Alpla Inc. will open a blow molding plant in Missouri in June, stretching the number of U.S. facilities for the Austrian company to four in less than four years.
Rigid packaging competitors continue to watch Alpla. Its Jefferson City, Mo., plant, as with many of Alpla's 87 facilities in 29 countries, is being built from scratch and will use specialized equipment custom-designed by the company. Like the others, it also will offer a level of automation virtually unparalleled by North American blow molders.
Alpla will invest about $20 million in the central Missouri site, supplying bottles to Unilever Home and Personal Care USA, a division of London-based consumer-goods giant Unilever, according to information from the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce.
The new plant follows a trend by the company to grow quickly in the U.S. market after establishing a technical center in McDonough, Ga., in late 2001.
Close for comfort
The company, a European powerhouse in rigid packaging, continues to look for sites close to existing customers, if not on-site, said Jodok Schaeffler, vice president for Alpla's Midwest and West regions.
``We don't build plants and then have customers come later,'' said Schaeffler, located at one of Alpla's two U.S. headquarters in Iowa City.
The Jefferson City plant will make bottles for the personal-care market, work that already has started. After securing a contract in July, the company opened a temporary plant in a warehouse location in November, Schaeffler said.
Meanwhile, the company broke ground on a 58,000-square-foot, permanent site and will complete the move to the facility this summer, he said. The plant will start with 40 employees.
The plant sits on 10 acres, and the company plans aggressive growth that could boost its size quickly, Schaeffler said. A similar strategy was employed at the Iowa City plant, which nearly tripled its size in less than a year.
The Missouri plant will make bottles from high density polyethylene, using Alpla's proprietary extrusion blow molding equipment.
The company uses shuttle machines instead of larger rotary wheel equipment, a departure from the type of equipment other blow molders use for larger bottle volumes.
The shuttle machines allow for more precision and faster changeover times, said Ken Sigman, Alpla sales manager in Iowa City. Most of Alpla's machines, while designed by its own engineers, are made by alliance partner Soplar SA of AltstÃ¤tten, Switzerland.
Alpla officials claim to make the largest shuttle machines in the world in terms of production volume. However, the company did not disclose details.
Other Alpla plants, including the Iowa City facility, also make bottles from PET and polypropylene. While some of its PET bottle equipment comes from outside vendors, the machinery is re-engineered to fit Alpla's process, Sigman said.
In Europe, Alpla already is a dominant player in plastic bottles, rivaled only by Amcor Ltd., according to consultants' estimates.
Its parent company, Alpla Werke Lehner GmbH & Co. KG of Hard, Austria, recorded sales of 1.42 billion euros ($1.77 billion) last year. The company opens about eight new facilities a year, on average, Sigman said.
The Iowa City plant - Alpla's largest in the United States, at 144,000 square feet - was launched in December 2002. A year earlier, the company had opened both the McDonough blow molding plant - Alpla's other U.S. headquarters - and a facility in Houston that shares space with customer Clorox Co.
Alpla's U.S. sales have mounted a charge since 2001, racking up $56 million last year, Schaeffler said.
This year, the firm is projecting sales of $75 million in the United States, where it has almost 300 employees. Including Mexico, where Alpla has about a dozen plants, the company recorded North American sales of $176 million last year, Sigman said.
Alpla almost never buys existing companies or buildings, Schaeffler said. Instead, the company prefers organic growth, which allows it to put Alpla's technology in place and add its own equipment, Schaeffler said.
``We take a McDonald's approach to our plants, where every one is built the same,'' Schaeffler said. ``The big advantage of our plants is that there is not a gap between us and our machine suppliers. We are the equipment suppliers.''
The company also said its approach keeps costs low at a time when packaging companies fight margin pressures.
The Alpla equipment is completely modular, with the biggest pieces fitting in cargo containers for shipment anywhere, Sigman said. Controls on all machines are integrated for ease of information downloading, and molds are flexible enough to run on most equipment. Each machine can be identified and monitored remotely. Even leak testing of bottles is done automatically on its machines through a sophisticated detection system.
That automated approach includes rows of conveyor belts sending bottles from each machine to automated palletizing units, where the bottles are packaged and wrapped. At some Alpla plants, bottles then are sent by conveyor to a trailer for shipping. A minimal number of workers are on the plant floor in Alpla's system.
``Technology is our big differentiator,'' Sigman added.
That will continue in Jefferson City. The company is installing the next generation of its shuttle blow molding machines, continuing its growth in control systems. Alpla will remain on the lookout for other U.S. regions to build new plants.
``There will be more in the U.S. in the future,'' Schaeffler said. ``We don't know for sure, but someday, [sales] here could be the size of Europe for us.''
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The Hard, Austria-based company has 87 facilities in 29 countries.
2004 sales: $56 million
Largest plant: Iowa City
Latest plant: Jefferson City, Mo.
2004 North American sales: $176 million