Electroplating technology continues to evolve. A process that originally entailed the application of a metal coating onto another metal substrate now also encompasses non-metallic materials such as various plastics and ceramics. Metal finishing companies are finding new ways to improve the techniques for plating these surfaces and making them more accessible and affordable to manufacturers.
Electroless Plating of Non-Metallic Materials
The use of electroless plating is perhaps the most notable development in coating non-metallic substances. The biggest challenge when plating plastics and ceramics is the need to “metalize” these materials to promote adhesion. It’s possible to rectify issues such as flaking, peeling and cracking by pretreating the surface before plating. Electroless plating can provide a base coat that prepares a plastic or ceramic substrate for the electrodeposition and will improve the overall results of the metal finishing project.
Electroless plating differs from traditional metal plating in several ways. While electroplating requires the introduction of a DC electrical current into the plating bath, the electroless method is electricity-free. The process begins by etching the workpiece by immersing it in a chemical solution that prepares it for plating. The plater then places the object in a bath containing dissolved ions of nickel or copper. Plating occurs via an autocatalytic reaction instead of electrodeposition.
After the application of the electroless coating, the ceramic or plastic substrate is now ready for electroplating. Virtually any metal will adhere to the surface if the plater performs the preparation steps correctly, whether the manufacturer prefers gold, silver, copper, tin or alloys consisting of various metal combinations.
Health and Environmental Issues Affecting Plastic and Ceramic Plating
Changes in environmental regulations and polices have also had a significant impact on the plating of non-metallic substrates in many industries. For example, the practice of plating plastic parts with chrome became a widely accepted process in the 1960s and continued for decades. However, the discovery that the hexavalent chromium used in chrome plating applications causes serious health issues has led to the implementation of stringent regulations that have curtailed its use. Many manufacturers are now turning to trivalent chromium and nickel as safer alternatives to chromium plating.
While companies may continue to use hexavalent chromium when plating onto plastics or ceramics, they must take special precautions to create a safer workplace and protect the environment. For many plating operations, the costs involved in making the necessary upgrades to use hexavalent chromium are too high to bear.
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