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Pulling Ahead Of The Pack

Thu, 04/23/2009 - 11:42am

While FP International’s Hopkinsville facility is nestled in the industrial playground of Kentucky’s blue hills, this packaging company boasts five other manufacturing facilities in the United States, plus an additional four in the European Union. Its sprawl throughout the U.S., Europe, Mexico, Australia and South Korea has made it a formidable competitor in the industry—one associated both with the past and future of packaging innovation. Yet it all started with a simple drinking straw.

In the 1960s, company founder and current president Arthur Graham headed a company that produced soda fountain supplies, including paper straws. In an attempt to re-use the scrap the plant generated (about three-quarters of an inch of excess at both ends of each straw), Graham sold it as packaging material to local businesses. Thus, the dawn of loose fill was born, not to mention the roots of Free-Flow Packaging Corp., the company that eventually became FP.

Innovation From The FP Peanut Gallery
Loose fill, now more commonly identified as the “packing peanut,” changed architecture with FP’s innovations over time. In 1968, for instance, the company developed an extrusion process that allowed for the product to be constructed from expanded polystyrene. In fact, FP was such a pioneer in the packaging industry that it also designed the first figure eight-style packing peanut with which we’re all familiar. This configuration allows a peanut to interlock with other peanuts, thereby reducing the effects of settling during the shipping process, which better protects the contents in the package.

The onus of FP’s product strategy is what Randy Green, FP director of marketing and sales administration, refers to as promoting “end-of-life benefits.” Having a bevy of options for a packaging base—including plants, food and petroleum—means plenty of research into the technologies that could prove most viable over the long term. In this vein, he says that it’s critical to “keep abreast of the consumer trends that may be driving what other manufacturers are doing.” This, in part, helps FP stay ahead of the environmental curve.

As far as forging ahead in the effort to spur product innovation, Green says, “We really want to look at what options are going to give us the characteristics that we need for our products. But at the same time, they must have the end-of-life benefits that we demand. During research, for example, we saw issues with some plant-based options because they don’t degrade in landfills; then there is also the issue of food supply.”

FP’s history isn’t adequately told until further expanding on the expanded polystyrene peanut: Despite STYROFOAM™ being typically associated with non-biodegradable environmental waste, the company has actually revolutionized the arena of recyclable packaging. By 1989 (before green was even a buzzword), the company had developed a recycling, or reclaim, system to facilitate the implementation of post-consumer expanded polystyrene packaging in its FLO-PAK loose fill. The company was the first to use recycled content in its packaging material, thus creating another new industry standard.

Nuts About Achieving Maximum Potential—In Plant & Environment
Now in his 80s, Graham has neither slowed on the innovation front, nor in his involvement with day-to-day operations. According to Green, Graham advises his “process engineers on how to be more efficient and create a better product. He’s an engineer who loves engineering—not only on the product side, but also on the manufacturing side.”

In a perfect storm, these innovative product and manufacturing concepts even intersect. Case in point: Due to FP’s unique extrusion process, Green says, “Our product doesn’t chip or dust as much. In some larger customers’ facilities, where packaging product travels through ducts, this dusting and chipping can dirty the facility, becoming a housekeeping issue.” Instead, FP packaging can additionally be positioned as a clean product.

Blair chips in to mention that the company’s extrusion is also “a continuous-flow process. Product comes out of the extruder, right through the steam expanders and into aging rooms. Then it’s ready to go.” One advantage of this particular procedure is that there’s no need for secondary operations, which is not the case for most other packaging facilities.

Adds Hopkinsville plant manager Jim Blair, “Graham has been innovative from day one, starting with the straws, then actually developing the loose-fill process. Since then, everybody has followed him throughout the loose-fill and film business. He really is the driving force of innovation behind this company, in part because he’s always trying to stay ahead of competitors.”
So besides strong leadership, what else makes FP thrive? Blair and Green let on that its success may lie in not only anticipating customer needs, but also in not tiptoeing around investments in equipment and ideas that meeting these needs may entail. This means constant analysis of plant processes and equipment.

“Our goal is to maximize the utilization of our equipment, so we look at the maximum that each piece of equipment can achieve, as well as the roadblocks to getting to that point. If we’re measuring ourselves at one objective, we have to determine what roadblocks we need to remove to get to the next objective,” explains Blair. “Manufacturing and engineering then figure out if we need development or if we need to buy a piece of capital equipment. It’s much better to buy equipment than hold a line at capacity. It gets us closer to utilizing that equipment, which is one of the plant’s main goals—attaining maximum potential.”

“We’re constantly upgrading,” Blair admits. For example, “We upgraded our cooling systems to manufacture product at a higher rate as cooling is naturally important in plastics operations. A lot of it boils down to chillers—specialized air ends and coolers—to be able to control temperatures better. It was something new we brought into our industry.

“We also constantly look at new technologies. For example, we recently switched to synthetic oils, so instead of changing oils every six weeks, we now only have to change them every six months. And while we have a lot of fairly new equipment, we still tend to make a lot of improvements, especially in our film products and screw designs.”

A Plant Packed With Ideas
“We go over our quality policy and strategic plan with all employees in the company every three months,” says Blair. “The executive staff iterates our strategic plan, part of which is that we will always meet or exceed our customers’ expectations and their future needs. Future needs are especially stressed for innovation.” Or in other words, “Let’s worry about solving their problems down the road.”

“We also have an ideas program in which every employee with an idea—whether it be a process improvement or a cost-saving initiative—can send it in to be evaluated,” says Green. Part of the incentive plan behind this program is a financial one. Employees are rewarded with bonuses if their ideas result in the integration of a plan.

“Now we’re empowering everyone to bring those ideas forward. It’s often things that none of us would have thought of until they were brought forward by [a particular person employed] in a certain area. The company reaps the benefit, and so does the employee.”

Still, innovation comes with its challenges—namely in the employees being charged with adapting to new production processes and testing procedures. “One of the biggest obstacles of being an innovative company is that we’re always introducing new designs and products, and a lot of that comes out of this plant,” reveals Blair. “The loose-fill testing and quality has been around for a number of years, and everybody knows it by heart. Now that the majority of our business is in air cushions, however, every time a new air pillow design comes out, there’s something new [to learn]. Even though it’s typical of blown films (because of all the different configurations available), it does cause complications.”

Blair continues, “Some times, even as a company we’re learning new tests to implement ourselves, although we have been ISO 9001-2000-certified for a year and half. We use those techniques, too, though: continuous improvement and corrective action, but especially preventive action.”

The company has the benefit of using these ISO standards for consistency in training and work instructions. “We try to cross-train employees across the equipment, so they have to learn different types of tests. But as they become more educated, it’s easier for them to adapt and learn other tasks,” says Blair. “We have very good employees, and they adapt very well.”

According to Green, “One of the keys here is that we have management and employees that all work together in teams to attack productivity issues and quality improvements. So everyone is in an empowered position. We’re empowering employees throughout the organization more every day to make decisions at lower levels, giving them more responsibility and accountability.

I think that’s starting to move us forward as being much more effective and productive in manufacturing. Because, naturally, our employees are our greatest assets, and we have great employees. They like to be involved and contribute. They have a lot of great ideas—and that’s one real way that we’ve been able to move our plant, and our company, forward.

The Green In Polystyrene
FP International is a leading recycler of expanded polystyrene. Today, the company claims five recycling operations in the U.S. that recycle more than 7 million pounds of expanded polystyrene packaging per year—approximately 15 percent of the national total. Furthermore, the company’s subsidiary, which is located in the United Kingdom, annually recycles about 3 million pounds.

Since 1990, FP has recycled more than 130 million pounds of expanded polystyrene or enough material to fill more than 5,000 football fields, goalpost to goalpost, more than one-foot deep. In addition, the company was the first to:

  • Phase out chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) use in its polystyrene loose fill and polyethylene foam manufacturing processes.
  • Use waste polystyrene, beginning in the early 1970s, to manufacture its loose fill. Since the mid-80s, the company has used only industrial and post-consumer material to make its loose-fill packaging.
  • Design and build a system to reprocess post-consumer polystyrene foam packaging for use in manufacturing.
  • Make its loose-fill products (FLO-PAK® and SUPER 8®) from 100 percent recycled polystyrene.
  • Introduce the first biodegradable loose fill, in 2008, made from 100 percent recycled polystyrene.
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