. Also, coated engine bearings have greatly extended service life over uncoated bearings. Engine builders have also seen reduced damage in engines from heat and lubrication-related failures.

Ehlert adds that coated transmission and rear end housings as well as gears and shafts reduce operating temperatures by 30 degrees or more. Coating heat shields, cowlings, air cleaner housings, and exhaust systems reduces under-hood temperatures. Coating brake pads, calipers and caliper pistons extends pad life and reduces or eliminates boiling of the brake fluid. The list goes on and on.

Boghe notes that coatings increase part life, provide reliable performance, and they lower friction, which has a variety of positive benefits. However, he notes that today, coatings are mainly used by racers.

Tucker says that Swain Tech Coatings sees parts from all types of high performance applications.

“We see everything from single cylinder motorcycles up to the most advanced open-wheel racecars. When we talk to prospective customers about what they are using the vehicle for and what their goals are, we try to narrow down the list of coatings to coatings that will be most beneficial for that specific customer.”

Why are they so many different applications for coatings? Here’s a little education on coatings by way of examples that Warren has come across. However, first he points out the basics of coatings: They reduce friction and wear; they provide a physical barrier between dissimilar metals; they manage heat; they protect against corrosion and chemical attack; they enhance appearances; they can reduce radiated heat; they can accelerate the transfer of heat to cool parts and to cool fluids, and they will extend part life.

“That’s a good list, and there’s still much more,” says Warren.

He adds that people in the past have looked at coatings as bad thing, thinking that if you had to use a coating that meant there was something wrong with the part. That’s not always true.

What happens is that sometimes racers can get away with running a part with a coating on it that they couldn’t run under normal conditions. In other words, there may be a better part available, but they simply don’t have the money at the time. In those situations, coatings do provide a band-aid function. But, they’re really not designed to do that. They’re designed to become a permanent part and enhance the overall quality, performance and protection into areas that the part cannot be modified to perform on its own.

“Coatings enhance the properties that are not found in the basic material that the part is constructed from,” says Warren.

As an example, Warren suggests looking at a piston made out of aluminum. Aluminum has minimal lubricity, and it is good at transferring heat, but it isn’t a thermal barrier.

“So, let’s take a look at the top of the piston. The piston is made out of aluminum, so the only thing you can do to stop heat from transferring into that piston at a rate faster than you want it to is to put some type of barrier on top of it. You cannot make a piston from aluminum that will not absorb heat,” says Warren. He adds that all of Tech Line’s coatings are multi-functional.

Warren continues, “From that point, the next question is, ‘Is there anything else I want that coating to do besides just be a thermal barrier?’ And, the answer is yes. A thermal barrier is important because it reduces the part temperature, thereby limiting part softening under heat. It also reduces the amount of heat that has to transfer into the cooling system, thereby limiting the strain on the cooling system.”

Valve springs provide another reason why shops need to know something about coatings, says Warren, noting that he’s heard people suggest ideas such as coating a valve spring with Teflon. He says it may sound like a good idea to those without coatings education, but Teflon is actually a thermal barrier.

“If you take a steel spring and it goes over 400 degrees, you’ve got a dead player. Why would you wrap your valve spring in something that is a thermal barrier and traps heat in the spring? Yes, you can reduce the friction from the inner and outer springs rubbing against each other, but the molecular friction that is created by the spring flexing will still generate heat. We use coatings that are designed to transfer heat from the spring to the oil faster. Thereby, reducing external friction from rubbing and internal friction by transferring it to the oil, which is a coolant. This is why education is necessary. Things that sound good aren’t always good.”

Market Size

How vast and varied is the market for performance coatings? Boghe notes that in addition to the automotive market, coatings also have applications in the tooling and aerospace industries.

According to Tucker, the coatings developed in the early 1970s, which include thermal barrier, lubricating and friction reducing coatings, are still the heart of high performance coating industry.

Nonetheless, Tucker cautions that, “Some of these types of coatings have found their way onto production parts through cheapened down materials and application processes to meet the cost expectations of a production environment. However, the heart of the true high performance coatings would be with the materials and processes that we apply on a daily basis.”

Coatings Offered

Now that we know a little more about performance coatings as a whole, let’s look at the different types of performance coatings offered.

Boghe notes that Bekaert offers DLC (Diamond Like Carbon) coatings. These coatings are deposited using a PACVD (Plasma Assisted Chemical Vapor Deposition) process at a deposition temperature below 200°C. Another deposition technology is also used: PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition). Bekaert diamond-like coatings are developed with clear understanding of customer needs in specified markets.

Boghe adds that the service Bekaert provides is to put the coating on parts that are supplied to them by customers.

“These coatings increase performance as they reduce the friction (so more power at the end), and because they reduce the wear, performance is kept always at the same level,” says Boghe.

Commenting on the differences in the quality of a coating, Boghe says that coatings are separated by their adherence and the roughness of the coating.

“Bad adherence makes it useless,” says Boghe, “And too rough will wear out the counterpart. Also, not all coatings can run against a coated counterparts, although ours do.”

According to Tucker, Swain Tech Coatings develops and applies coatings to help control heat transfer, friction and wear. “We offer thermal barrier coatings, friction reducing coatings, lubricating coatings, heat emitting coatings and oil shedding coatings,” says Tucker.

“We formulate and apply thermal barrier coatings for both internal engine and exhaust purposes,” says Tucker. “Internal engine coatings need to be much thinner and have a smooth finish to function properly. Exhaust coatings do not have those limitations so different materials can be used on exhaust parts.”

Tech Line manufactures coatings for a variety of companies, and they also sell coatings that shops can apply, as well as coatings shops can sell to their do-it-yourself customers. In fact, Warren says, coatings are available for virtually every part inside and out of the engine, driveline, brake system, cooling system, exhaust system and a few others, such as floor board coatings and appearance coatings.

“We make coatings available in a retail package for the end user. We only sell those coatings which either do not require baking, or if they do require baking, they’re water-based and will give off no hazardous fumes. All other coatings are sold to shops only, which are prepared, hopefully, to apply them properly,” says Warren.

As for how the shops learn to apply those coatings, Warren says, “Ninety-nine percent of our shops have learned by doing it themselves. A few shops have been trained, and there are individuals who will either allow them to come to their shop (making sure first that they’re not competing), and will train them for a charge, and we do have some people who will travel.”

He adds that Tech Line is currently revamping its warehouse to put in a training area in, so that they can periodically have training seminars.

Coatings for Performance Shops

Becoming educated on performance coatings will undoubtedly help out when talking to racers and other enthusiasts who may ask about them. But, the real question for speed shop owners is how they can use this information to sell more parts? Should they become a middleman arranging for coatings of specific parts for their customers? Should they coat products themselves, or should they sell coatings for do-it-yourselfers? All are options, and our sources all had different answers.

Speaking for Bekaert, Boghe says that shops can be a distribution channel, adding that one of the many selling points for shops offering coated components is that they have a much higher added value.

In Tucker’s opinion, it is probably not realistic for performance shops to look at Swain Tech’s coatings as a large profit center. He says that coatings are so specialized, it is difficult for a performance shop to have the knowledge necessary to promote coatings in the proper way.

“I often find myself talking folks out of coatings more than into it. I can do this because I have enough knowledge of what coatings are appropriate or cost effective for each application,” says Tucker.

While many share Tucker’s opinion, others in the industry have more optimism for the place of performance coatings in performance shops.

Tech Line’s Warren says, “For well-educated and positioned shops, coatings could offer huge potential. First, they can be an add-on sale for nearly every performance part. Second, for shops selling coatings to the do-it-yourself crowd and applying the coatings themselves, coatings could be an additional profit center for the shop.”

Whether or not performance coatings are a fit for your shop is a question that only you can answer. Research the realities of working with performance coatings for your business, and proceed accordingly. Even if you decide not to incorporate coatings directly into your shop’s services, it can still serve as a distribution channel. In addition to sales, this can help to raise the shop’s integrity level in the eyes of racers and enthusiasts in the know.

Make sure you’re in the know as well.