LOUISVILLE, KY. - Injection molding has replaced metal stamping to make tubs and baskets for new Profile Maxus washing machines assembled at the sprawling GE Appliance Park in Louisville. GE Appliances manufacturing officials bought 18 large-tonnage injection presses from HPM Corp. In effect, they set up a whole new plastics plant in Building 1. Metal stamping presses, hulking pieces of equipment that smash down with a loud boom, have been replaced by more-sedate injection presses, robots and conveyor belts.
``From the time the resin hits the silo till the time the product hits the subassembly area, it's all automatic,'' Dave Duncan, GE Appliances senior manufacturing engineer, said in a Nov. 15 interview at Building 1.
For Louisville employees, the Maxus represents a substantial investment by General Electric Co. in Appliance Park, a 10,000-worker complex that opened in 1953.
For Mount Gilead, Ohio-based HPM, the sale marked an important inroad into GE Appliances. GE officials in Louisville said GE Appliances had not purchased HPM presses for 20 years. Instead, the appliance maker had favored Cincinnati Milacron machines, according to Edgar Polley, senior advanced manufacturing engineer.
The machines are laid out symmetrically - nine 1,000-ton, wide-platen machines molding baskets on one side, nine 1,500-tonners molding tubs on theother side. The tubs come in two sizes, with capacities of 2.7 cubic feet and 3.2 cubic feet. Down the middle runs a main conveyor carrying the polypropylene parts to a two-worker subassembly area. The parts then go by conveyor to an automated storage area, where they are held for transfer to the washer assembly line.
HPM supplied a top-entry robot with each machine. Neither HPM nor GE Appliances would identify the manufacturer of the robot.
HPM is keeping the momentum going at Appliance Park. After buying the 18 presses for clothes washer production, GE Appliances bought a 3,000-ton HPM to make dishwasher tubs in Building 3.
GE is touting the Maxus washer as a major breakthrough in the usually staid world of washing machines. A key innovation: the tub, basket and motor all hang from four rods. Since the guts of the washer are suspended off the bottom of the machine, the design, dubbed Auto Balance System, virtually eliminates the noise and vibration caused by loads becoming unbalanced, GE claims. Competing machines fix the tub to the floor.
The machine also has the largest capacity of any washer in North America: 3.2 cubic feet. A larger top-loading opening makes handling big loads easier.
GE promotional material also toasts the role of plastics in the machine. The basket, molded of PP with a whitener added, is dubbed PermaTuf II. It has a lifetime warranty.
``The new snow-white interior basket emphasizes this large opening and capacity and gives the interior a fresh, clean look,'' GE literature says.
Long before those glowing words were written, Appliance Park engineers and employees faced a challenge of how to make a washer with reduced manufacturing costs, fewer parts, all in a compressed time-frame.
Initially, 20 Appliance Park engineers developed the idea in late 1992. In early 1993, they presented it to all GE washer employees. Replacing the old, porcelain-enameled steel tub and basket with plastic eliminated several manufacturing steps.
A team of 12 engineers and assembly workers organized the plastics operation. They laid out the plant and sought information on equipment and molds. They met weekly to coordinate the effort. Polley and Duncan led the team.
Over an intense six-month period, team members considered injection presses from 13 manufacturers - 11 of which submitted bids - before picking HPM.
``We looked worldwide on the molds and on the equipment,'' Duncan said.
The search included trips to molders and the machinery makers. Duncan said HPM offered reliable machines at a competitive price.
Injection molding began there in May. For a while, production continued in both steel and plastic. The conversion to plastic-only tubs and baskets came in July.
On the tooling side, GE took bids from 13 companies, according to Jerry Decker, senior tooling engineer at GE Appliances.
Triangle Tool Corp. of Milwaukee supplied molds for the baskets.
Each mold has plastic pins inside to form the basket holes, Decker said.
Hi-Tech Mold and Engineering Inc. of Rochester Hills, Mich., made the tub molds.
The molding operation runs 24 hours a day, five days a week.
GE Appliances officials said the operation also uses the following auxiliary equipment:
Resin feeders from AEC/Whitlock of Wood Dale, Ill., a unit of AEC Inc.
Chilled water equipment from Cooling Technology Inc. of Charlotte, N.C. The system uses three compressors, so that one compressor can be shut down while the entire system keeps working.
A machine to degate each basket from Creative Robotic Applications Inc. of Norcross, Ga.
Two granulators from Gran-utec Inc. of East Douglas, Mass.
Equipment to regulate the temperature of mold cooling water from Delta T Systems Inc. of Richfield, Mass.