Wrapping up the world

Published 12:02 pm Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pellets of polypropylene plastic are heated to 500 degrees, flattened by chilled rollers, cut into four and half inch strips and stretched for strength.

These first few steps of making polypropylene baler twine at Bridon Cordage LLC, a company that has manufactured baler twine in Albert Lea since 1976, look similar to how other companies would manufacture such an item, but Bridon Vice President of Manufacturing Terry Van Kampen said Bridon prides itself on quality.

“It’s the little things that really make the difference,” Van Kampen said.

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Those little things include an engineer on staff to test shipments of polypropylene before it’s made into baler twine. One such test includes using a computer spectrometer to compare the shipment with a base sample to look for irregularities.

“It’s making sure we’re getting consistent stuff from them every time. They’re sending us the same stuff over and over and over,” said Wade Carlson, quality control manager.

This and other similar testing done at Bridon is part of Bridon being certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Bridon is both ISO 9001:2000 certified, which deals with quality, and ISO 14001:2004 certified, which deals with being an environmentally conscious company.

Products made in the Albert Lea Bridon plant are sold through all of North America, but Bridon has factories in Jerome, Idaho; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and sister companies in near Bordeaux, France and Salvador, Brazil, said Jade Sherman, marketing and sales manager.

“Bridon’s probably a quiet company but it is a global company,” Van Kampen said.

Along with twine, Bridon also produces tying twines, industrial twines and other specialty items. In all, about 25 million pounds of twine will be produced this year at Bridon in Albert Lea, which is about 70,000 pounds per day, Van Kampen said. The Albert Lea plant, the Jerome Plant and the Saskatoon plant produce more than 50 million pounds annually.

“By doing ISO 9000 and going certified we have to detail every step of the manufacturing process,” Sherman said. “If we have a new hire, for example, that new hire basically has a list of things that his job description entails. First, we have to make a map of how we manufacture and how it functions within our business. And then what we have to do is follow the map that we generated.”

An ISO auditor inspects the plant twice a year to verify that Bridon is following that map and is trying not only to improve its product, but the way it manufactures the product, Sherman said.

One of the ways Bridon is attempting to improve is by sending out forms on each pallet for customer feedback, and the company tracks customer complaints and look for trends, Sherman said. Part of the reason Bridon is able to do this is because of its 13 people in sales and marketing, which is more than similar companies. Bridon employs 100 people in Albert Lea, Van Kampen said.

An example of responding to customer feedback is the production of longer, higher strength twine that can save customers time and money.

Another example is ISO 14000 and the company’s desire to be environmentally conscious, something Van Kampen said the bulk of their customer base — farmers — are concerned about.

None of the plastic scrap of polypropylene generated at Bridon ends up in a landfill, Van Kampen said. Any scrap polypropylene can be reused, and they look for high efficiency equipment when upgrading.

Bridon also recycles cardboard, which is often used to ship certain twines, and receive certain materials.

“People are concerned about companies that make plastic and we’re doing our part to minimize,” Van Kampen said. “We’re not a green company. We’re just an environmentally conscious company. We’re manufacturing plastics.”

Dealing in polypropylene plastics means more than two-thirds of Bridon’s cost to manufacture their goods is based in petroleum, so they are constantly adjusting their costs based on the petroleum market, Sherman said.

Adjusting costs can be difficult because the bulk of Bridon’s twine is purchased and used by farmers in the summer months, Van Kampen said.

But Bridon has been able to be successful in what Van Kampen calls a very competitive twine industry to meet their goals as a company.

“From a sales perspective, our goal is to gain 35 percent global market share — globally,” Sherman said. “Right now we’re well above that, I think, in the United States. Probably fairly close to that in Canada. Our corporate goal is to have 35 percent of the entire market in all of the items that we manufacture and distribute.”

Bridon will continue to attempt to meet that goal as they are beginning a $3 million expansion in Albert Lea that will increase the size of the factory and add new equipment as a way to diversify the products it produces.