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Published: Friday, 3/9/2007

High-tech O-I plant near beer

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS
Red-hot beer bottles pour out of the Windsor, Colo., factory's forming machine at the rate of 600 a minute. Red-hot beer bottles pour out of the Windsor, Colo., factory's forming machine at the rate of 600 a minute.
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WINDSOR, Colo. - The tan building on the snowy plains houses technology its owners prefer to keep under wraps.

"There are certain things you can't take pictures of," plant manager Dwayne Wendler advises a newspaper photographer, minutes before leading a tour of the 450,000-square-foot facility.

It's not a hush-hush military installation. It's where beer bottles are born as gobs of molten glass.

Photos could reveal sensitive bottle-making technology inside the $140 million Owens-Illinois Inc. plant - one that the chief executive dubbed "the most advanced and high-tech plant in the country."

Finished in 2005, it's the nation's first such factory in 25 years - a time when glass plants were shuttered as cans and plastic grabbed market share.

O-I, headquartered in the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg, is the No. 1 maker of glass containers worldwide and had $7.5 billion in sales last year.

The Colorado plant feeds more than 1 billion bottles a year to the nation's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch Inc. The maker of Budweiser encouraged O-I to build near its big brewery 18 miles away in Fort Collins, Colo. The brewery relies on O-I for up to 95 percent of its bottle needs.

Inside the factory, five robotic vehicles navigate by laser as they transport stacks of bottles to the warehouse. Two vast 2,500-degree furnaces melt 800 tons of crushed recycled glass, sand, soda ash, and other raw materials daily.

Mr. Wendler said that when he joined O-I more than three decades ago in Portland, Ore., production of "100 to 150 bottles a minute was fast." Today, the rate is more than 600 bottles a minute.

Each day, forklift operators load bottles into dozens of tractor-trailer trucks for travel to the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

It's a mutually beneficial relationship. O-I gets a steady customer for its three styles of bottles.

Anheuser-Busch gets a steady supplier for bottling its 20-plus beers, ranging from Bud Light to a craft-style seasonal brew named Beach Bum Blonde Ale.

O-I has 19 glass plants across the United States. One other is near an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Toano, Va.

In the newest O-I plant, blue-shirted maintenance employees pedal across the concrete floor on big yellow tricycles, making sure all the machinery is working properly.

Eight robots standing about 20 feet tall stack bottles on big pallets, preparing bulk and carton loads for shipment to the warehouse.

The bulk pallets hold more than 4,000 bottles, and each robot can fill a bulk load in seven or eight minutes.

The five laser-guided robots, made by a Michigan company, Egemin Automation Inc., cart the pallets to the warehouse.

The heart of the operation is the two furnaces that melt the raw materials so the four forming machines can shape the bottles.

Each furnace measures 1,400 square feet and stands two stories high.

At any time, 500 to 600 tons of molten glass flows like from the furnaces to the four forming machines.

Once shaped, they are sent along a conveyor to cool and be packaged for shipment. Along the way, a computerized scanner checks each for defects such as nicks.



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