CHINO, CALIF. — There's no doubt that Ball Corp.'s move into PET container manufacturing is proceeding at a rapid clip.
Ball's first PET plant, in the Southern California suburb of Chino, came on line in October 1995, a scant six months after the company announced its entry into the business with a long-term agreement to supply PET bottles to Pepsi-Cola Co.'s California business unit.
With 10 Husky injection molding systems, seven Sidel blow molders, and state-of-the-art on-line video inspection systems from Pressco/IIS, the Chino facility is the company's showcase.
``Our expectation is that this will be the premier PET [bottle] plant in the world in one year,'' said the Chino plant's process engineer, Alex Hernandez.
Hernandez is responsible for many of the systems that will manufacture 700 million containers during the next year.
An important tool at Hernandez's disposal is an on-line video inspection system from Pressco/IIS (Booth N5091), which has been providing automated image-based inspection systems for the plastics industry for the past 10 years. Acquired in May 1996 by Ohio-based Pressco Technology Inc., a supplier of on-line sensing equipment for metal containers, IIS recently relocated to Pressco's ISO 9001-registered facility in Cleveland.
Every PET bottle Ball makes passes through a four-point inspection process that checks base, neck, seal, and finish integrity. Installed inside the Sidel units, the systems are integrated into the blow molders to eliminate additional material handling. They easily keep pace with production speeds of 500 bottles per minute.
Catching a bottle that might leak all over a packing case — or even worse, on a consumer's best suit — before shipping eliminates a major source of customer complaints. The vision systems also enable Ball to head off production problems. Not only do the inspection modules detect defects, they also correlate them back to the specific blow molder component (cavity, spindle, and transfer arms) that produced the bottle. Trouble spots are quickly pinpointed to avoid costly errors.
That information is especially vital in the Chino plant, where employees have been hired more for their ability to be team players than for previous plastics experience.
``When we are in control, customer complaints decrease,'' Hernandez said. ``We don't have a [quality assurance] department. It's our job to make sure that bottle quality is perfect coming out of the Sidel. Anything less than that means we have to take action.''
Even as a newcomer, Ball is counting on its ability to advance PET manufacturing technology to wrest economies and improvements from the process.
Since April 1995, the company has invested close to $200 million setting up Chino and three other PET plants (in New York, Pennsylvania, and Iowa), and hiring and training roughly 350 workers to staff more than 750,000 square feet of production space.
While plans changed somewhat with the recent purchase of the assets of Philadelphia's Honickman Group—Ball's Reading, Pa., plant will be closed and its business transferred to a Delran, N.J., facility — Ball continues to increase its production capacity.
Why the big push? Surging demand from soft drink, juice, water, liquor, and food producers, coupled with forecasts of double-digit growth, make the PET container market very attractive. The company that can produce cheaper and better bottles will have all the business it can handle. And that is what Ball is aiming to do.
``Our technology allows us to be a low-cost, high-quality supplier,'' said Larry Green, president of Ball's Atlanta-based Plastic Container unit operations. ``More than half of our business has come from customers who are converting their packaging from either glass or older PET technology, or from former self-manufacturers who are choosing to buy PET containers from us rather than continue to make them themselves.''
Hernandez said: ``There are enhancements that might be introduced into PET inspection and other improvements that might flow back into can inspection as a result of the Pressco/IIS merger. Basically, it boils down to the fact that one material is clear and one is opaque. The technology that can be shared is an obvious benefit.''
In the Ball Chino plant, Husky presses running round the clock provide a steady supply of preforms for the seven Sidels that make everything from 16-ounce to 2-liter beverage containers, including 1.75-liter vodka bottles.
``Everything is automated so we can run different sizes on a line,'' Hernandez said. ``We can run 16-ounce bottles on one line for 20 hours, and it's no problem to adjust the vision system when it's time to change to 2-liter bottles.''