BY ELIZABETH FUHRMAN
Vertical integration in bottling offers packaging innovations
With the 2004 acquisition of Mountain Valley by Clear Mountain, the combined Mountain Valley Spring Co., Hot Springs, Ark., brings together premium spring water sources, company-owned home-and-office distribution and PET plastic container manufacturing. As a medium-sized bottled water company, Mountain Valley has a unique opportunity for vertical integration. With a water bottling facility and Veriplas Inc., a PET plastic container manufacturer, located side by side, during the last two years Mountain Valley has streamlined operations and created innovative packaging opportunities.
Bottled from the spring
Mountain Valley’s bottling campus can be found on 633 pristine acres of flowing springs and rolling hills near Hot Springs National Park. Spring water can be seen flowing into the facility from a spring house. Gravity brings water from three springs into holding tanks, with the excess going directly into the nearby river. Mountain Valley’s water though comes from Spring One, and water from the other two springs is used for other brands, private label bottling and rinsing.
The company’s 120,000-square-foot bottling facility offers 50,000 square feet of manufacturing space, with the remainder used for warehousing, along with an additional 60,000-square-foot offsite warehouse. In total, Mountain Valley operates four bottling facilities – located in Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Columbia, S.C. – and Mountain Valley’s 5-gallon and small-package non-returnable bottles plant in Hot Springs.
The Hot Springs plant holds two 5-gallon bottling lines, one 1-gallon bottling line, one small-package glass bottling line and one high-speed PET bottling line. The facility bottles about 30 percent glass vs. 70 percent plastic, says Scott Kingsborough, president of the manufacturing division.
Mountain Valley recently made two investments in production and technology for the plant. One is for bottling its newly redesigned 1-liter and half-liter glass bottles for spring and sparkling water. Mountain Valley installed the line in October of last year. The company receives the raw glass palletized, 12-layers high. For all lines, the company has an automatic depalletizer, and for the glass line, the automatic glass depalletizer brings the bottles overhead to the fill room. In the fill room, bottles are filled, capped and conveyed to the box erector. The box erectors and partition inserters create the boxes, and a drop packer drops the filled bottles into the boxes. The closed cases then go back up a turnstyle and overhead to the palletizer and the cases are palletized.
The small-package glass line bottles 450 bottles per minute, while Mountain Valley’s PET line runs 720 bottles per minute. In the larger container lines, the 1-gallon line operates at 900 cases per hour, the plastic 5-gallon line runs 1,000 bottles per hour and the glass 5-gallon line fills 2,000 bottles per hour. Two shifts of about 50 employees, with five in quality control and 10 in support and warehousing roles, operate the facility. A fleet of 18 trucks run about 40 loads a day.
Mountain Valley’s other recent investment is real-time online quality control capabilities.
“When the bottle comes out of the filler, we know it is right,” Kingsborough says. “If it isn’t right, we have people inspecting the bottles and the process that are empowered to stop the line if the quality, packaging or cap isn’t up to standard. They are all empowered to take charge at that point and act accordingly when they see a product coming down the line that isn’t perfect.”
Mountain Valley’s new quality control technology updates process data every 10 seconds. These quality checks and extra micro-testing are part of the company’s commitment to exceed the mandated bottled water standards.
Mountain Valley uses ozone and ultraviolet light as disinfectants and conducts micron filtration. The facility also is inspected by a third-party inspection agency annually. And since Sept. 11, Mountain Valley has written a plant security manual and upgraded and secured all its spring sites so they are not compromised.
Veriplas Inc. not only produces PET bottles for Mountain Valley, but for most independent bottlers in the Mid-South. In addition to the 40,000-square-foot plant in Hot Springs and a 30,000-square-foot offsite warehouse, the company has a similar sized plastics facility in Little Rock for a total of 225,000 square feet under management. All clients are serviced from both facilities. Veriplas produces approximately 325 million bottles and about 250 million preforms a year, and for Mountain Valley, it produces approximately 49 million bottles a year.
There are two facets of Veriplas’ business. In one stage, the division runs three lines of injection equipment to make preforms. The company offers six sizes of preforms in a variety of colors, and uses a large majority of its preforms internally. In the next stage, Veriplas has four lines that manufacture small-package bottles from 8 ounces to 1.5 liters, and three lines that produce 4-gallon bottles and larger.
Veriplas has two blowmolding machines – a six-cavity stretch-blowmolding machine and a 20-cavity stretch-blowmolding machine – and one injection-molding machine in Hot Springs. In Little Rock, the division has three more blowmolders and two more injection-molding machines.
A representative from Veriplas will sit in on Mountain Valley’s planning process, says Thomas McCain, president of Veriplas. “We take projections and get orders from them based on what they perceive their needs are. Then we’ll stage orders for them, and carry inventory based on those projections.”
Mountain Valley will store that day’s production needs at its bottling facility, but Veriplas will keep any inventory for them. “The filling plant is never dependent on the bottle plant in running its equipment,” McCain explains. “If we’re properly planning, like we do for all of our customers, the filling line will never be shut down because they don’t have bottles.”
Veriplas and Mountain Valley already have created a one-way 4-gallon recyclable bottle for the retail channel. The group also has a PLA bottle in the works.
“When you’re vertically integrated, innovating with new products is something that we can do relatively rapidly,” says Breck Speed, chairman and chief executive officer of Mountain Valley.