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High-tech bottlemaker satisfies beer company's thirst for glass

Red-hot bottles come out of the forming machine at the Owens-Illinois glass-bottle plant in Windsor on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007. When the bottles are formed, they are at a temperature of about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant makes about 1 billion bottles a year that are used at the Budweiser Brewery and Bottling Plant in Fort Collins, Colo. (SHNS photo by Darin McGregor / Rocky Mountain News)
Red-hot bottles come out of the forming machine at the Owens-Illinois glass-bottle plant in Windsor on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007. When the bottles are formed, they are at a temperature of about 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant makes about 1 billion bottles a year that are used at the Budweiser Brewery and Bottling Plant in Fort Collins, Colo. (SHNS photo by Darin McGregor / Rocky Mountain News)

BY ROGER FILLION

SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE

WINDSOR, Colo. - The sprawling tan building that rises from 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 minutes before leading a tour of the 450,000-square-foot facility.

No, 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. bottle plant - one that the chief executive dubbed "the most advanced and high-tech plant in the country."

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

The facility 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 locate the plant near its big brewery up the road in Fort Collins, Colo.

While glassmaking has roots dating back more than 2,000 years, the O-I plant relies on technology that early glassmakers could hardly have dreamed of.

Inside, five robotic vehicles use lasers to navigate while they transport stacks of freshly made amber 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.

Such technology has sped up the process. When Wendler joined O-I more than three decades ago in Portland, Ore., production of "100 to 150 bottles a minute was fast," he notes.

Today, the rate is more than 600 bottles a minute for each machine that forms the glass.

Each day, forklift operators load bottles into dozens of tractor-trailer trucks that rumble about 18 miles across the plains to the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

Before stepping onto the Windsor plant's factory floor, Wendler advises visitors to don a safety hat, safety glasses and ear plugs.

Blue-shirted maintenance employees pedal across the concrete floor on big yellow tricycles, making sure all the machinery is working properly.

Eight robots standing some 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 such a bulk load in seven or eight minutes.

Five mobile robots, which use laser beams to find their way around, cart the pallets to the warehouse. A Michigan company, Egemin Automation Inc., makes them.

The heart of the operation is two high-temperature furnaces, which 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 flow like honey from the furnaces to the four forming machines that each shape more than 600 bottles a minute.

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

The bottles must be sturdy to survive the 30-minute truck ride to the brewery and other modes of transport. At the brewery, they'll undergo a two-hour ride on a spinning, winding conveyor.

A shattered bottle can gum up the nearly half-mile conveyor. The shards can get lodged inside.

"It's hard to clean them all out. You have to shut the line down," says Wilson, the Anheuser-Busch plant manager.

Anheuser-Busch helped lure O-I to Windsor by highlighting the proximity to the brewery and the availability of a rail line to haul in raw materials. At the time, the brewer was relying on bottles made more than 600 miles away, in Oklahoma and Minnesota.

"We entered into a long-term agreement with (O-I), which encouraged them to build the facility," Wilson says.

The relationship means that employees from both companies speak frequently by phone to go over the logistics of meshing the bottle operations and the beermaking so there aren't hiccups.

Production of one style of bottle, for example, may need to be boosted to accommodate an increase in output of, say, Bud Light.

"If there's a change in the packaging schedule, they call," says Wendler.

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