Even though electroplating sounds like a process straight out of a science fiction movie, it’s actually an excellent way to enhance the look, durability, and functionality of metal components.
It is a simple and cost-effective way to deliver a higher quality product to the end-user. Keep reading to learn more about the other benefits of electroplating, industry applications, as well as material considerations!
What is Electroplating?
Electroplating is an advanced metal finishing process by which a metal coating is applied to a metal substrate using a direct electric current.
In layman’s terms, you make a sandwich. The cheap steel on the inside is the roast beef, and the fancy bronze or brass on the outside, is the rye bread. Toasted, of course.
This process saves the customer money, and nobody realizes the difference.
But, there are other benefits to this process that stand to be discussed, too.
The Benefits of Electroplating
Electroplating is a highly efficient process and is used all the time, across manufacturing. It’s particularly useful for motion control and counterbalance hinges that have high-friction pivot points.
- Saves money
- Meets small mechanical tolerances
- Reduces friction
- Offers better part protection
- Maintains electrical conductivity
- Provides a unique finish
Save Money in Production
Electroplating allows you to create a high quality “veneer” on lower cost metals, decreasing overall component price. A 100% steel part might be cheap, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of a pretty finish, and a 100% bronze part just isn’t economical.
This process is also less expensive than other methods of coating, like powder coating.
However, if the customer wants a chrome electroplated finish, that’ll be more expensive. Chrome plating is not that popular, as it’s not the greatest for the environment.
Accommodate Small Mechanical Tolerances
The electroplating process enables you to create extremely thin outer layers which can fall well within small mechanical tolerances for your designs. This trait is extremely helpful for complex mechanical products, like multi-link hinges.
Powder coating typically has a .0015" to .004" thickness, whereas electroplating offers less than .001” of thickness. You can see why it’s preferred for small, complex designs.
Some electroplated parts are dipped in a wax or lubricant to reduce friction. Not all parts need a lubricant, though, since electroplated surfaces can be extremely smooth and greatly reduce friction between moving parts on their own. The reduced friction enables you to deliver more durable products that require less maintenance.
Electroplated materials are well protected from the accumulation of dust and dirt as well as from corrosion. In ordinary applications, adding a layer of powder coating is enough to protect a part from corrosion and other environmental risk factors.
However, over time, powder coating will wear off, and even the slightest chip in the surface can lead to rust or corrosion in the right environment.
Electroplating will not wear off as easily, and leaves lasting protection you can count on.
Some manufacturers even double up, using both electroplating and a layer of powder coat for extra protection. It all depends on the end use of the component.
Maintaining Electrical Conductivity
If your component needs to maintain a certain level of electrical conductivity, electroplating is the way to go. Electroplated components are great conductors.
Powder coating, however, acts as an insulator, so if your design calls for electrical conductors, don’t choose powder coating.
Quality Metal Finishing
Most customers that opt for electroplating do so with the final product in mind. Will the component be visible to the end-user? If so, the customer might want a unique finish, like a bronze patina or an antique effect. These finishes can easily be achieved with electroplating.
Plus, many customers want to know how to polish metal to a mirror finish, and electroplating makes obtaining that finish easy!
What Is Electroplating Used For in Industry?
So far we’ve talked vaguely about “parts” and “components.” Here are a few examples of components that benefit from this type of industrial metal finishing.
- Plated screws: If you have screw faces that are clearly visible or need extra protection, electroplating can provide a great coating. Powder coating is too thick, and will affect functionality.
- Stacking parts: Metal components that must be stacked can take a lot of wear. Electroplating protects them from friction and allows them to slide more easily during warehouse operations. Plus, the relatively low thickness of electroplating helps meet tighter tolerances.
- Pin holes: Powder coated parts with pin holes may have to be reamed to fit the pins. Electroplating saves you or your customer an extra step.
- Furniture hinges: Electroplating can apply an antique or rustic finish to furnishings with added protection.
Material Considerations for Industrial Metal Finishing
While electroplating might seem like a simple process, there’s a lot more that goes into the final product than you might expect. Take, for example, the materials used.
Nickel plating has a leveling effect on surfaces, so it can reduce surface roughness, and ultimately, friction.
But, if you plan on electroplating high strength carbon steels, be wary, it can lead to hydrogen embrittlement.
Essentially, hydrogen embrittlement is movement of hydrogen atoms into the atomic lattice of the base metal, making it more susceptible to stress fractures. To remedy this problem, manufacturers often bake the part after plating, or can even add inhibitors during the pickling process to decrease corrosion. Worst case scenario, you’ll have to pick a new base metal to work with.
Along the same lines, consider the ductility requirements of the end product. The ductility of the coating is very dependent on the materials used.
For example, nickel plating will typically crack if bent, but zinc plating will not.
A polyester powder coat is very flexible and tends not to crack when bent, so if the customer needs a specific ductility tolerance, perhaps a powder coat is better for them.
From Machining to Finishing…
Working with a manufacturing partner who is experienced with electroplating and other advanced industrial metal finishing techniques can greatly improve your manufacturing processes.
Want to learn more about advanced metal finishing processes and see Weber Knapp’s other capabilities? Head over to our new Machining Capabilities page to learn how outsourcing manufacturing needs can streamline your production process and let you deliver higher-quality products to your customers.
(Editors note: This blog was originally published in September 2020 and was updated in August 2022 to reflect current and up-to-date information.)