Canadian Plastics

Why can’t we get it up?

If you're reading this column on your production floor, look up over your presses or extruders. What do you see? If your facility is like most operations, the answer is "air," and lots of it.

July 1, 2007   By Jim Anderton



If you’re reading this column on your production floor, look up over your presses or extruders. What do you see? If your facility is like most operations, the answer is “air,” and lots of it.

Most manufacturing operations built in the last 40 or so years took advantage of cheap suburban industrial land and sprawled to accommodate lines.

But there was a time before widespread injection molding, when factories were vertical, occupying multiple floors. I recall touring a textile plant as a little boy and marvelling at how semi-finished goods travelled down chutes from department to department until completed garments were shipped out on the bottom floor. The system used gravity as a free conveyor.

Now imagine if we reinvented the injection molding machine to be vertical. I know, vertical machines exist, but I mean really big L/D presses standing maybe five meters high. The floor footprint of a big vertical could be 25 per cent or less than a horizontal machine, and the mold opening could be accessed from four sides. Theoretically, you could also degate, assemble and/or pick from one side and load from another with easy access to the mold. Pulling a screw would be safer, since it would be suspended vertically, and screws could be handled with a trolley crane system — much cheaper than a forklift — and stored in an overhead “cassette” for quick changeover. Use a mezzanine at the upper level to move Gaylords of resin to press side without disturbing the flow of molded parts below.

The best part is that the overhead space is already there, unused and threatening to get larger as warehousing/shipping departments rack in higher tiers to free up floor space.

The blown film community knows all about the big production/small area philosophy. Granted, the nature of blown film — i.e. it’s hard to blow a symmetrical bubble sideways — means that they’re stuck with tall equipment, but look at their throughput from a given amount of floor space. It’s impressive.

And there are other advantages to going upward. A multi-tier production floor allows power distribution to be optimized vertically, too. Heavy current for all-electric or hybrid machines, for example, could be restricted to the upper level, with moderate load devices like robotics, conveyors and chillers living on the “second floor” for lower installation and retrofit costs. Linear resin convey distances could be similarly minimized, along with shorter and more energy-efficient bulk line runs.

The split-level approach also allows different climate control set-ups for each level. Need dust-free humidity controlled air for a finishing process? Why build a separate area when you can simply drop the product from hot and noisy upstairs to cleaner conditions below?

This would be “pie in the sky” except that it was done for about half of the Industrial Revolution with great success. The main reason you don’t see it in urban Canada anymore is because those multi-floor industrial buildings are in high demand as “cool” loft space. It seems that we’ll live in a vertical factory, but not make money in one. However, as land prices and frontage-based taxes climb, going vertical is worth a second look.


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