A Complete Circle at KW Container

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business
KW Container, Troy, AL, produces containers in various quantities of gallon, quart, pint, ½ pint, ½ liter, 1 liter, 2.5 liters, 4 liters and 5 liters.

A Troy, AL, company originally known for recycling lead from car batteries entered the plastics recycling industry when car battery case makers switched to plastic construction. As recycled plastic volume grew, KW Plastics spun into a new enterprise as it searched for a way to utilize its own material; today, that enterprise – KW Container – is the largest manufacturer of plastic gallon and quart paint cans in the US.

Recycled material leads to US introduction of plastic paint containers

“The KW umbrella of companies has a unique business model,” explained Darren Scholl, director of operations at KW Container. “We are a cradle to grave supplier. We supply our own resin, create our own product and have our own trucking company, which gives us an enormous competitive edge.”

The company originally was a recycling facility for lead. At that time, batteries were made of a coal byproduct, so parts that weren’t recyclable could go to the landfill. Once battery cases began to be made of plastic, the landfill was not an option so the plastic recycling side of the business was born.

“When the plastics recycling business got started, it wasn’t very popular in the US,” said Scholl. “And still, by our standards, it’s not where it needs to be, even though we’re the largest recycler in the world of polyethylene and polypropylene plastic. We’re recycling over a million pounds a day, seven days a week, but compared to what’s currently still going to the landfill that is the tip of what’s available.”

The ‘W’ in KW represents Wiley Sanders Trucking. The transportation business was trucking materials to be recycled into Troy from across the US, but then driving empty back to its pick-up points. The ownership team looked at the recycled plastic material that was building up at the facility and started searching for answers.

Market research led to a look at paint container practices in Europe where plastic containers already were common thanks to benefits such as reduced container denting, rust contamination and leaks. KW Container began making containers for the paint and coatings industry in 1998 with the introduction of a hybrid container that featured an all-plastic body. The container quickly gained acceptance by manufacturers and today, the majority of plastic paint containers in US retail stores contain the KW stamp.

With five manufacturing sites across the US employing approximately 200 associates, KW Container has the capacity to produce 250,000,000 gallon paint containers annually. The company also produces quarts, pints, ½ pints, ½ liters, 1 liters, 2.5 liters, 4 liters and 5 liters in various quantities.

Educating processors and customers about recycled plastics

KW Container’s next venture will be going live with 100-percent recycled paint cans. In addition, the manufacturer is taking its containers worldwide with introductions in Europe, South Africa and South America. However, while KW Plastics is at the forefront of the sustainability movement, the company has had to focus part of its efforts on educating its customers and other plastics processors on the possibilities inherent in recycled materials. “The US has to go through a paradigm shift to understand the difference between regrind and recycled materials,” Scholl explained. “I’m from the injection molding side of the business, so I know what variables the use of regrind introduces into the part you’re making, but that’s not what we do. We bring in plastic to recycle, and then put additives into it to bring it back to the same properties that virgin resin would have.”

Scholl admits that when processors think about recycled resin, they often think about the challenges in working with regrind. That’s where the nature of the KW Container and KW Plastics partnership comes into play. “We spend a lot of our time as injection molders going with the recycling company to talk to potential customers so they understand how to mold our material,” explained Scholl. “When you’re trying to sell resin to an outside customer, it’s a neat resource that can be utilized.” Recycled materials from KW Plastics are being used in an increasingly number of applications, including under-hood parts for the automotive industry, cases for drills, trash cans and returnable skids. In addition, much of the company’s recycled ethylene products go back into the bottle industry.

And then, of course, there are the paint containers. “We are our own largest customer. We truck plastic in, recycle it, turn it into pellets, turn it into cans and then truck the cans back out,” described Scholl. “If we can just figure out how to get our cans back from our paint customers, we could close that loop 100 percent!”

Automation builds quality control into the process

KW Container is a highly automated, low labor facility. “No one touches a part in our facility until the pallets are picked up and put in inventory,” said Scholl. “We mold the part, it drops from the cavities, it is 100-percent inspected several times, an assembly operation takes place and individual cans are palletized in the warehouse. It’s all automated.”

The quality systems are comprised of four stages. All materials are tested before part molding commences, and once production begins, alarm settings are set on the machines and the RJG system provides cavity pressure controls. An automated vision system provides a third level of inspection once a part has been molded, where the part is measured and checked for flash. The fourth level of quality inspection is what School calls ‘just too late’. “We have a quality inspector check parts randomly, but if the quality person finds a bad part two hours after a production run, it’s too late,” he explained. “We have a high-volume, high-speed line with 100 different cavities. One bad cavity can contaminate the whole box.”

As with the initial foray into plastic paint container molding, the ownership team took a step into the unknown to create the highly automated environment. “It was a large investment without knowing what the return was going to be,” said Scholl. “The owners didn’t have a lot of experience in robotics, but they had great foresight into how our facility needed to operate to set us up for the future.”

Elimination of entry-level positions create more efficient workforce

The high level of automation at KW Container demands a higher level of employee. There are very few entry level positions, and finding qualified engineers for quality and process control in the small community of Troy can be a challenge. “We are continually faced with either hiring someone and bringing them into our community or conducting an in-house training program,” Scholl said. “We decided to create a very extensive internal training program.”

A qualified, experienced process engineer was brought in, and then KW started a training program for additional process engineers in conjunction with RJG. “Our hope is that we’ve done the training well so an operator can move up to a quality engineer position, because to go out and find someone is difficult,” he said.

Engineers aren’t the only employees to receive extensive training. In fact, all employees go through 40 hours of training per year, in a combination of classroom and shop floor education. KW Container partners with a variety of resources, including the local community college, RJG and its suppliers.

New employee training begins with a unique edge. Although KW Container employees wear uniforms, new employees do not receive a uniform shirt until they pass a 90-day review. “When we hire a new employee, we know they need extra care,” explained Scholl. “In many cases, they also don’t know who to turn to with their questions. Our uniforms are coded by color – production staff wear blue shirts, red shirts are worn by quality personnel, material handlers wear green and toolroom employees wear black. As a new employee, I don’t need to know names – I just need to remember which color of shirt to grab to solve whatever issue has come up.”

Scholl pointed out that with the gradual elimination of entry level positions, volume has increased more than 40 percent over the past five years. That productivity increase can be credited to a program philosophy that valued quality over quantity. An evaluation process ranks employees in each position. Once a gap between the top performer and the lowest performer is identified, a training program is developed to help the bottom tier employee achieve at the level of the top tier employee.

“Our employees all are enthused and knowledgeable,” Scholl said. “I tell everybody – the only true asset you have is an employee. You can buy equipment – you can spend all of the money you want to – but you have to have people to run it. If you don’t have the employee side of it, you will not win the game.”

When asked for the keys to success at KW Container, Scholl points to several factors. “I think it’s a combination of people, economy and plastic,” he said. “We make a better container at a better cost, which was critical during the downturn when our customers were looking to reduce their product costs.” Scholl went on to explain that KW Container had streamlined production two years prior to the downturn, so capacity was available to bring on two major customers without adding equipment or staffing resources.

The ready availability of recycled resin cannot be underestimated as a contributing factor, but Scholl gives credit to the KW ownership team for looking to the future of the company. “They identified the market in paint containers, and they built the capacity in without ever having a first customer.”