For a glimpse of how automation and technology are providing greater speed, flexibility and reliability in lubricants manufacturing, seek no further than Shells Congo blending and packaging plant in Newell, W. Va. After a multimillion dollar investment, this one-time Quaker State plant is fully loaded with technological bells and whistles – yet human operators remain important.
Located about 35 miles from Pittsburgh in the northernmost tip of West Virginias panhandle, and cradled in a bend of the Ohio River, Congo enjoys logistical advantages aplenty, LubesnGreases heard during a tour of the plant in mid-July. We are in a very prime location because we have a waterway, so we can receive barges, pointed out Terri Dean, production manager of the plant, which takes its name from the surrounding community on the rivers south bank. We have a rail system, so we can get in our additives by rail. And we also have our trucking. Were in a very good position to get base oils and additives.
Plastic bottle manufacturer Graham Packaging has a blowmolding facility attached to Shells blending plant. They actually produce the bottles right next door, and they send them on conveyors to us, Dean said. So we dont have to store bottles here, while [sister plant] Houston has to store them in warehouse space for that. So youll have conveyors that come through the wall, and thats how we get our quart bottles and our gallon bottles.
Another close-knit supplier is the neighboring Newell base oil refinery, also a former Quaker State asset. With capacity now to make 4,800 barrels per day of API Group I and II base oils, the refinery was sold in 1997 to Ergon following Quaker States merger with Pennzoil. That was before both engine oil brands were brought into the Shell family in 2002. We actually lease our property from Ergon and we get some of our base oil from them, Dean confirmed.
With those base oils and other ingredients, Congos 85 employees have the tools in place to blend and package 70 types of lubricants, which are shipped in a wide range of viscosities and configurations – around 270 SKUs in all. At any time, its 87 storage tanks and warehouse may hold 121 types of materials at the ready.
A big question for the curious is whether Congo also will see shipments of the new gas-to-liquids base oil Shell began making this summer at its joint venture Pearl plant in Qatar. While declining to say which of its blending plants will be allotted these Group III fluids from Qatar, Shell Lubricants Americas spokeswoman Michelle Herskowitz did note, We have established a dedicated GTL supply chain which includes three regional storage hubs, including one in Houston from which base oil will be transported to all major blending plants.
Congo manufactures lubricants under Shells own brands and for private-label customers, including some original equipment manufacturers. Much of the output will go into rigid plastic packages for retail – quarts and jugs – and into sturdy bag-in-box containers that target the installer market (more about that later).
Five years ago, the plant would have set up its packaging line and run a single SAE 10W-30 motor oil all day long, resulting in about 10,000 12-quart cases, said production planning manager John Miller. Today, we will run as low as 1,100 cases, and as much as a full shift, although production runs of 2,500 to 3,000 cases are more typical.
Leading a tour of the Congo plants bottle packaging lines, Miller emphasized that while the processes are very highly automated, operators still play vital roles. Typically we have two operators at work here, and they are responsible for all three of these machines, he noted. Rapid bursts of operation and fast changeovers are part of their routine. All of the machines can run any product – different products or the same product – each with different formulations, Miller continued. So the equipment operators may find themselves filling three different SAE 10W-30 formulations (for a private-label customer, a Pennzoil product and a Quaker State product) all at the same time.
Miller explained that Shells portfolio has changed in terms of the number of SKUs it has, as well. By flattening the number of SKUs to around 270, the plant is reducing inventories. A lot of what we do is just-in-time. Graham Packaging can blow a bottle and label it, send it up here, we can fill it, and it can go on a pallet and be going down the road in an hour, he asserted.
The plant also is designed to minimize the chance of any leak occurring. Everywhere you look, you see a hard pipe – its all hard pipe to every one of our fillers, Miller pointed out. So here you see no oil on the ground. If you go to a lot of motor oil facilities, youll see oil and all kinds of stuff [on the floor]. Were not set up that way. A lot of that is testament to our people. Our people come up with tremendous ideas on how to make their jobs better, easier, more automated.
For quality control, the packaging lines include automated barcode readers that are self-taught. Say were running 10W-30. Well scan the label, and the readers going to look for that on every bottle, Terri Dean indicated. If for some reason the bottle supplier put the wrong bottle in or puts it backwards, the reader is going to stop the line and say Sorry, your index is on the wrong way, nozzle not facing forward, bottle backward, theres no label there. All those things allow us to see those imperfections, and pull them out so the customer doesnt get them.
Finally, automated printers on the packaging line put a badge number on products, a must for traceability purposes. If something happens to a printer, say it gets an error, it wont let the line run without the printer working, Dean said. You get a flashing red light.
Congo also fills the popular Ecobox motor oil package, which Shell rolled out nationally in 2010 for the B2B market. The Ecobox system houses oil in a flexible plastic liner encased in cardboard. Holding 24 quarts of motor oil, its designed to simplify transport and storage, leave less residual oil behind in the container, minimize spills and reduce waste.
Shell said high demand from motor oil installers for this container prompted a multimillion dollar investment in the West Virginia plant. Filling the bag-in-box required equipment and processes that are different from rigid plastic bottles.
An automated case-erector forms the box from sheets of cardboard. We have an automatic feed system, that automatically with a forklift puts those cartons on the line and automatically feeds it into the system, so our operators do not have to handle those, Dean noted.
Meanwhile, liquid fillers fill the bags, which are then dropped into the cardboard boxes and sealed in. We label it, palletize it, wrap it, and then put it away in the racking system, she said. Sensors watch the output to ensure the plant doesnt send something out without a label on it. Likewise, when the cases of [Ecobox] bags come out of the fillers and onto the conveyors, we have a vision system that will detect if we have a leak, so that we dont ship anything out that has a hole in it, Dean said. We also always check the weights, so were shipping out the proper amount of fluids in the boxes, so we do not under-fill.
Dean emphasized the need for early operator involvement in this system. We had the operators that are on the floor, who would be running these lines every day, involved up-front, she stated. They went on site visits with us, went to a Coca-Cola plant that uses this same technology, and checked out how they operate. What we did was listen – every team member on the project had a place. And that was just key to making sure this was successful.
A lot of technology and things we do today are tributes to the smarts of the operators here. We have a very engaged workforce, and were very proud of what they do. Were blessed that way.
Congo now has 34 SKUs in the Ecobox package, and Gary Ring, Shells project manager for North American Operations Excellence, showed how the formulated oils from the plants northern end travel through a manifold system via one single line to reach the bag-and-box filling equipment.
We just have one line going over and we have a pigging system. It saves a lot of money, he noted. The pigging system has largely eliminated the need for line-wash oil to flush out the line between product changeovers. Without it, you can wash 90 to 450 gallons changing from one grade to another grade, Ring said. We probably get by with a gallon or gallon-and-a-half.
With the lubricant cartons filled and ready to ship, they finally need to be palletized, calling for more automation. Were the first Shell site in the U.S. to have a robotic palletizer, Dean said proudly. The reason we went with it is we have space constraints. We have a very small real estate to put this line in, so the robotic palletizer worked better than the current palletizing system we had. It also has better efficiency and less downtime for us.
All of our Ps and Qs have to be in line, nodded Miller. Our process safety has got to be in line, our quality controls got to be in line, all of our checks and balances and traceability, for product identification – all of that – has to be in line.
Thats truly what our process is, very continuous, very dynamic.