Photography by Daniel Vaughan
Stretching into Global Markets with Belleville-made Film
Taking a mid-summer drive in rural Hastings and Prince Edward counties, it’s hard to miss the big marshmallows sprinkled throughout the hay fields. These white stretch film-covered round hay bales are important to dairy farmers. The bales are wrapped when they reach a moisture level of 45 to 50 per cent – the optimum moisture level to prevent mould growth and to encourage milk production when fed to dairy cattle throughout the year.
It takes research to identify optimal moisture levels, but there’s also research conducted on the bale wrap itself to ensure it is as effective as possible. Belleville-based Sigma Stretch Film makes bale wrap, among other stretch film products, and Sigma conducts some of its research on new agricultural products on local farms, including one near Picton.
The Belleville Sigma facility, located on Jamieson Bone Road in the city’s industrial park, is one of five North American stretch film producers under the Sigma Plastics Group umbrella. The others are all located in the U.S.A. (New Jersey, Kentucky, California, and Oklahoma).
Belleville’s plant manager, Kevin McCaughen, was responsible for opening the plant back in 2000. He and an engineer got things up and running, and he happily reminisces about the early days. “It was an old fibreglass plant,” he says. “I’d actually worked in it as a labourer in my 20s. It was just an empty building. We had to clean the whole place, install rail sidings; we built it from the ground floor up.”
Starting with a 55,000 square-foot facility, Kevin was advised by his New Jersey head office at the time he could expect to run two or, at most, three lines. Production has greatly outpaced expectations, with eight large lines and another eight small lines currently running – and there’s room for two more lines if needed. The majority of the 150 employees work in production and keep the facility operating 24-hours a day, seven days a week, year-round to meet demand. The only shutdown is for Christmas and Boxing Day.
Sigma Stretch Film products made in Belleville can be found throughout North America, Scandinavia, Japan, Russia, and Australia. Rolls of the wrap are shipped out from the Belleville plant in 40-foot cargo containers, and there are usually 880 rolls per container.
Sigma makes both agricultural and industrial wraps using two different manufacturing processes. Cast film is strictly used to make industrial products like pallet wrap. Blown film, on the other hand, can be made into both agricultural and industrial products.
All Sigma products begin with polyethylene resin, which is brought in by rail car and pumped into silos on the plant property. There are different blends of resins – different grades and different melt indexes. “We draw from the silos into our lines,” says Kevin. “Some of our lines have five extruders with four hoppers on each extruder. We can blend four different resins in that extruder. Having five extruders, it gives us the capability of making a wide variety of different products. If the customer wants the cling – the sticky part of the film – on the inside, we can make that. If they don’t want cling on the inside, we can move that cling layer to the outside, so it gives us a lot of capabilities to make different films.”
Blown film is a stronger type of stretch film that’s produced as a bubble. The resin goes into the extruder at between 450° and 525° Fahrenheit, goes out through a tubular-shaped die and is pulled through a nip that is about 50 feet in the air. “The film gets cooled as it comes out of the die at about 38° Fahrenheit,” says Kevin. “It goes up through the tower, comes down and goes into a big winder. We separate the front of the bubble from the back of the bubble. That film is a lot stronger because we pull the molecules not only in the machine direction, but the transverse direction. It’s very important the film is wound at the right temperature, at the right draws (speeds). Sometimes you need to relax the film, other times you need to pull it a little bit tighter.”
Cast film comes out of a die. “The cast die is a 124-inch die. It’s like a clear sheet of glass,” says Kevin. “We run it anywhere from 1,000 to 1,400 feet a minute. Where the die is and where it goes through the gauge control is only about 15 feet. You bring it out and cool it immediately. You set up your knives in the winder to the widths you want. With cast film, we’ll run positive draws – 20, 30, 40 feet from the die to the winder.”
Adds Kevin, “The thing about stretch film is when you stretch it, it wants to return to its original state. That’s what you want. You want it to cling and contain the load.”
A core group of Belleville Sigma employees has been there since the plant opened. There is, however, significant turnover at the entry level. It’s hard work that involves standing for long periods in a hot environment and, although Sigma offers employees on-site training with competitive pay, benefits, and pension plan options, it’s not always enough to keep people longer term. As a member of the Quinte Manufacturers’ Association and Belleville Chamber of Commerce, Kevin says the retention of entry level employees seems to be a common challenge in industry, both locally and globally.
“Unfortunately, what’s happened over the years is that a lot of young kids don’t what a career in manufacturing,” says Kevin. “I’ve been in manufacturing since I was 14. I started working at a shoe factory – Brown Shoe in Stirling – because my father was the office manager there. I went to Queen’s and Loyalist. I ended up back in manufacturing. I started with Mobil in 1988 at 28 years old. I started as an operator on the floor and I worked my way up.”
“When I came over here from Barrie Plastics, I was 39 years old and I was the assistant unit manager over there. I had a good paying job. People asked, ‘Why would you want the headache of a start-up?’ How many times in your life do you get to build a plant from the ground floor up? It was a challenge for me. It was fun. It’s still fun.”
It has also been very rewarding for Kevin to lead the significant growth of the Belleville Sigma plant and he speaks about that with pride. “With only being here 19 years and going from 28 million to 128 million pounds of product, it’s good growth,” says Kevin. “We’ve created a lot of employment. We’ve put a lot of money back into the community. We have high-end jobs, but we also give people who might only have grade six or grade eight education a chance to work at a good job with benefits. Right now, we’re scrambling to get people at the entry level, but we have a solid group on each of the four swing shifts who have been here for many, many years.”
Despite the public call for a reduction in single use stretch films for the benefit of the environment, Kevin is confident demand for his products will remain strong. “Anybody who ships anything in this day and age needs to wrap it,” says Kevin. “It’s very cheap, it’s economical, and it does a very good job compared to older strapping.” Also, the Sigma products are recyclable, notes Kevin. In fact, he recently hired someone to help assess recycling options for the Sigma wraps. At the same time, Kevin and his vice-president of manufacturing, also an engineer, are developing and testing new formulations for bale wrap that are a lighter gauge than the current standard, meaning there will be less stretch film to dispose of.
Adds Kevin, “A lot of companies are looking at biodegradable (material); if it does go into landfill, it breaks down in a year instead of 50 or 100 years. There’s a lot of research and development going on behind the scenes.”
Sigma prides itself on its customer service, focusing on creating the best packaging for each application and improving packaging efficiencies for clients. At the Sigma plant in Belleville, Kevin is both enthusiastic and optimistic when asked about the future. “The future is very bright for Sigma.”