The Many Uses of Chrome Plating
For many, the word "chrome" is evocative of 1950s styling excess. Acres of silvered reflective metal became the primary marker of mid-century automotive design, and for many years it seemed as if automotive manufacturers were in an arms race to festoon their machines with as much chrome plating as possible. However, despite this application becoming perhaps the most salient use of chrome, the use of chrome plating for purely decorative reasons is actually a comparatively minor percentage industry-wide.
Chrome plating has a myriad of uses, from the purely cosmetic to the invisibly practical. But all chrome is not created equally. Automotive chrome is commonly a thin chromium layer placed over another metal, typically a zinc or copper alloy. In industrial contexts, this represents a comparatively weak and impractical coating.
Speaking generally, there are three primary uses of chrome hard plating, each with its own challenges and nuances. Let's look at a general overview of these varied applications:
To Add Strength and Dimensional Stability
One of the most prevalent uses of chrome hard plating in a modern context is to prevent the wearing down of machines that undergo repetitive motions. Most machinery used in manufacturing, whether that be the production of paper, glass, tires, or anything else, will exhibit friction points that cause surfaces to rub together repeatedly for years at a time. If these surfaces were untreated steel or a softer metal such as aluminum, the working lifespan of the component would be drastically shortened. This increase in wear would not only lead to the machinery needing more maintenance, but it would implicate more down-time for the factories, destroying productivity and profit. There are Hard Chrome Plating solutions to keep machinery parts running longer.
To avoid these pitfalls, chrome hard plating is often used in manufacturing machinery to strengthen contact surfaces and increase dimensional stability. A component slowly wearing down, and thus changing the size, can put the entire alignment and functionality of a machine at risk. Thankfully, this is just one more area where chrome shines.
To Prevent Corrosion
The corrosion resistance aspect of chrome plating was actually the original intention beyond its use in automotive applications. Unlike raw steel, oxygen atoms cannot bond to chrome-plating. Thus, while corrosion can occur, a chrome-plated component is protected from the corrosive process that steel would naturally undergo through repetitive motions.
Rust prevention is still a driving factor in the use of chrome hard plating for several modern uses. For example, showerheads and other fixtures are often coated in chrome to prevent deterioration amidst high moisture environments. Further, numerous industrial or commercial settings have found that chrome is an excellent coating to prevent environmental impact on crucial pieces. This includes numerous marine applications. The running gear and hardware on ships are often chrome plated in order to shield the underlying metal from the damaging effects of salt and moisture.
As a Beautifier
As previously alluded, the most memorable use of chrome plating is in contexts where the chrome plating is used chiefly for decorative reasons. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: the dazzling reflectivity of chrome can be a stunning accent to a design. However, true chrome plating for decorative purposes has fallen out of favor in recent years; there are a few reasons for this. The primary rationale is simply cost. Chrome plating is a labor-intensive multi-step process that requires numerous metals, solutions, and temperatures. Thus, chrome plating is an expensive system in terms of both materials and labor. That having been said, new chrome plating processes are being developed every day. New technologies that allow chrome plating to occur without nickel or copper are currently being perfected. This has the potential to reduce the cost, and increase the ease, of chrome plating.
Cost aside, another driver behind the reduction of chrome plating in cosmetic applications is weight. True chrome plating can only be done over another base metal, typically steel. This steel is then coated in a separate alloy and plated with the final chrome surface. This abundance of metal makes any chrome-plated part fairly heavy. As modern manufacturers strive to develop more fuel-efficient cars or more portable consumer goods, excess weight has become a detriment. Thus, most chrome-like finishes in modern manufactured goods are actually plastic pieces with a polymer or mica based surface coating to emulate chrome plating. Whereas chrome was previously commonplace in consumer goods, it is now primarily regulated to the luxury end of the market.