An “Xten-sive” look at life as an American molder: Chapter 1

By Clare Goldsberry
Published: March 1st, 2010

Did the recession slow the pace of progress at your company? Likely it did, 
but that does not mean you still aren’t striving to improve. In this, first in a 
four-part series, MPW will be tracking one company’s efforts to be sustainable 
and profitable. (Ed: You can read the rest of the series here: Xten Chapter 2; Xten Chapter 3; Xten Chapter 4.)

Officials at Xten Industries, a custom injection molder and contract manufacturer in Kenosha, WI, believe that sustainability and profitability are not competing goals. They also are out to prove that profitable manufacturing and “Made in the U.S.A.” are not mutually exclusive terms.

“Sustainability is about making responsible choices that help the environment and ensure that your company will survive the business pressures it faces,” says Mark Dirr, Xten’s director of engineering. “Ultimately, this is how you must approach your efforts to be a more sustainable operation—the two go hand in hand. When you find ways to responsibly use less of anything, you reduce your expenses, and that goes directly to your bottom line.”

Xten’s director of engineering, Mark Dirr, is helping the company pursue a number of different approaches to more sustainable, and more profitable, plastics processing.


Lead quality tech Jorge Escobar explains the new heater bands to machine operators, demonstrating the cool-to-touch aspect. Xten retrofitted some of its largest presses with the bands to save power, reduce heat loss, and transmit heat more efficiently.


Thomas Tucker of Kinergetics LLC, contracted by Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy, is verifying that Xten Industries realizes the cost savings that the VFD manufacturers indicate for the drives. By checking the electrical readings on the power supply to the machines, the amount of energy savings is calculated.


Shown here is the enclosure for the VFDs, linking the control panel to the press. Xten has installed four such drives on its largest machines. The VFDs automatically vary the energy usage depending on the process cycle demand.

Xten Industries, formerly Hauser PlasTech, experienced strong growth over the past few years. During this recession the company saw some drop in business early on, but by September 2009 things had picked up substantially. Because of this growth, explains Xten’s president Matthew Davidson, the company was reaching the limits of its electrical capacity. It was time to think about energy use and ways the company might save on electrical costs. (Download the most recent letter showing Kinergetics’ findings on the efficiency of three of Xten’s presses.)

Xten’s local utility, Wisconsin Energy (WE), offers a program in which it will evaluate a company’s current energy usage and estimated future needs. “Beyond saving money, we had the incentive of finding a solution to our upcoming capacity limits,” says Davidson. “Unless we became more efficient with the equipment we had, we’d have to invest heavily to expand our electrical capacity, which would cost us over $100,000. Our goal became cost avoidance and learning to live within our kilowatt means. The fact that we were helping to cut overall electrical consumption was an added benefit.”

Xten began its sustainability effort with small steps—from the installation of energy-efficient lighting and motion sensors for turning lights on and off in offices or infrequently used warehouse bays, to employee training and working with the community. The company also purchased an Ingersoll Rand Nirvana VSD rotary-screw air compressor and installed a variable-frequency drive (VFD) on its cooling tower system’s pump. These steps coincided with research on possible future projects such as reducing inline air pressure settings, heater bands, and potentially the purchase of an electric press.

If at first you don’t succeed . . .
Not everything Xten tried worked out well. One of those missteps was the Power Factor Correction. The company installed a capacitor bank to reduce its peak power demand and improve its power factor, which is an evaluation of the unused power being returned to the electrical provider, measuring the number of degrees the current and voltage are out of phase with the power company. The better the alignment between these curves, the more efficiently the power plant can operate, explains Dirr.

Sounds good, but the process failed to deliver the savings hoped for, because WE required that Xten own its transformer outright, which proved cost prohibitive (rules vary by energy company).

Xten officials also hoped that the capacitor bank would help reduce the sharp peak demand spikes it experiences during the day and on Monday mornings at plant startup, but realistically, changing the timing and pattern of machine startups had a much more significant effect.

“There was also a misconception about why we were going through this exercise, including converting our equipment from 240V to 480V,” comments Dirr. “Some people thought we were doing this to save energy, a common misconception. In fact, it was being done to reduce our amp draw so we could put off the expense of expanding our electrical distribution panel. Doubling the voltage halves the amp draw, but the power consumed remains the same. It doesn’t save money on your power bill.”

Helping hand from Focus on Energy
The next step Xten took involved a statewide program, Focus on Energy, which helps businesses and residents of Wisconsin served by a participating utility to reduce their electrical consumption by offering incentives and technical expertise. “Focus came to us and stated they were interested in helping us buy an electric press,” Dirr says. “We started talking about that—a shovel-ready project that we could get funded immediately.”

After going through the process to become qualified, Xten finally was denied the funding due to the relative cost of the electric machines, and the expected electrical savings vs. the many used hydraulic machines on the market. However, some benefits came out of Xten’s involvement with Focus on Energy. The research led the company to additional sustainable and money-saving efforts. In evaluating its energy consumption, Xten found that its older presses accounted for more than their share of the firm’s molding machines’ electrical usage. Focus did a baseline study for Xten, so the processor knew its average electrical consumption. In the midst of the economic crisis in 2009, Xten was running lean—too lean to handle this long-term project to reduce electrical use and improve sustainability with its current staffing levels. That’s when Focus on Energy offered a solution.

Xten was presented with the opportunity to apply for a staffing grant based on the projects its management thought they could complete by a given deadline. They applied for a grant covering seven projects and ended up with an agreement to fund up to $31,415 of staffing costs to work on them. It was at this point, according to Dirr, that Xten fully committed to reducing its electrical consumption and increasing its sustainability efforts.

Xten’s next steps were to complete the replacement of HID lamps throughout the plant with energy-efficient fluorescent lighting. “Not only are the fluorescent lights more energy efficient, but they also have a better color rendering index and provide more even light over time than HID lamps,” Dirr comments.

The installation of the lamps included motion sensors for infrequently accessed areas and ambient light detectors to take advantage of natural lighting during the day. Xten received a Focus on Energy grant of 34% of the project cost and projects it will save more than $14,000 annually in electrical costs—paying off the project within nine months. The company financed the project through U.S. Energy Capital Corp., using a low-fee self-funding model that set the loan payments at a lower amount than the monthly cost savings. “The interest rates were a little higher, but the self-funding option was very attractive to us,” Davidson added.

The next project involved tackling the energy lost in its compressed air system. Focus offers a variety of incentives for fixing air leaks, including paying for an outside audit. Using an ultrasonic leak detector, Focus and Xten performed air leak audits on air lines and compressors, and fixed any leaks. Compressed air can be an expensive source of energy on the shop floor, and leaks can be a major cause of energy loss.

Heater bands: Simple, low-cost, effective
Additionally, Xten used grant money from Focus to retrofit several of its older large injection molding machines with ServTek self-insulating radiant heater bands, and will most likely continue retrofitting the other presses as well, since ServTek, Milacron’s aftermarket business unit, now offers a cost-efficient option for smaller presses, Dirr explains.

“The radiant heater bands save power in two ways, by reducing heat loss with insulation and also by generating and transmitting heat more efficiently,” he adds. “Payback on the heater band systems comes out at about one year. However, while the heater bands hold the heat in—once they are on and running you can touch the outside with your hands and not get burned—the side effect of that is we might be forced to use our natural gas heat more to warm the plant in the winter months.”

Dirr adds that the upside to that is that gas is cheaper to heat with than electricity used to produce the waste heat from the old heater bands, “So even in that case, the radiant heater bands are helping us save energy and money.”

That’s often the case when deciding to go green: There is no one move or product that provides the total solution. Everything is a trade-off, with each having a positive or negative effect on the bottom line. “That’s where having a baseline evaluation on the facility’s energy usage helps,” notes Davidson. “Each step can be weighed and the pros and cons examined.”

Xten has also installed CCS Technology’s SyncroSpeed variable-frequency drives on four of its largest presses. These drives automatically vary energy usage depending on the process cycle demand. “The motors used to be either just on or off,” Dirr says. “The variable-frequency drive is automatically, infinitely variable from 20%-100%, and provides just the energy needed to get the job done.”

Some VFDs require technicians to adjust the motor parameters every time the process changes, but SyncroSpeed drive systems are programmed on installation to self-adjust and automatically optimize to the process. According to Dirr, these currently average 34% energy savings over the old motors. This project was also supported by Focus on Energy with an incentive grant of $50/hp replaced, with an extra $10/hp bonus when Xten provides savings data. 

Right to the bottom line
Xten is also working with CleanTech Partners, a funding partner of Focus on Energy, which has a financing system for new emerging technologies. Both the heater bands and variable drives fell into the scope of this program, and Xten received 5% interest financing, paid no money down, and pays back the loan through a 50/50 shared savings program on the heater bands and a 30/70 split on the VFDs.

“For every dollar we save on the heater bands, we keep $0.50 and pay them back $0.50,” explains Davidson. “That’s money directly to our bottom line. That is absolute genius. When you start looking at it, if the government wants us to keep manufacturing in the U.S., help small businesses, and reduce energy, what better way to do it than this?  It allows us to turn a profit right away, but it’s not a gift. We’re paying them back. It’s a direct financing program to manufacturers who can promise to pay it back through the savings they’re realizing.”

Xten production manager Rob Korpela adds, “We haven’t seen any negative change in performance of the presses using the radiant heater bands or the SyncroSpeed systems. The post-installation processing has been seamless.”

Xten is also considering retrofitting its presses with Cincinnati Process Technologies’ (CPT) auto-banking and auto-off controls. “Banking is reducing the level of something,” Dirr explains, “and Xten started this by addressing the human factor of a busy shop floor.” Ray Meldahl, who was hired by Xten using the staffing grant, began with a training program to educate all production personnel on the benefits of turning off idle equipment, and how to make wise equipment shutdown decisions.

“Newer presses often come equipped with the technology to auto-bank the heaters and shut down motors on an alarm, but these units offer some unique features,” notes Dirr. If a press is idle, the heat might be unintentionally left on at full process temperature, which wastes energy and degrades material. CPT’s equipment will signal that a press is idle and will automatically reduce the heat if an operator doesn’t respond to the signal, Dirr explains. If the heater bands reach the second time-out, they will re-signal and shut down completely if there is no operator response. Standard hydraulic motors typically only run intentionally on an idle press if the hydraulic oil needs to be warmed; once the oil reaches a pre-set temperature for a pre-set time, the control will pre-signal and then shut down the motors.

Searching for funding
Xten received a custom grant from Focus on Energy to help cover approximately 25% of the project’s cost. Currently, it is seeking financing for the balance. “CleanTech Partners only funds emerging technologies, and did not feel that the auto-banking/auto-off installations were new enough to be considered, so we are looking at alternate sources, including the State of Wisconsin and the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act funding,” says Dirr.

Although previous efforts to purchase an electric press with the assistance of Focus failed, Xten was able to gain a new 400-ton all-electric press on its own four months ago. “Knowing the total life cycle cost of a machine is important,” says Dirr. “You can’t just look at the upfront capital cost of the machine. You must also consider the expense of running the press over its lifetime. A hydraulic press will have higher ongoing expenses than an electric press, which can more than offset the higher capital cost of the electric. We’re very curious to see how much we’ll save with the electric machine vs. the retrofitted hydraulic presses.”

Xten is committed to making its sustainable efforts a reality that pays off on the bottom line and to prove it can be done. “We had a planning meeting and one of the outcomes was our goal to prove that manufacturing can thrive in the U.S.,” says Davidson. “Cutting our electrical consumption struck us as something we can do—it can save money for a company that uses a lot of electricity, as all injection molding companies do. These projects make sense for everyone since the cost per kW to reduce consumption is a fraction of the cost per kW to add electrical production capacity using any known technology.”  Clare Goldsberry

Quick facts: 
Xten Industries
Where? Kenosha, WI
How big? 78,000 ft2 of manufacturing, office, and warehouse space
Who’s there? 80 employees; Matthew Davidson, president
What machines? 30 injection molding presses, 85-880 tons; all hydraulic except for a 400-ton electric

 

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