On the ball
Richard Piper visits the Ball can making plant in Wrexham, North Wales.
Tucked away on one of the biggest industrial estates in Europe, you would be surprised how difficult the can plant is to find, being masked as it is by a thick tree line.
Once I’d been guided to the gate house, however, having cursed my satellite navigation for it’s blatant and unwelcome insubordination, I have to wonder just how I missed it in the first place. The site is huge, and I mean huge.
The overall site covers some 623,000 square feet – 129,000 of which is covered by production areas. Also on site is a 140,000 square foot warehouse.
Ball have been situated here since 1979, and from that day to this the plant has operated 24/7 producing aluminium beverage cans for the UK and continental European markets.
Reaching new heights
It’s a four line operation making 33cl, 37.5cl, 44cl, 47cl, 50cl, 53cl and 56.8cl cans, plus one that inserts widgets, and the place is a hive of activity when I am shown in by plant manager Paul Tyas, assistant plant manager Mark Buckingham and quality manager Chris John.
On the day they are making a number of different cans, and Paul tells me that they are now quite used to implementing more than one height change per week on the lines.
Many can manufacturers would be happy to implement such changes in six to eight hours, but at Ball they are taking things very seriously when it comes to reducing the down time a height change brings.
Currently they are down to just a shade over two hours for a die set change, with total time lost being around four hours, and the plan is to reduce this further still. An impressive claim for any can maker and a fantastic achievement by those involved in the nuts and bolts side of the business.
Focused on the job in hand
As with every member of the can making fraternity I have met, passion for the job was palpable. The shift manager on the day showed me around the plant and was animated from start to finish. Cans of Stella Artois were flying past me at an alarming rate as he explained the process in detail and continued my education into the two-piece industry.
Something I had not seen prior to my visit, me being a relative newcomer to the industry, was a widget line. This was down for maintenance at the time, which allowed the member of staff in charge to walk me slowly through what’s involved. In a previous job he was responsible for building and installing the very piece of equipment he was operating, which certainly made the explanation very informative.
They use a widget that is fixed to the bottom of a can, as opposed to the floating widget. The latter he told me in his view, is less effective as it doesn’t ensure the entire contents of the can are subjected to the effects of the device.
Once sat down at the boardroom table, we talk of innovation. It was clear that the basic can making process would not change in the short term, but what was deemed to be of importance in the Plant was the speed with which the cans can be produced, changeovers can be completed, the efficiency of which materials are used and the quality of the finish achieved.
Spoilage is something that Ball is looking to reduce further from their current enviable levels to their target of two per cent. They also take sustainability extremely seriously in the Plant and have been ‘zero waste to landfill’ for a number of years.
With regard to finishes, I am shown various different styles that are possible at the plant, including a raised ink finish (tactile) that gives the can a ‘grippy’ feel. It was also interesting to note that basecoat is sometimes used as a colour on certain products, so increasing the number of available label colours.
The Wrexham plant philosophy is very much focused on its employees. It looks to recognise the strength of its people and involve and engage its workforce whenever practicable.
The plant has a health and safety representative on each shift, and they attend monthly meetings in order to contribute ideas to operation. There is also a morning meeting to look over; the hazard log book, behaviour based safety (BBS) issues / returns, accident alerts, general information and training issues. This also gives the team a chance to air any issues they may want to bring up before work begins. First on the agenda is always safety, without exception.
Good to note here is BBS. At the Wrexham plant, observations are carried out by trained observers, with permission from the observed persons, where members of staff are monitored to ensure they’re working as safely and effectively as possible. The results are analysed at the monthly safety meetings, alongside traditional accident information. Last year the accidents in the Plant were at an all-time low, an impressive 90% reduction on the number recorded six years earlier.
In addition, they have an environmental representative on each shift, who contributes ideas and actions for the plant. This enables the company to maintain its goal to have the minimum possible impact on its surroundings and to send ‘zero to landfill’.
A job well done
By the end of my visit I had learned a great deal about Ball Corporation and its outlook on the industry, and it is clear to me that great pride is taken in the work that it does.
Safety is always at the top of the agenda, and a great deal of time and effort goes into ensuring that the very least amount of resources and materials are wasted throughout its processes.
The focus is on efficiency, and with 2.2bn cans produced each year at the ‘high activity’ Wrexham plant alone, Ball is clearly on the right track.