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IMM's Plant Tour: North Dakota molder freezes out data storage competition

Imation processed 26 million lb of resin in 2002, which was dried and fed from centralized material handling mezzanines like this. These Motan dryers are kept full by the eight silos onsite, which are replenished by railcars or bulk trucks.
When Imation Corp. (Oakdale, MN) reminisces about where its odyssey began as the company celebrates 50 years in magnetic tape technology, it hearkens back to 1953, when its former parent, 3M Corp. (St. Paul, MN), developed its first tape media for International Business Machine’s (IBM) Model 726 magnetic tape storage drive.

3M’s first magnetic tapes stored information on seven tracks at a density of 100 bits/in with retrieval rates of 7.5 kilobits/sec. Capacity for a single tape was just more than 1 MB. In 1996 the company spun off Imation, its data storage division, and today from its manufacturing facility in Wahpeton, ND, Imation is a global manufacturer of tape cartridges that contain up to 500 tracks of data, 200,000 bits/in, 200 GB of total capacity, and can transfer information up to 30 MB/sec. This quantum leap from that germinal product in 1953 represents a 30,000-fold increase in the speed of data transfer and a 200,000-fold increase in data capacity.

In the fierce fight for data storage business, technological advances like these have enabled Imation to stake a lead that’s exemplified by 2001 fiscal year revenues of $875.9 million, followed by record, full-year 2002 revenues of $1.004 billion. It admits that continuous improvement is necessary to remain the front runner in the data storage race, especially when the likes of Fuji and Sony are lined up in the blocks next to it, and it has to keep partners like IBM and StorageTek happy. With this in mind, Imation remains vigilant in the improvement of both product and process, but its success has given it the luxury of exploring alternate business avenues.

In 1997, after determining that it had capacity and engineering expertise to spare, Imation started taking on custom molding jobs. After a positive reaction, the company formally launched its Manufacturing Services Center (MSC) in 1998 to provide art-to-part contract manufacturing. Since that time it has watched that sector’s business blossom with sales growing by 20 percent in each of the last two years. There was enough growth to justify a 128,000-sq-ft expansion that was being finished when IMM visited.

Nestled in North Dakota’s Red River Valley and near the borders of both Minnesota and South Dakota, Wahpeton may seem like an odd location for such a high-tech facility, but proximity to Imation’s Oakdale, MN corporate headquarters, onsite rail lines for materials delivery, the nearby junction of Interstates 94 and 29, and a two-year technical school in town make it a logical choice.

Imation primarily molds PC, PP, HIPS, and some engineering resins, but in an effort to optimize these products both for processing and wear and tear once molded, the company creates some proprietary blends. The lab also performs thermal analysis, spectrometer tests for contamination, rheology experiments, optical microscopy, moisture testing, gel permeation chromatography, and ion chromatography sensitive to <.1 ppm.>

Imation Corp., Wahpeton, ND

Square footage: 240,000 existing, 128,000 expansion to open in spring
Annual sales: $1.004 billion (Data Storage and MSC)
Markets served: Data storage, electronics, medical, automotive, custom jobs
Customers: StorageTek, IBM, 3M, Microsoft, Apple, Hewlett-Packard
Parts produced: 1.6 billion
Materials processed: PC, PP, HIPS, some engineering resins
Resin consumption: 26 million lb
No. of employees: 766
Shifts worked: 24/7, four crews rotate 12-hour shifts
Molding machines: About 80, 75 to 485 tons, Engel, Sumitomo, Milacron, Husky, JSW
Molding technology: MuCell, insert, multimaterial
Other services: Metal stamping, cleanroom molding, material compounding
Secondary operations: Assembly, decoration, packaging, part design, automation design
Internal moldmaking: Yes
Quality: ISO 9001

So, as Imation opens its doors for IMM, it features two personae: dedicated captive molding operation striving for perfection in its core products, and flexible, up-and-coming custom molder matching new products with inherent skills and capabilities.

The Total Package

One key to Imation’s success has been the vertical integration of manufacturing capabilities. The allure for customers is obvious: one vendor providing product design, tool manufacturing, molding, assembly, and even decoration and packaging. This philosophy is evident as we begin our tour in the product design center.

All the requisite software is there: Pro/E for part design, Moldflow for process simulation, and Ansys for FEA analysis. The three engineers we meet exemplify the past, present, and future of Imation and its products. The first is using Moldflow to check the cooling lines and material flow on an MSC product after a gate location has been changed. The second engineer is adding tabs to a component to make orientation during assembly easier on another potential MSC job for Microsoft. The third engineer is working on a unique aspect of Imation’s services: fabrication of fully automated assembly cells. This particular line is for Imation’s higher-end data cartridges.

From there we’re taken to Imation’s in-house materials lab, where Jerry Brown, a technical lead for the hard goods process technology team, shows us an array of testing equipment. On top of the daily samples the lab takes, Brown says an electronic reporting system alerts it to test lots as needed due to part failures. Using Web-based request sheets, Imation’s engineers can solicit tests via e-mail notification of the lab. Requisite exams are performed, and the lab responds with its own message, linking the engineer to a PDF that contains pertinent graphs, data, and even comments from the lab. Brown says most requests are answered the same day.

Diskette Central

While less glamorous in end use than some of its other products, Imation’s 3.5-inch 2-MB diskette line still represents a huge volume of the company’s business. As Imation’s longest-running product at the Wahpeton facility, the diskette reveals how, given time, Imation is able to finely tune a product to the point that every inefficiency is wrung out. The end result? A process that, as our guide for this segment of the tour, production operations manager Lee Shervheim, explains, “is the reason it’s competitive to mold diskettes in North America.”

Fully automated and primarily supplied internally with only a few components being outsourced, worker input is limited to quality checks and some part loading. “Our general philosophy is to have low labor content,” Shervheim says. “We have the machinery do everything. We have operators, but their primary responsibility is to check quality.”

Every diskette that comes through Imation is tested and formatted, since, as Shervheim explains, “Our customers want to have the diskettes work every time. For us, that means inspecting every part we get.” For every step of assembly, whether a component is added or a label is placed, quality checks are automatically performed and stored in the company’s plantwide SPC system.

The diskettes maintain a steady stature in the market, but that doesn’t mean Imation will rest. “Every year the challenge is, ‘How do we improve what we did last year?’” Shervheim says. “Our success is measured in hundredths of a cent.” Looking to reinvigorate the product, Imation rolled out neon colors several years ago. The idea came from a summer planning session involving everyone from machine operators to plant management.

“When a product gets mature,” Shervheim says, “we look for ways to differentiate it. [The neon colors] have given legs, a new market, to a product. That’s the culture of Imation, and it comes out of our 3M heritage.”

Rewriting CD Technology

Innovation is also part of that 3M heritage, and it’s on display in Imation’s CD-RW manufacturing facility, the only one of its kind in North America. Here two Sumitomo C 110s mold optical disks, which are fed to a coater. Using a deposition process, the coater places a metalized layer on the CDs. The disks themselves have up to 16,000 grooves/in on the coated side thanks to a specialized stamper that makes tool inserts at Imation’s Optical Technology Center in Oakdale, MN. Imation is still tweaking the process, which it initially started in 2000, but as with all its business, the final intention is clear.

“[Imation] wants to be a player in that business,” Shervheim says, “and one part of the development cycle is manufacturing.”

The Cartridge Family

One area where Imation already is a player, if not the player, is in the midrange to higher-end data storage market, serving backup and data storage needs for everything from small office servers to bank and government systems. Because of the medium’s sensitivity, and to ensure that the tape isn’t compromised, all components are created in a cleanroom environment. The primary concern here is to provide additional safeguards in any areas where the tape is exposed.

The base and covers for two of Imation’s top-end cartridges, the 9940 (60 GB storage capacity) and the 9840 (20 GB storage capacity), are molded at a bank of older-model 440-ton Cincinnati Milacrons with their clamps beefed up to 485 tons. Robotics remove the PC base and cover from a family tool, and a conveyor takes them into the assembly area. Here, the tapes’ other components are integrated.

After assembly, each tape is inspected for eight critical dimensions and given a bar code for transparency and traceability throughout the rest of the process. Even the magnetic tape that goes into the 9940 has a bar code replete with its own history from Imation’s tape manufacturing facility in Camarillo, CA.

Next each cartridge is tested in a drive, checking several of the tracks. Failures can be pinpointed here as well since every test drive has its own bar code that is scanned into the plantwide SPC system.

The 9840 has a similar assembly process, but it has two reel assemblies instead of one. In the near future, several automatic winders will be brought online for the 9840 cartridge, increasing throughput to three times its current level.

Currently these tapes are manually inserted into drives for testing, but as IMM toured, an automatic tester was being debugged, which will contain 192 test drives to be automatically fed by a servo robot.

Manufacturer for Hire

Applying the knowledge, skills, and capabilities gleaned from its captive molding, Imation has been able to sell itself to outside customers through its Manufacturing Services Center.

“[MSC] is not focusing on any particular industry,” MSC’s production operations manager Carter Hansen says, “but on products and companies that need the expertise that we bring to the table.”

In doing so, it recently invested $1 million to convert warehouse space into a molding area and brought in a bank of Husky presses. Lacking room, Imation’s MSC has plans to occupy part of the plant’s latest 128,000-sq-ft expansion, which is slated to open in the spring.

Word of mouth has brought MSC plenty of business, including one of the very few North American contracts for components in Microsoft’s Xbox. MSC creates a heat sink clip assembly for the gaming system, composed of four pieces. Microsoft awarded MSC for its hard work and adherence to deadlines when the molder designed and built automation and tooling for the parts and ramped up production in only four months, meeting a Nov. 17, 2001 Xbox rollout date.

“One thing they really appreciated is that they never had to come to us,” Hansen says. “They came when they awarded us the project, and they didn’t show up again until the launch.”

For Hansen and the MSC, finding business starts with asking one question: “Is there anyone else out there who needs the core competencies we have?” Hansen says. Apparently there is, as the contract manufacturing branch continues double-digit growth, and in line with those returns, maintains one goal: “Growing,” Hansen says bluntly. “I was given the goal of doubling my operations in two years, and that’s straight from the top.”

Midwest Success Story

So from the southeast corner of North Dakota, the world’s supercomputers, banks, and governments are supplied with data storage solutions second to none technologically. And there is no end to capacity in sight, as Imation recently announced a $49 million coating technology investment over the next two years at its Weatherford, OK plant site to achieve 400-GB cartridges, with the goal of a 1 terabyte (1 million-MB) cartridge within the decade.

Surrounded by farms and battered by subzero temperatures throughout the winter, North Dakota’s Red River Valley seems like a far cry from California’s Silicon Valley, but Imation’s manufacturing director Dennis Gladen says the location has one unbeatable benefit.

“It truly is the people—the Midwest work ethic,” Gladen says. “It’s our heritage; it’s where we started. From our perspective, North Dakota is a good place to have a business.”

Hard work deserves some play, however, and on this day, workers paused in their effort to move equipment to Imation’s new but largely vacant 128,000-sq-ft expansion that will soon house segments of its burgeoning MSC. Instead, preparations were being made for the company’s winter party, complete with a live band and dancing.

Contact information
Imation Corp., Wahpeton, ND
Dennis Gladen; Jack Bernard, MSC
(701) 642-8711;
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