Ardagh Group’s new can-making plant on Waltham Way at Tahoe Reno Industrial Center will turn out more than 600 million cans each year for its primary customer, ConAgra Foods.
That may sound like a truckload of cans, but in fact it’s just a mere 2 percent of the U.S. canned food industry, says James Willich, chief executive officer of Ardagh’s Americas metals division.
Ardagh’s new multi-million-dollar facility can “easily” handle a 40 percent boost in annual production, Willich notes — and a new technology coming online in the next 12 to 18 months could provide the spark needed to boost Ardagh’s western-region production to full capacity.
Ardagh expects to bring online a new nitrogen-infused canning process that will reduce the plant’s steel usage by 10,000 metric tons for every billion cans produced — or to put it another way, Ardagh will save the equivalent of all the steel used to build the Eiffel Tower each year, Willich says.
Nitrogren-infused canning is nothing new — that can of diet Coke you drank with your lunch was packaged much the same way. The thin-walled cans would be pressurized with nitrogen to give them the rigidity and stability through the canning, transportation and storage processes. Metal food cans typically have interspaced bands to provide rigidity, but the new process eliminates that step — and a bunch of steel as well.
Willich says the plant could change over its production techniques any time, but there’s still a great deal of work to be done as it scales up to that new method: customer processes have to be mapped out and shelf-life evaluations need to be completed.
“Food companies are very conservative,” he says. “The last thing anyone ever wants to hear is that there is a problem with a container on a shelf; that’s bad for everyone.”
Willich says ConAgra formerly sourced it cans from a number of older facilities but now the food giant’s western-region cans all will come from northern Nevada. Ardagh has additional can-making facilities in Roanoke, West Virginia, and overseas in the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. The European facilities commercialized a new two-piece can-making process that was put into play in the United States at Ardagh’s northern Nevada factory.
Older can-stamping processes used a three-piece manufacturing system that produced a cylinder and two end pieces. The two-piece drawn-and-wall-ironed process punches a can from a coil of steel and adds a single end cap.
“This was about converting the majority of ConAgra’s requirements from three piece to two-piece,” Willich says. “But there are certain cans it doesn’t make sense, such as the larger format and institutional gallon-type cans.”
The northern Nevada plant, put together by a team of project managers led by Ardagh Director of Engineering Brent Pontuti, will run 24 hours a day, five days a week.
Willich says the single-largest issue Ardagh faces in northern Nevada is finding qualified people and providing advanced training. The bulk of Ardagh’s northern Nevada workforce — the company currently employs about 75 — is well-versed in computer-controlled robotic production techniques. Several key team members spent weeks working in the company’s European facilities to better understand how to operate the fully automated two-piece production equipment.
“This isn’t the manufacturing plant like I started in where you hire a bunch of guys newly out of high school who have little to no technical skills,” Willich says. “We need a baseline of skills for individuals coming in who understand mechanical concepts. The good news is that for the individuals we have hired, most have done extremely well on skills assessments.”