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Before Duerr Inc. laid out its new building, it had a wish list built over years to start the planning. The company’s best single investment? The central material handling system.

Rob Neilley

March 1, 2005

11 Min Read
Plant layout, design, and expansion: The best-looking part of a well-designed plant—The bottom line

Before Duerr Inc. laid out its new building, it had a wish list built over years to start the planning. The company’s best single investment? The central material handling system.

Husky’s Factory Planning group designs everything from single machine installations to complete factories, and will handle complete project management. A number of design alternates are done prior to a final decision.

The main benefit of the overhead piping for the central materials system in this plant is visible directly below: uncluttered aisles and pellet-free floors.

Taking parts to the end of the machine robotically is another growing trend. The crane I-beam seems to block the path, but the Wittmann robot telescopes to pass under it.

Intelligently designed plants are all about efficiency and profits. Looking good is a bonus. When the time comes to design a new plant, addition, cell, or single-unit system, the pros say experience is king—and planning rules.

Those in the full-time occupation of designing new molding production plants say that the basics of doing that job right haven’t changed much in the past 20 years. The keys are still practical experience and thorough planning. What has changed, and strikingly so in recent years, is that molders are far more aware of how the physical layout of the plant contributes to efficient production, which translates to profit. Lean manufacturing and similar strategies have changed our way of thinking about how space is used.

Molders, say the design pros, are aware that plant design is a lot more than lining up molding machines with optimal spacing between them. It is more like conducting an orchestra of material handling, automation, energy consumption, utilities, ergonomics, and architecture as it plays the value chain symphony. And if you want a standing ovation, be sure that every instrument is in tune.

We are not talking about only building and fitting out a totally new facility on a greenfield site. The suppliers we spoke with say that’s about 10% or less of the plant design work they see. The other 90% consists of smaller installations, ranging from single machines, integrated workcells, and multimachine configurations to adding onto an existing building to create a totally new department.

Today’s increasingly tough competition and shrinking time windows require a new production system or plant to be as near perfect as possible at startup. Tweaking for improvement should never end, but no one can afford trial-and-error setup any more.

Fortunately, there is plenty of experience available to apply to the planning, and a lot of technology, too. Many molders have the experience in-house. But if you’re a lean molder whose in-house staff doesn’t have time to do the planning, consider a process engineering consultant. Or, do what your clients do—move planning upstream to suppliers. Machinery, peripheral, and materials companies all have knowledge, and some are willing to act as your project manager.

The Big Picture

A well-planned production system is an opportunity to squeeze efficiency out of everything from material reception to shipping finished goods. Gene Flockerzi’s first job with auxiliaries supplier Conair was to create layouts for central material handling systems. Today he’s VP of sales for those systems, and he sees a notable change in molder conversations about new plant installations over the last few years.

Molders used to focus primarily on what Flockerzi calls nuts and bolts, things such as parts per hour and material throughput. These items are still important, but increasingly they are viewed as pieces of a big picture called total facility operation. The goal he hears molders express most often is to reduce total factory costs so as to reduce finished goods costs. Right along with that goes the desire to increase total plant efficiency to improve yield rates. Factors such as energy, changeover time, scrap rates, labor, and safety are being addressed within the scope of an overall facility plan.

Unique as Snowflakes

Keith Goettelmann, Sterling’s national sales manager for material handling systems, has been designing molding plant layouts for more than 16 years. “I’ve never built the same one twice,” he says. Each system supplier we spoke with for this article agreed on that point: Like snowflakes, no two molding plants, no matter how similar, are ever truly identical.

Even large multilocation molders that espouse standardization as a policy have to accommodate variations in buildings, products, local codes, and local resources. Large companies also want the plant they are designing now to improve on the last one (click here for Delphi’s story).

Does that mean standardization is bad? On the contrary, it can simplify operator training, make maintenance easier, reduce spare parts inventories, let jobs run on any available machine, and much more. Flexibility and standardization go together.

Custom Plant and Plan

Because each production setup is different, there is no one-size-fits-all type of checklist to use for planning a new installation. Whether the subject is a single-machine workcell or a 24-machine addition with fully automated material and product handling, a checklist for getting it done should be considered the first step in planning, and you can expect to revise it. (Click here to download a pdf of basic checklists—please keep in mind that these should be considered a starting point. )

If there is new construction or structural modification to be done, that’s the realm of an architect. For outside help beyond that, most molders turn to suppliers, and particularly to system-level suppliers of material handling systems or automation and product handling systems. Jim Horne, systems project manager at Wittmann, says it’s clear that molders who have made their organization lean don’t have people they can assign to an “extraordinary” project like designing a new plant. It’s equally clear that molding plants have unique features and requirements. A molding plant may resemble some other manufacturing environments, but there are so many things particular to molding that specialist help is required.

You could say that suppliers are sort of forced to furnish planning support when customers want it, but we don’t hear them complaining. They see it as a great way for both parties to build a relationship. Horne says Wittmann frequently functions not just as a planning participant but as the project manager. Other suppliers say they do the same. The molder doubtless has someone who can do the job, but that someone already has a job, and it’s full time.

Another reason for doing this is the experience factor. A system-level supplier is designing production plants full time. Looked at another way, the outside project manager collects input from in-house specialists in production management, processing, quality, logistics, and all the rest. This enables the manufacturer’s employees to continue with their existing work.

From the Ground Up

Even with more than 30 years of experience on which to draw, Husky’s Factory Planning group agrees that there is no standard molding plant design solution. Every installation has to be optimized for the molder and for the particular project, they say. Husky’s FP group, therefore, is a team of specialists chartered to deliver new molding facilities up to and including full factories. For example, Optipack, a German-based maker of dairy packaging, decided on a major strategic step into molding PET preforms. We say major because until that time the company was exclusively a thermoformer. Husky’s FP team was called in and, following an audit, designed Optipack’s current preform plant near Dresden, Germany. Husky handled project management for every aspect of construction and fit-up, including working with other equipment suppliers. Klaus Griebel, Optipack project leader, says that once the decision was made to mold preforms, the company wanted to be online as soon as possible. It chose Husky to make that happen. Optipack’s general manager, Gerhard Freudenreich, says his company gained injection molding experience very quickly and effectively. The plant is now running three 72-cavity Husky HyPET 400-ton systems, one of which makes multilayer preforms.

Husky’s FP group says the key to every project is working closely with the client to understand the company’s objectives and vision. Typically, FP starts with a process assessment and/or audit. The project progresses to a conceptual design that includes an overall plant drawing, product flow description, and a cost estimate. Along the way are workshops where Husky and client personnel study workcell design, equipment standards, process services, resin handling, product logistics and inventory, layout, manpower, future expansion, and finances.

Several conceptual layouts go to the client for evaluation. Included are building specs such as floor loads, heights, cranes, lighting, and heat recovery, as well as time planning, manpower optimization, detailed budget, cost reduction opportunities, and other recommendations. When a layout is approved, Husky specialists detail such design elements as process and mold cooling, resin handling, electrical, HVAC, and energy management. Tender packages are done for each piece of equipment.

If You Had It To Do Over

IMM visited molder/moldmaker Duerr Inc. (“Family, Technology Drive Growth,” August 2000 IMM) shortly after the company moved into a purpose-built, 125,000-sq-ft factory in Union, NJ. Recently, we asked Jens Duerr, managing director of the family-held company, how it has worked out. Overall very well, he says. If they had it to do over, only a few things would be different. Duerr Inc. is rock-solid proof that thorough planning pays. In effect, it had “planned” the new facility for years.

All 33 Cincinnati Milacron molding machines (up to 850 tons) in Duerr’s old space moved into the new factory. Today there are still 33 machines, a number of them new—in almost three times the floor space. The old quarters were very crowded.

Jens Duerr says there were many efficiencies that the company’s people could only dream of due to lack of space. Wisely, they kept track of those dreams. When time came to design the new plant, they had an all-inclusive wish list—the first step recommended by most design pros. With so much information, the company planned the new facility itself. An architect designed the building with company direction, and there was support from long-term supplier Cincinnati Milacron and from Universal Dynamics (now part of Mann+Hummel), which supplied the new central material handling system.

Previous workspace had been, of necessity, compartmentalized in several rooms. There were even a few molding machines in warehouse space. Duerr says a major goal for the new plant was the flexibility of big, open spaces and as few walls as possible. Another goal was a logical flow from incoming material through processing to finished goods warehousing.

Going Central

Duerr says the logical flow and separation of manufacturing and warehousing minimized people movement through the plant, another top objective. Another major contributor was the central material handling system. Previously, two or three people moved material around the floor, more or less constantly. Now, one person does it all from the central control area. The gaylords and barrels that used to hog valuable space are gone, too.

A central material system can be a big investment, says Duerr, but payback is fast and the benefits are many and lasting. “We used to have 800-lb dryer-hoppers on machines. Someone had to get up there to clean them out, and occasionally move them. Now it’s a 50-lb hopper. The central system is probably our single best investment.”

What, in hindsight, would be done differently? Duerr says most likely the ceilings would be higher. When an 1100-ton machine came in, the robotics needed customizing for crane clearance. Materials and utilities drops might be spaced a bit differently, too. But overall, the wish list led to a plan so thorough and detailed that machines in the old plant on moving day morning were running in the new plant that afternoon.

Detailed Efficiency

The benefits of good facility planning come from energy savings, clean appearance, safety, scrap reduction, minimized movement of people and product, and . . . well, everything. That’s the point. Get it all right and, as the pros remind us, all those things combine into one thing: maximum yield at minimum cost.

New facility check lists

Whether you're expanding, reconfiguring, or building new, the task is complex and multifaceted. A standard checklist is all but impossible because of the large number of variables. The two lists for download—one by objectives and the other of system information—are from Conair, and can be a place to start. Click here to download the lists.

CAD: Not just for part design

The value of 3-D CAD for product and tooling design is pretty much a given in the molding business these days. F_Mfg_PL_Des_W_Model_df.gifMost plant design pros feel the same about using the technology to design a production facility. Just as in product design, it allows easy revision in the planning stage, where revision belongs. In addition, a CAD layout makes it easier to see where something just doesn’t fit, or where this space is to be saved. If a company planning a new facility doesn’t have this resource in-house, ask the project suppliers for help. The drawings at right also illustrate an increasingly popular design idea: materials systems on mezzanines above the molding machines. Wittmann, which created these layouts for a client, says the drawings are at least as valuable during installation as they are during planning.


WEB EXCLUSIVE Plant design: A team sport

Click here to learn how Delphi plans and organizes its molding plants.

Contact information
The Conair Group Inc., Pittsburgh, PA
(412) 312-6000

Duerr Inc., Union NJ
(908) 810-9035

Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd.
Bolton, ON
(905) 951-5000

Sterling, Milwaukee, WI
(414) 354-0970

Wittmann Inc., Torrington, CT
(860) 496-9603

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