For an EPS foam manufacturer, redundancy and consistency are crucial to creating a sustainable production process and a winning culture.
By Michelle Segrest, Contributing Editor
It’s made from 98% air, but it can provide support for a multi-level parking garage. It protects highly sensitive electronic equipment; insulates the foundation, walls, and roofs of skyscrapers; supports the infrastructure of railway systems; and can keep food and medications at just the right temperature.
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is a lightweight, rigid, closed-cell material that withstands load and back-fill forces, minimizes water absorption, and is a sustainable product that can be recycled again and again.
For more than 40 years, ACH Foam Technologies has been a leading manufacturer of EPS for construction, geotechnical, packaging, and industrial applications. From its nine locations in eight cities across the United States, the family-owned-and-operated company has the capacity to produce 80-million pounds of foam annually.
“We like to say EPS foam is engineered air. This is the magic of our product,” said Todd Huempfner, vice president of operations at the ACH Foam Technologies’ Fond du Lac, WI, facilities.
The two locations in Fond du Lac utilize 170,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space to produce a diverse line of products made primarily from engineered air, water, and steam.
In the mid-1960s, Huempfner’s father, Don, a 20-year veteran of the railroad industry, noticed a special kind of resin being shipped on one of the rail cars. He researched the intriguing product and envisioned potential for a better life for his wife and family, which eventually included 10 children. He took the plunge and opened an EPS manufacturing facility in northern Wisconsin. It quickly became the family business.
“My dad (now 88 years old) is inquisitive, from the school of hard knocks, and he is truly entrepreneurial in spirit, with tons of energy and enthusiasm,” Todd Huempfner said. “He had a lot of mouths to feed. He took a chance at 40 years of age and started the business. With 20 years in the railroad he could have been safe and just retired doing what he was doing. But he had a dream. It’s a great American story.”
Three companies (Advanced Foam Plastics, Contour Products, and Heartland EPS) merged in 2005 to form ACH Foam Technologies. Todd Huempfner’s older brother, Mike, is the chief executive officer and operates from Montana. Mike’s nephew, Jacob Huempfner, is the director of shape operations in the Fond du Lac facility.
With the equal partnership formation of the three companies, ACH faced the challenge of merging three different cultures.
“When you go through a merger like this, you must go through a cultural cleansing,” Huempfner said. “You have to marry three different systems. It’s not a revolution. It’s an evolution. At the grass roots level, it’s all about employee engagement and communication. We have done a good job over the years of having a culture of continuous improvement. At a fairly high level, we understand the systems that we have in place. We know how we want to continue to improve throughout the organization.”
For the Huempfners, a driving philosophy has remained at the forefront—an ideology from management guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
“We focus a lot of our energy and effort around front-line employee engagement and empowerment,” Todd Huempfner said. “We understand the cornerstone of the roadmap to our future. Our biggest focus is building and maintaining a winning culture. This starts with continuous improvement, so we have made a significant investment in this.”
Driving continuous improvement
In November 2015, ACH created a new position, Director of Continuous Improvement, to enhance its core competency to always strive to make its product and processes better. Brad Zenko, P.E., brought more than 25 years of engineering, operational, and leadership experience to fill the role.
“Continuous improvement is not an activity, and it’s not a technique,” Brad Zenko stated. “It’s a result.”
The effort is never-ending, he said. “If you are in operations, every day is not just about what went wrong. It’s about how to keep that from happening again. The whole idea behind predictive and preventive maintenance is continuous improvement. From a broader perspective, if you look at maintaining a competitive advantage in business, you have to really embrace continuous improvement because someone is always trying to out-smart you, out-service you, out-something you. You have to be nimble.”
This can be a difficult task, he said. “When you finally master something, you want to stop and take a deep breath. You have about 10 minutes for that, and then you have to think about what’s next on the horizon. How do we make it even better? Even if you have had a really big achievement, you can’t rest on your laurels and say you are done. You never quite get there.”
Zenko works with a team of maintenance and operations professionals and fills the pipeline with everything from simple ideas to game changers. “My job is to find ways to make our processes better, faster, cheaper.”
Ideas for improvement are prioritized into three buckets, Zenko said—business, functional, and organizational. The business side is obvious and includes customer, sales, and market opportunities. Ideas for lean tools and return on investment represent the functioning aspect. On the organizational side, the human element takes precedence with regard to improvements in safety, ergonomics, and finding exceptional, experienced labor.
Zenko operates at a corporate level, so critical improvement implementations are shared across all nine ACH facilities.
“Redundancy is key,” he said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. There is a sense of pride at each site, so sometimes we just look at an improvement from a different perspective. To really multiply the efforts you must put systems in place that do not have to be started from ground zero every time. It’s important to create consistency. Take Starbucks, for example. The taste profile of a Starbucks coffee is consistent from location to location. This is achieved through their quality procedures that outline time, temperature, and roast curves. Consistency of quality and culture is crucial. For ACH, building a culture to do better in all areas is a core goal.”
Zenko said he counts on the people who work on the manufacturing floor to provide the critical insight needed for substantial improvement.
“Improvement starts with asking people what will make their job easier,” he said. “Some people look at continuous improvement as projects, like getting a new machine with more automation that just goes faster. That is an improvement, but it’s the people who interact with the equipment every day. It’s the people who make the difference. Operators see millions of pounds of product go through those machines. We try to help create the standard work, keep people safe, and make sure they are part of the process. This is really powerful.”
Some of the current ACH continuous-improvement projects include initiatives to reduce mold change times, create visual workplaces, build standard systems, and develop 3D modeling to create molds. Some ideas are simple, but impactful.
“For example, we were meeting with some of the operators and talking about how difficult it is to wire down the steam traps,” Zenko said. “One guy who worked previously in construction said he had used pre-looped rebar ties with a spinner tool rather than cutting pieces of wire and spinning them like a bread bag. We bought some twist ties and tried it. Then someone else realized it would be better to have longer ties, so we found 8-inch ties rather than 6-inch ties. It was a team effort, and this is how simple ideas can make a big difference.”
According to Zenko, ACH believes in the Franklin Covey philosophy of being effective with people and efficient with processes. “We may come up with 2,000 things that produce incremental results, but the next idea could be a game changer.”
The two ACH Foam Technologies Fond du Lac facilities create three different types of EPS products—block, shape, and lost foam.
Block represents production of large 3-, 4-, and 16-ft. blocks of EPS produced in big molds to be stored as supply for the cutting lines. They are cut to custom sizes according to customer specifications. A big part of the block business is perimeter, under slab, slope-to-drain roofing systems, and other major construction applications. The company is a leader in manufacturing Foam-Control for Geofoam applications, used where there are unstable soil conditions or for lightweight underground fill. Some examples include a commuter rail in Salt Lake City, UT, where thousands of cubic yards of EPS are encapsulated under a concrete rail, creating a stable infrastructure that will not be compromised with shifting soil.
EPS is also a more time-sensitive solution than traditional soil fill, which requires months of waiting for the soil to settle after filling. Unlike soil fill, Foam-Control Geofoam doesn’t have the challenge of heaving from the earth shifting.
Chicago’s Millennium Park is one of ACH Foam Technologies’ high-profile projects.
“We have thousands of cubic yards of Geofoam product underneath that park,” Todd Huempfner said. “You notice that the landscape is beautiful, and it flows evenly. The advantage is the contractor can quickly install the product while avoiding the time required to complete earthwork, such as surcharging, pre-loading, or staging. Under the parking deck is lightweight Geofoam fill under the concrete. It has a tremendous strength-to-weight ratio.”
Shape represents specific custom molding and engineering tooling for a three-dimensional part. This could be DuraTherm PLUS+ qualified shippers for pharmaceutical products, DuraTherm temperature-controlled coolers for the food industry, and DuraTherm protective packaging for anything from wine bottles to electronics and appliances.
Lost foam is similar to shape products, but represents more challenging applications such as turbo housings.
“We are one of the most diversified EPS manufacturers in the U.S. market,” Huempfner said. We have high-profile customers in the automotive and RV industry. “When you see an RV on the highway, if you were to cut it in half and see the cross-section, it would be completely encapsulated in our EPS.”
The basic difference between lost foam and custom-shaped molded products is the material that’s used and the end-use application.
“The material in lost foam is very highly engineered and specific for a particular application to be utilized in the casting industry,” he said. “The other shaped products are made with a variety of materials for a variety of applications ranging from pharmaceutical shipping containers to protective packaging components for wine bottles or small appliances.”
Maintenance and manufacturing
The EPS manufacturing process requires a varied collection of equipment and a high level of maintenance.
Expanding and molding equipment are the key machines used in the process, but downstream secondary applications include lamination lines, sanding lines, cutting lines, pattern-assembly machines, and other equipment. Ninety percent of the company’s maintenance functions are performed in house, said Jacob Huempfner, director of shape operations.
“Air, water, and steam are the lifebloods of our business,” Jacob Huempfner said. “Those support systems must be managed properly at the base level to avoid problems downstream. For some things, such as water and chemical systems for boilers, we rely on outside vendors to ensure we are testing correctly. We do the work, but it is a collaboration to test the water every day, and to determine the appropriate water quality for each plant.”
The manufacturing process begins with pre-expansion, according to Jacob Huempfner. Raw material comes in at a bulk density of about 40 lb./ft.3 in bags that weigh approximately 2,200 lb. The tiny bead material (0.8 mm dia.) is put into a hopper and transferred to the pre-expansion equipment where steam and pressure are introduced. This builds an internal cell pressure, which causes it to soften and then expand.
Once the material reaches the desired bulk density range of between 0.7 and 3.1 lb./ft.3, it is put into the fluid bed dryer where it is stabilized for transferring to the silo system. The product is stored and stabilized for molding in the bead-conditioning room, which is temperature controlled at between 95 and 100 F. The heat stabilizes the material and provides consistency, Jacob Huempfner explained. The boiler room next to the bead-conditioning room provides the heat and steam.
The material then goes to the molding presses, then to the cutting line, and finally to the assembly line. Some of these presses are new and use the latest technology, while others are 20 to 25 years old, according to Todd Huempfner, so they must be well maintained.
There are 10 maintenance professionals located at the two Fond du Lac facilities and about 45 throughout all nine U.S. facilities.
“One of our core competencies is preventive maintenance,” Todd Huempfner said. “Understanding our equipment and what makes it work is crucial. We work with our vendors to ensure that our weekly, monthly, and quarterly preventive-maintenance steps are put in place early within our CMMS system.”
The Kansas City operation has a custom-equipment build shop for secondary application equipment for the lamination, printing, and sanding lines. For all operations, preventive maintenance is crucial.
“Our preventive maintenance is not by default. It is by design,” Todd Huempfner noted. “In the early days, there was not a lot of thought about what equipment we would purchase to do a certain operation or what systems we would use. Today, we are trying to standardize that. It gives us better reliability because we have that redundancy. It allows us to minimize our spare-parts list because now we have spare parts in one plant that can be used in three different plants.”
The company’s preventive maintenance includes annual mold equipment rebuild and repairs. This is critical since every product produced goes through the mold equipment. Also, some valves and other parts are replaced regularly.
“We are now replacing some of our older equipment,” Todd Huempfner explained. “We look at the useful life of particular molding equipment as being somewhere around 20 years. When it reaches the 20-year mark, we begin to look at replacement of that equipment, sometimes with one or two more pieces of equipment. Sometimes we can replace two with one because of the advances in technology.”
With preventive maintenance and continuous improvement at the core of operations, Huempfner said consistency and redundancy are the ultimate goals.
“We have done a lot of soul searching in the past few years to figure out how to best implement the continuous-improvement culture throughout our organization,” he added. “We have done a very good job with this at a high level and have moved it into the engagement piece at the front lines.” MT
Michelle Segrest has been a professional journalist for 27 years. She specializes in the industrial processing industries and has toured manufacturing facilities in 30 cities in six countries on three continents.