The form and function of plastic bottles and containers have enabled creative packaging designs – such as built-in handles and graduated measurements – to flourish. Automotive products such as motor oil and home decorating products such as paint have jettisoned their traditional metal containers in favor of the greater design variety and functionality that blow-molded plastics can offer.
Even chemicals and products that if spilled require environmentally safe cleanup now can be contained reliably in rust-proof, crack-resistant high density polyethylene (HDPE) containers produced by Lee Container. Founded in Homerville, Ga., in 1989, Lee Container’s three plants have 36 production lines.
The bottles are blow-molded on two different types of machines from parisons, which are hollow tubes of plastic extruded from HDPE resin. Lee Container has historically produced bottles in rotary, vertical-wheel blow-molding equipment but has recently acquired four dual-cavity shuttle machines that can produce four bottles per cycle.
“With shuttle technology you have two parisons, and you have molds mounted on a horizontal backing or plate,” President Robert Varnedoe explains. “They shift side-to-side. The wheel goes like a Ferris wheel, and the shuttles just move side-to-side. A blow pin penetrates that parison and blows air into that parison, and it hits the mold. The mold is cooled at 50 degrees F and the parison is 400 F. So when it hits the side of the mold, it sets up.”
Lee Container produces approximately 100 bottle configurations, each of which has three or four molds, depending on the machine in which it will be produced. Molds are built from aluminum and berylium copper and are much lighter than injection molds.
Mold Changing Streamlined
Varnedoe cites shortening the time to change molds and reducing setup time as being the company’s biggest recent improvements. “We have a lot of mold changes between three plants,” he points out. “So we have improved that process and used lean manufacturing in order to improve the amount of time it takes to change a mold and the amount of time it takes to generate a good product. Generally, it was how we set up the shop and the techniques we use. We trained our technicians on how to be more efficient in the maintenance of the molds and how we had the tools located in order to make the process more efficient.”
Lee Container has four in-house engineers who can design manufacturing machines and processes. They built six intermittent, four-station rotary blow molders. “Now we’re migrating toward buying direct from manufacturers,” Varnedoe says. “We can buy one for about what we can build one, but we can get the expertise of someone from the outside on tech support.”
The engineers also can work on customers’ product designs. “If we have somebody that comes to us with a design, we’ll help improve it,” Varnedoe says. “We have gone from the drawing board and designed the finished product.”
Most of Lee Container’s products are distributed empty to customers in the United States, with a small number going to Mexico and Puerto Rico. “We feel like our biggest competitive advantage is our warehousing capacity,” Varnedoe boasts. “We have 1.4 million square feet of warehousing, and especially in the agricultural chemicals, that’s a plus, because we have to build inventory in the fall to help with the peak demand in January through June.”
Lee Container works hard to meet customers’ lead times. A typical lead time is two weeks, but emergency agricultural crop protection products may require speedier turnarounds. Varnedoe cites the company’s five consecutive wins of the Syngenta Crop Protection “Partners in Quality” award as an indicator of its success in keeping customers satisfied.
To avoid spills, the company uses crack-resistant resins and a coating on the inside of some containers to prevent breakdown of the plastic from interaction with the chemicals inside them. “You spend 24 years developing a quality company, and you can lose all that in a real short period of time,” Varnedoe cautions. “So maintaining the quality of the product we produce is a big challenge.”
Additional challenges include overcoming the seasonal nature of the agricultural industry by growing Lee Container’s business in other markets. The fluctuating price of HDPE resin is another challenge. With the quarterly pricing Lee Containers uses, a price increase in resin at the beginning of the quarter can cut into the company’s profits.
Varnedoe attributes Lee Container’s success to its employees and their focus on quality and customer service, along with finding a market such as agricultural chemicals that values the reliability of leak-proof containers more than just their price. Another factor in the success of the family owned and managed business is the continuing involvement of its 83-year-old founder and CEO, Don Lee, Varnedoe emphasizes.
“We’ve just got a lot of dedicated employees,” he says. “They’re highly skilled in what they do, and they all have bought into the quality philosophy that we want to project.”