The economy may be struggling to recover, but many dairy processors have a useful tool to help get them through the worst of times: in-house blow molding. Combining speed and efficiency with long equipment life, blow-molding equipment can be an ace in the hole, in many ways.
“We have had success over the past few years installing high-speed, efficient blow-molding systems that replace larger numbers of smaller and less-efficient blow-molding machines,” says David Yenor, vice president of global business development at York, Pa.-based Graham Engineering. “By doing this, we have been able to dramatically improve the efficiency of processor’s operations, resulting in a much lower cost per bottle. This approach has proven to be beneficial for dairy bottles, but even more so for containers for juice products and other single-serve beverages.”
The growth curve for many fluid bottlers has flattened out in this mature market, Yenor notes. “Rather than looking externally for growth, many companies are focusing inward, realizing that there is significant profit and growth potential through improving the efficiencies of their internal operations,” he says. “Customers are seeking shorter payback intervals when considering return on investment. They are putting more emphasis on factors such as energy efficiency, bottle consistency and machinery uptime.”
Blow molding can be a key part of that strategy, Yenor says. “We will send a team to a customer’s facility to conduct a detailed study in which we show bottlers the true cost of converting to more efficient, high-speed machinery, including engineering costs, project management, blow-molding equipment and auxiliary equipment,” he explains. “Our report will also show them what this improved efficiency will do for their bottom line.”
But are processors taking full advantage of what suppliers are offering? “The sale of blow-molding equipment is down in 2009 compared to sales at this time in 2008,” says Richard Smith, commercial director at Uniloy Milacron, Tecumseh, Mich. “Some of the custom molders who supply containers to dairy processors are buying new equipment to get an advantage in the marketplace over their competition. The advantages they are looking for in a new machine relate to reliability, reducing energy use, easy operation and ease of maintenance.”
On the other hand, the current economy has many processors focusing on existing efficiency rather than new installations. “While capital budgets have been tight for new equipment, projects involving increased efficiency of existing lines have been steady,” reports Steven Rocheleau, president of Fitchburg, Mass.-based Rocheleau Tool & Die Co. Inc. “In many cases, this is an effective solution for processors, but in others, it is a temporary fix for lines that should be replaced completely with new technology.”
Processors also are looking to extend the life of their equipment until they can retool. “Graham Engineering has begun providing maintenance services, control retrofits and extended machinery rebuild services over the past few years,” Yenor says. “In general, most blow-molding equipment will last a very long time with proper maintenance.”
Perhaps that’s not as good news for the suppliers, whose lifeblood is selling machinery, but it’s great for processors looking to stretch every dollar. “Most of the machines we produced when we first started making blow-molding machines for the dairy industry in the early 1960s are still making containers every day,” Uniloy’s Smith says. “Therefore, a lot of the activity comes from expansions, new product requirements and things of that nature rather than replacement machinery. To increase the lifespan of existing machinery, we provide technology upgrades, replacement parts and service for our worldwide fleet of machines, regardless of age.”
Latest advancementsDevelopment efforts have tended to shift toward improving efficiency and reliability, reducing changeover times and reducing time required for machinery maintenance, Yenor says. “These improvements are being driven by our customers, who are being squeezed by thinner margins,” he says. “When you can improve energy efficiency by 25%, raise machinery efficiency by 5% and reduce average bottle weights by over 10% – those are significant numbers in the world in which we live today.”
Smith points to advancements designed to help both larger and smaller operations. “Uniloy’s R2000 neck-to-neck blow-molding system meets consumer demand for sustainability as well as producer requirements for high-output systems with energy efficiency and streamlined operation in mind,” he says. “This technology is for the production of lightweight HDPE dairy bottles and enables the simultaneous blowing of two non-handled containers of less than 1 liter. The result is twice the output from a single machine. It is currently reducing raw material usage for one customer by 30%.”
Meanwhile, Uniloy’s UR65 reciprocating screw series is designed for customers who need low- to medium-volume productivity, reduced energy usage and a lower capital investment, Smith says.
“But some of the latest advancements aren’t in technology at all,” he notes. “They are in the value-added services and capabilities that customers are demanding more and more. Turnkey projects and systems are becoming a necessity for dairies to remain competitive and run the most efficient process possible.”
Yenor says Graham Engineering is well positioned to take advantage of demands for sustainability, due to the operational efficiencies of its high-speed rotary wheel machines. “These machines provide the most consistent bottles, at the lowest possible weight, with less energy than other types of extrusion blow molding machines. And when dairy processors begin looking to manufacture multilayer, co-extruded bottles, the advantages of wheel machines are even more pronounced,” he says. “With a single flowhead, the consistency from container to container is much better than with multiple-head machines.”
Smith says three-layer technology meets market needs for date-code extension of milk products, creating a reduction in waste by not having as much out-of-date product sent back. “Container light-weighting results in lowered energy use and material use, which are both considerable advantages to processors,” he says. “There is less machine energy needed to create a lower amount of molten plastic for molding. Sustainability is also brought to the processor and distribution chain by eliminating other anti-green costs, such as those associated with product design. Examples of this include newly designed milk containers which are eliminating the need for crates and therefore 50 percent of the space needed to transport, store and sell.”
At the recent Drinktec show in Germany, Sidel launched its SBO Universal 2 range, which accelerates output by 10% to 2,000 bottles per hour per mold, while decreasing energy consumption by 10%. The result is the possibility of blowing bottles from recycled PET. Sidel reports the new technology has reduced unplanned machine downtime to less than 3% and guarantees yields of 97% and optimized production costs.
“Technology does not have to be fancy – it just needs to work 24 hours a day, every day,” Rocheleau says. “As you invest in machinery that increases efficiency and lowers bottle cost, you automatically gain in sustainability.”
Around the cornerWhat’s the “next big thing” coming in blow molding?
“I believe it will be improvement in existing HDPE resin technology,” says Bruce Meyer, an engineer with Texas-based Blow Mold Doctor. “Blow-molding machine companies have been moving forward and now it’s time for resin suppliers to do the same. The other area would be to work on building better down-stream equipment where there is a much smoother transition once the containers are made.”
Graham Engineering is looking forward to greater interest from dairy processors looking to increase their profitability through the in-house manufacturing of school milk and drinkable yogurt bottles. “For some reason, in-house bottle manufacturing has not caught on yet with the drinkable yogurt producers,” Yenor says, “despite the fact that we believe significant potential exists for real cost-savings with these bottlers; especially those with significant production volumes.”
Rocheleau foresees new opportunities for food not traditionally in plastic bottles. “Various canister-type products with attractive shrink sleeve labeling are replacing metal, paper bag and cardboard canisters,” he says. “On-site production continues to be of interest to lower overall cost, including the cost of energy to ship bottles, which adds no value to the product.”
Smith says the drive to make more for less will continue. “The ultimate desire of dairy processors is to have a lights out plant. While this may not always be attainable, the desire to continue pushing the envelope with faster cycle times, less material and flawless production remain,” he says. “But outside of efficiencies and processing improvements, flexibility is the next big thing, because of the trends towards unique shapes and sizes of beverage containers.”
This will require new machinery to be more technically flexible, Smith says, concluding: “The new designs will bring the art back into blow-molding system design and implementation.”
Blow Mold Doctor www.blowmoldtraining.com
Graham Engineering www.grahamengineering.com
Rocheleau Tool & Die Co. Inc. www.rocheleautool.com
Sidel Group www.sidel.com
Uniloy Milacron www.uniloy.com