Clean Room Environment Makes Excellence a Priority

In an aggressive effort to increase sales, the management team at Autotype Americas Inc. decided to make some bold moves that have paid off handsomely for both the company and its customers. Key among those moves was the creation of a 2,250-sq-ft, Class 10,000 clean room in its Schaumburg, IL, facility.

Autotype Americas was established initially in 1975 as an importer/distributor for its U.K. parent, Autotype Intl. Founded in 1868 as a specialized coater of films, Autotype Intl. has 350 employees and does business in 85 countries. Research and manufacturing are centered in the company's headquarters at Wantage, near Oxford, England.

Autotype Americas receives coated jumbo rolls from its U.K. parent at the 67,000-sq-ft Schaumburg facility. It converts the rolls into sheets and smaller rolls and ships to customers in the US, Canada, and Latin America. (Autotype International serves Asia and India from another location in Singapore.)

Autotype Intl.'s business now focuses on three areas: screen printing products, graphic films, and industrial films. For screen printers, Autotype supplies a range of products for prepress and stencil-making, including the ASPECT thermal imaging system for producing large-format film positives. Applications include printed circuit board imaging, high quality ceramic tableware, and CD printing. The company reports its range includes many industry leaders such as Capillex capillary films and Plus direct emulsions.

Autotype also produces ink jet-printable coated films for digital imaging that are used for applications such as low-cost proofing, floor graphics in high-traffic areas, and display and backlit graphics for exhibitions.

In the industrial films segment, textured and hard-coated polyethylene terephthalate and polycarbonate films are used by the electronics industry for membrane switches, touchscreens, LCD displays, and control panels. These films must be optically perfect, and it was for this reason that the company decided to add a clean room. According to Richard T. Lee, operations manager, "We needed to have facilities and equipment that are state-of-the-art and world class to give us a competitive advantage so we can convert those kinds of films in the proper environment to bring to market."

Nicole H. Johnson, marketing manager, concurs. She says the competitive pressure is always there to produce better film and cleaner film. "This [clean room] was the best way that we could see to go forward. Autotype is also putting in a new production line in the U.K. that is completely inside a clean room, so that film actually will be produced in a clean environment, packaged in a clean environment, sent to us, and then converted in a clean environment. We can avoid any kind of contamination or any imperfections along the way."

Success Makes Tough Demands
Autotype clearly sees industrial films as a growth business. In the five years Lee has been with the company, sales in that segment have grown from $1 million to $10 million per year. The US company boosted its head count to 60 employees and added a second shift to meet capacity.

"In the fall of 1994," Lee adds, "we were just starting to go after the industrial market. We were growing, and all we had running was a Rosenthal scissor sheeter intended for small runs."

The Rosenthal machine, which runs at 150 fpm and can sheet up to 60 in. wide, was rebuilt three years ago. "We put in a jogger table," notes production manager Jeffrey M. Rupp. "We redesigned and put airflow in to keep the film scratch-free. We Tefloned everything. It's very good for quick changeovers."

Also, Lee points out, the company owned a Moore & White sheeter (co. no longer operating) that had been idle until Rupp's ingenuity eventually got the equipment up and running. "After a couple of modifications and about two months of increase in scrap on our industrial products, we were able to get the machine going," Rupp says. "Now it will sheet 300 feet a minute, 60 inches wide."

Part of the modification was the inclusion of an ionized airbar, which eliminates drag by floating the sheets over the stationary bottom blade and prevents the film from being scratched.

Indeed, the modifications that were made to get the Moore & White running were so successful that they became part of the design criteria for a brand new sheeter from Strachan Henshaw (SHM).

"When we set up specs for the clean room," Lee says, "we envisioned the environment that we wanted. We went out and looked at several sheeters. We thought the SHM 1400 compact sheeter would be the best fit for the room."

"The machine allows us to slit and sheet at the same time, so we can cut exact sheets to save on trim and waste," says Rupp. "I don't have to overthrow, take it to a guillotine, trim it off, and square it up. It's already trimmed and squared, right off the machine."

The dead knife sheeter runs at a maximum speed of 330 fpm (l00 mpm) and features a smooth chrome roller. Maximum web width is 55 in. (1,400 mm).

Custom-Made Simplicity
Also housed in the clean room is a Dusenbery Model 835 slitter/rewinder that was adapted to function as a laminator. Explains Rupp, "When we were bidding on the business, we had three or four companies that refused to quote because of the lamination station." A previous relationship between U.K. headquarters and Dusenbery influenced the purchase decision.

"John Wilkes, the president of Dusenbery, came in and serviced the account," says Lee. "He went over the specs and altered them the way we wanted and personally saw that we got what we ordered."

"It's a simple design," Rupp adds. "All we did was take their nip roller and turn it into a laminator. Every machine has to have a nip and a drive, so we just put special rollers in there for our lamination. It's got plenty of pressure to open and close."

The Model 835 is capable of slitting widths of 3-54 in. The maximum core length on the unwind is 62 in., and maximum speed on the rewind is 500 fpm. The slitter is equipped with Ashe Converting winders, of which Rupp says, "They're made for a slitter, they're tension-controlled. They do a fantastic job."

Autotype has two Wohlenberg guillotine trimmers, both purchased used. As Lee explains, the company's previous management team bought the first one back in the early 1980s, and it's been a solid, dependable machine. When the company decided to add another trimmer for inside the clean room, Lee and Rupp looked at some of the new equipment on the market but decided not to bite. "We're thinking we want to get away from this trimming," Lee says. "We want to sheet, come out with perfect cuts, box it, and be done with it. We didn't need the bells and whistles, so we looked for another used Wohlenberg and probably saved about $100,000 in the process." The Wohlenberg is used when the company is running the interleaving paper jobs with very narrow trim.

Keeping It Clean
The Class 10,000 clean room is designed for a constant rotation workflow in a U-shaped work environment. The operators wear uniforms, special shoes, hairnets, and gloves when they're working inside the room. All incoming product is deboxed in the main storage facility, which is temperature and humidity controlled, so no corrugated is brought into the room. After deboxing, the rolls are blown off in the warehouse to remove any dust or cardboard fibers. Rolls are then vacuumed off with a central vac system before entering the room.

Product is moved on metal carts as opposed to wooden dollies, and these run over tacky mats before entering the clean room.

Autotype is careful about allowing paper in the clean room. The company even insists that schedules, which are kept on computer, are printed on waste film that's run through a laser printer.

The air in the room changes 30 times in one hour through the 21 installed Clestra hepafilters. They are all fan driven, and each one pumps 600 cfm of air into the room.

Midwest Cleanroom constructed the room for Autotype. "They had the capability to do everything," says Lee. "The construction, certification, maintenance-it's all worked out well."

Autotype does not use air extraction to remove trim from the clean room, Lee explains. "Because of the room and the positive [air] pressure, we've gone to rewinding our trim rather than sucking it out like most people do with air. Not only does it get rid of the problem of pulling all the air out, but we have no chopping, no mess. What normally would fill up a huge bin, we've reduced down for disposal, which is a huge savings and so much less hassle. I highly recommend it."

Rupp agrees wholeheartedly that rewinding is the way to go. "Less trouble, less equipment cost, less space, less dirt, less noise," he sums up.

Outside the clean room are two rewinders. One is used to convert large rolls into smaller rolls, and the other is designed to convert interleaf products by separating the two products and winding them back together without creasing.

"We rebuilt these rewinders four years ago, and they should last us another ten years without any problem, because the wear and tear on them isn't bad," says Lee.

A New Culture
The clean room isn't the only move toward a "new culture" at Autotype Americas, says Lee. "We're finishing up our internal audits now for ISO-9002 certification. This process has helped validate and improve our quality systems and goes hand in hand with our commitment to industry-leading quality standards."

In an effort to streamline operations, the company restructured its sales force last fall. "We used to have three different sales teams that would go out to the industrial customers, the screen customers, and the offset printing customers," explains Nicole Johnson. "That meant three or four of our sales people from these different groups would be calling on the same customer for different product areas. We decided that we were wasting our resources, so we combined them into one sales force. We've brought on a better awareness of our company, and we've also been able to sell more products."

It also doesn't hurt that, according to Rupp, the company is now turning around orders from its industrial customers in a maximum of two days. While delivery performance makes customers very happy, Rupp believes that the company's accuracy in order picking, at 99.98% correct, is even more important.

Preparing for the Future
"Jeff and I have taken pride in the way this business has evolved from an operational standpoint," says Lee. "We've come a long way with some of the things we've implemented here, some of the disciplines. We're getting good quality product out to our customers within reliable time frames. So, we've gotten to this stage: We've grown, we've added personnel, we've added equipment, and we've added a shift. Now we are adding the production control devices to be able to meet future challenges."

The company also is considering building a platform with viewing booths both inside and outside of the clean room as a way to enhance the operator's ability to inspect film to ensure quality.

When continuing growth requires expansion, Autotype is ready. The prefabricated clean room can be taken down, moved, or expanded to make it bigger with minor adjustments.

Adding a clean room facility and new equipment is an expensive undertaking for any company. There are always snags, last-minute changes, and unexpected expenses that arise. As Rupp says, "It's a $650,000 project you don't want to screw up."

So how did they do? "We were off budget by only a thousand dollars. We were right there," Lee says with a smile, obviously proud of a job well done.

Supplier Information
Strachan Henshaw Machinery Inc., Elk Grove Village, IL; 847/956-6727; fax: 847/956-7045.
Rosenthal Manufacturing Co. Inc., Northbrook, IL; 847/714-0404; fax: 847/714-0440.
John Dusenbery Co. Inc., Randolph, NJ; 201/366-7500; dusenbery.com
Ashe Controls Ltd. (Ashe Converting Equipment), Middlefield, MA; 413/623-0090; ashe.co.uk
Clestra Cleanroom Inc., N. Syracuse, NY; 315/452-5200; fax: 315/452-5252.
Midwest Cleanroom Associates, Grand Rapids, MI; 616/458-8533; fax: 616/458-0797.


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