Tucked between the new high-speed cigarette-makers and pack-loaders in Philip Morris USA’s giant South Richmond plant, there now are lots of head-high, Plexiglas-walled boxes.
Inside, robot-arms load rolls of cigarette paper or package and carton blanks, keeping a continuous feed of material flowing. Overhead, a conveyor belt, also walled in with clear plastic, forms an eight-loop-high spiral of cigarettes.
The extra 3 feet between the cigarette-making machines and the beeping driverless cars that bring pallet-loads full of cigarettes to the loading docks are visible signs of a $230 million investment that the nation’s No. 1 cigarette-maker has made to consolidate operations in Richmond.
“We’re about 98 percent done,” Eric Schardt, director of cigarette manufacturing, said about the changes at the plant, during a rarely offered tour of the secure area.
“And we did it while continuing to produce product.”
The investment came as Philip Morris USA, a unit of Henrico County-based Altria Group Inc., consolidated all its cigarette-making in Richmond last July, when it closed its relatively new plant in Cabarrus County, N.C.
With the consolidation and the modernization here, the Richmond plant now makes about 149 billion cigarettes a year.
Adding to the challenge of doing everything in one place is that Philip Morris USA has launched dozens of new varieties in the past few years.
It now makes 27 different kinds of Marlboros in 43 different kinds of packaging. In addition to Marlboros, Philip Morris makes 88 other kinds of cigarettes in 114 packages.
It puts a premium on flexibility and on cranking out lots of cigarettes.
“We can handle orders from 360,000 a day of one brand to 500 million of another, at the extreme,” Schardt said.
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Each of the new machines in Bay 1 can produce 10,000 cigarettes a minute, using air pressure to shoot the equivalent of about 3/100 of an ounce of tobacco per cigarette into an endless tube of paper that’s moving through its rollers at a rate of more than 22 mph.
That’s 25 percent more cigarettes per minute than the old machines, which Philip Morris still uses in Bay 3 of the plant, for the smaller runs of its less popular brands.
One worker minds two of the high-speed machines in Bay 1. Each machine has its own operator in Bay 3.
One reason for having one worker overseeing one machine in Bay 3 is that the paper and unfolded packaging materials must be loaded onto the machines by hand, and often enough at the cost of sore backs and pinched fingers.
In Bay 1, ingredients come on larger pallet-loads that are fed into machines automatically by those robot arms in their Plexiglas-walled boxes.
Another key difference: There is one shipping-case machine for each six of Bay 3′s cigarette-makers. In Bay 1, there is one case machine for each pair of cigarette-makers.
In Bay 3, Robert Warren, manager of cigarette manufacturing, and his crew constantly are juggling to run the 10 different varieties the bay’s 18 machines can handle.
In Bay 1, that headache’s gone.
Altria employed the equivalent of 4,613 full-time workers in the Richmond area as of Jan. 1. The company won’t say how many work at the South Richmond plant — it keeps data about its production closely guarded so competitors don’t get clues about its operation.
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Even Bay 3, though, benefits from other investments.
Hand-held scanners, tracking numbers and tiny quarter-inch-square gray-and-white markings on packaging material signal automated loaders in the adjoining warehouse to pull exactly what papers, foils, films and packing flats each machine in the plant needs, when operators are about to run low.
The old Bay 3 machines have the latest computer monitors: Sensors test the cigarettes shooting out of the machine to make sure each is within tight limits for weight and how tightly the tobacco leaf inside is packed.
There are brand-new testing machines in the filter-making room, too.
Instead of the old days when operators grabbed a handful of new filters and used calipers and a scale to see if they met standards, the new shoulder-high metal boxes can pull filters after they’re made.
The machines measure weight and circumference and even blow through air to check what cigarette makers call “resistance to draw,” which means how hard a smoker must drag to get a puff.
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A big part of Philip Morris USA’s investment in the plant is information technology.
The cigarette-making machines, the pneumatic feed-lines from the tobacco-storage silos in the plant’s basement, and its warehouse and the other cigarette-making supplies all talk to each other all of the time — thanks to technology.
Battered, pistol-shaped hand-held scanners are used all over — most workers are assigned one, and most have specially installed rubber guards at the corners, too.
“They really get a workout,” said Schardt, picking up a particularly well-used scanner.
But then, most days feel like a sprint at the plant.
“From the time the tobacco comes up from downstairs, to pallets of cases being loaded on the trucks, you’re talking maybe an hour,” Schardt said.
By DAVID RESS AND JOHN REID BLACKWELL
TIMES-DISPATCH, May 10, 2010