For 39 years, customized polyethylene films made Danafilms a horse of a different color. Now the converter has added a second thoroughbred: coextrusion.

Standing left to right, Danafilms plant manager Dan Lowdermilk, general manager Alan Simoncini, coextrusion technical manager Aaron LaPointe and sales manager Steve Crimmin showcase the custom film manufacturer's 7-layer blown film coextrusion line. A nimble and proficient company rooted in 39 years of customizing monolayer polyethylene films, Danafilms has proven successful in coextruding films since installing this line in 2005.

Visitors to Kentucky are often drawn by the state’s long, colorful history of raising thoroughbreds, a term often reserved for carefully trained, well-bred horses. Nestled in the knobs of southern Kentucky, however, is a thoroughbred farm for blown films: Danafilms of Franklin, Ky.

First established in Marlboro, Mass., in 1970, Danafilms (named after founder and president/chief executive officer Sherman Olson’s youngest daughter, Dana) was guided by three simple principles: innovation, integrity and hard work. Nearly four decades later, those same fundamentals continue to steer the $64 million custom film manufacturer serving a number of diverse applications, including: lawn and garden, pet food and supplies, food packaging, electronic packaging and industrial products such as films, tapes or release liners.

“We base our products on customer needs,” says Steve Crimmin, sales manager at Danafilms. “We’re a custom film house and we discuss with our customers what their needs are. What does this film have to do? If there’s an existing film, what would make it better? And based on their feedback and our ability to blend resins together, we would create a product.”

The secret to building a successful custom film company isn’t just a crash course in customer service or Blown Film 101, however. Danafilms’ story is a lesson in good business practices like leveraging the best technology available, making strategic headway in new markets and motivating one of your best assets: the employees.

Danafilms' latest coextrusion, X5537, has quickly risen to the top since being introduced late in 2007. The plain polyester, teamed with Danafilms' EVOH coex, offers five to 10 times greater barrier over the PVDC it set out to replace.

‘The Art of Blown Film'

In working with customers to develop a film with a specific purpose, Danafilms takes a methodical, almost scientific approach to creating every one of its products. Truth be told, though, while there may be a science to Danafilms’ methods, an understanding of its medium-the way a painter understands his canvas-is equally important to the process.

“You have to understand the science of making the film and that you’ve got a molten bubble that’s going out into ambient air,” explains Crimmin. “That means the knowledge as to how the polymer’s going to react in the air, knowing what to do, how to adjust the machine. We go with as much automation as possible, but you still have to know what the conditions are and how to make adjustments for those conditions. That’s why we look at it as ‘The Art of Blown Film.’”

Unlike an artist’s multiple recreations of a single work, Danafilms’ high-quality, customized “art” can be replicated on a consistent basis because it uses the most current technologies gained through an aggressive course for expansions and improvements at its two plants in Franklin, Ky., and Westborough, Mass., about 30 miles west of Boston.

“The philosophy of Danafilms has always been to put money back into our company,” says general manager Alan Simoncini. “Because of that, we’re able to afford and buy the best [equipment].”

Although the supplier considers its 50,000 square foot, 25 acre Franklin facility the “showcase” location, Westborough received the most recent upgrades in the form of a new Gloucester Engineering blown film line in summer 2008, the company’s 15th line.

Last year’s upgrades at the Westborough plant accomplished one important, ongoing goal at Danafilms to ensure timely delivery of a better, more consistent product every time. “We were already known for the high quality of our polyethylene films, but we’re always aiming higher. Our goal is to constantly improve the customer’s efficiencies and throughput,” says Crimmin.

Besides adding five million pounds of capacity, the Gloucester Engineering system incorporated several state-of-the-art features, giving substance to Danafilms’ commitment to leverage the best technology available.

At the heart of the new line is an Autoprofile automatic air ring gauge control system that monitors and corrects the thickness of the blown film as it exits the die, keeping the product in extremely tight tolerances: +/- 4%, and in most cases, even better (the day I toured the Franklin plant, the tolerance there was holding pretty steady at 1.2% on the Windmoeller & Hoelscher coex line). The controller adjusts the thickness of the film by firing heated air from 96 heating components at exact locations on the surface of the bubble. Partnered with an Extrol microprocessor and an online thickness gauge, the heating components thin the bubble wall where required, guaranteeing consistency and improving Danafilms’ already tight tolerances by up to 40% over non-automatic gauge control lines.

Other up-to-date aspects of the computer-controlled extrusion line include: 

• Internal bubble cooling (IBC) increases Danafilms’ own throughput and ensures the extruder can keep pace with increasing demand. 

• A gravimetric blending system mixes resins by weight to provide better consistency than if resins were measured and blended by volume (since resins have different densities). A superior consistency of blend translates not only into better appearance but improved throughput and more consistent coefficient of friction on a converter’s line, too.

In addition to installing the Gloucester Engineering blown film line, Danafilms made further plant improvements in Westborough by retrofitting oscillating haul offs on three other blown film lines. Mounted at the top of an extrusion line, an oscillating haul off removes film from the extrusion line, rotates (or oscillates) the substrate in 360 degrees to distribute any gauge imperfections and allows the product to exit as a flat web. This technically involved step ensures customers that ever-important roll consistency, protecting against snags in printing presses or a converter’s line later in the film’s life.

Kent King, one of 32 experienced employees at Danafilms' Franklin, Ky., plant, works on Line Two, a monolayer blown film line manufactured by Gloucester Engineering. The 24/7 plant is temperature controlled, held at about 80°F. throughout the year, for employee comfort and manufacturing consistency.

Coextruding excellence

In 2005, Danafilms entered the coextrusion scene by installing a Windmoeller & Hoelscher 7-layer blown film line at its Franklin plant. As with any expansion into new marketplaces, Danafilms needed to clear barriers to entry, including equipment costs and the learning curve associated with new technologies, raw materials and principles to master.

So why would Danafilms-with more than 39 years of excellence in customized polyethylene solutions-make this move?

“In the marketplace, we think coextruded films have a better margin upside than monolayer films, the competition is not as great as monolayer,” explains Crimmin. “It also gives us the opportunity to bring more value to our customer.”

As Aaron LaPointe, the coextrusion technical manager hired to provide his expertise to Danafilms’ new venture in 2005, explains, “Putting multiple layers of various polymers together allows you to make a more versatile film. One example might be polyester laminated to a metalized polypropylene or metalized polyester and then a third piece of the structure, traditionally a monolayer sealant film. You may use a barrier coex, like an EVOH [ethylene vinyl alcohol] coex and you can eliminate that center layer.”

In principle, LaPointe’s explanation seems easy enough to pull off, but in practice, all hands were required on deck to bring coextrusion in line with Danafilms’ exacting standards. For months upon months, LaPointe and the coextrusion line operators in Franklin performed countless trial runs on the new machine, putting the machine through its paces, and at times, testing the patience of the operators responsible for disassembling and cleaning dies, an all-too-frequent event after test sessions.

Before long, LaPointe recounts, the cringing operators had a new, tongue-in-cheek name for him when he walked in the door: “The Grim Reaper.” Gradually, though, The Grim Reaper and the employees at Franklin mastered the learning curve and the pursuit of a perfect, nearly elusive coextrusion resulted in a huge, but almost anonymous-sounding payoff: X5537.

Explains LaPointe, “We addressed a common lamination which would be polyester coated with PVDC [polyvinylidene chloride], laminated to a monolayer sealant film, commonly used in snack packaging. Converters don’t really love the PVDC polyester as it’s quite expensive when compared to uncoated polyester, but it does provide barrier protection of the package contents. Also, it has kind of an undesirable odor and it presents some printing challenges that they don’t see with uncoated polyester. It also has a tendency to discolor or have an off color, kind of a yellowish tinge. So we developed an EVOH coex that would actually offer, depending on gauge, five to 10 times the oxygen barrier of the coated polyester lamination. This EVOH would allow plain polyester to be laminated to our EVOH coex.”

Danafilms introduced X5537 in December 2007 and began heavily marketing the new product between first and second quarter 2008. Not surprisingly, the lamination quickly became Danafilms’ top EVOH film to date and helped the company gain new business with existing customers while simultaneously creating new business with new customers.

Quality-minded employees

Danafilms ensures continued success with a thorough understanding of its processes, regular upgrades to state-of-the-art technology and reliance on one vital X Factor, the asset that stands out from all the rest and walks in the door every day: the employees.

Between Danafilms’ two plants, the company employs 93 people (61 in the Westborough plant and corporate offices, 32 at the Franklin plant) and the average Danafilm employee has been with the company for more than 10 years. At the Franklin location, many workers have a minimum of 20 years in the film manufacturing industry. The result is, of course, a close-knit, highly experienced group.

The company’s continued investments in new equipment also helps keep morale high. “Our people are excited to have the latest and greatest tools,” LaPointe says. “The better the equipment we put on the production floor, the more efficiently they can do their job of producing good quality film. With the newer technology-gauge control for example-they don’t have to fight with the equipment.”

Simoncini adds, “The computer age has given them answers. They can bring up on a screen so many different things that they want to look up and it will tell them if they’re having problems, where the problems are and they can solve it much quicker. A lot of us are from the old school who have been cranking on dies and making adjustments manually. And now your equipment tells you where your problems are. That’s great.”

To ensure that the company’s employees remain as current as the technology they’re operating, “All of our employees are put through a specific training program,” says Crimmin. LaPointe adds, “We’re ISO 9001:2000 certified at both locations.”

For their expertise that is an integral part to the company’s continued success, Danafilms employees reap attractive rewards, including above-average starting pay (for comparable jobs in the area), explains Dan Lowdermilk, plant manager at Franklin.

“We’re a privately-owned, ESOP [employee stock-ownership program] company,” says Lowdermilk. “So the employees have a vested interest in making the company successful.”

Danafilms consistently invests in state-of-the-art technologies, like this gauge inspection unit, to maintain tight quality control on all its blown film lines.

Handling future

Lately, Crimmin has noticed the “green” trend-material reduction and recycling alike-but as far as Danafilms goes, that’s yesterday’s news.

“We have been downgauging films for the last 15 years,” explains Crimmin. “And that falls right into the reduce area of sustainability. In terms of making blown film, we’ve offered a product line made from recycled scrap forever.”

But that doesn’t mean Danafilms, a nimble company with the know-how and authority to get things done, has got all the environmental issues licked.

Says Crimmin, “The one area that I see some difficulty in is getting a truly biodegradable resin which will perform equally to what we’re using now at a comparable cost. There are a number of different resins on the market, but you want to find something that’s going to have the same strength, the same optical properties and same sealing characteristics as what you have now.”

According to LaPointe, though, Danafilms is getting closer and closer to this goal.

“Obviously, as a company, we’re always looking for ways to become greener,” says LaPointe. “We’re starting to see more requests from customers and end users, who are usually not our customers directly, even Wal-Mart, for instance. There’s a big push, but we’ve actually been working in that area for awhile now.”

For the time being, though, expert downgauger Danafilms may find some difficulty in selling certain aspects of sustainability.

“I think people like the biodegradable feature. It’s more difficult to sell the reduction and recycling feature,” says Crimmin. “In my mind, [biodegradable] is really more practical. Including the word ‘bio’ in there, it makes everything green.”

While Danafilms may require some time to master and capitalize on biodegradable technologies, Crimmin leaves no doubt that the supplier stands ready to flourish in the movement to greener flexible packaging, especially stand-up pouches.

“We can use both of our technologies, monolayer and coextrusion, to participate in that market,” says Crimmin. “That is a trend we just see that’s continuing to grow, especially with some of the different pouches that are coming out with attachments, zippers, spouts. It’s just a real exciting marketplace.”

Gloucester Engineering

Windmoeller & Hoelscher
800-854-8702 x204;

Danafilms' W&H Varex coextrusion line is one of the most automated lines in the country.

Walking the floor at Franklin

Danafilms’ Franklin, Ky., plant occupies 47,000 square feet and houses four blown film lines: three monolayer machines and a 7-layer coextrusion line, one of the most automated lines around. Except on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the lines run 24/7 and need only six workers (one to each monolayer line, two for the coextrusion system and one supervisor) per 12-hour shift to operate. Each blown film line generates rolls 12 to 40 inches in diameter (up to 48 inches for coextruded films).

When it’s time for preventive maintenance, the same operators that lay claim to a roll from start to finish jump right in, keeping each machine operating at peak capacity and efficiency.

Danafilms uses 30 different resins to create the variety of films it offers. The eight most popular materials are stored in silos outside along the railcars carrying inbound material to the plant. Less-frequently used resins are shipped and stored in gaylords and corrugated boxes.

Danafilms designed the plant for much-anticipated expansion. When the time comes, the company will open up the factory’s back wall and build a mirror image (minus the front office) of the existing structure. Says plant manager Dan Lowdermilk, “They put a lot of thought into designing this building for expansion.”