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Glatfelter is making paper in a big way at Chaffee Crossing


Glatfelter is making paper in a big way at Chaffee Crossing

 

Glatfelter is making paper in a big way at Chaffee Crossing

To describe the state-of-the-art machinery that is now steadily making “airlaid” paper at Glatfelter, the newest manufacturing facility at Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith, start with units of “football field.”

As site director Larry Balch explains very well, not only is it gigantic, this array of equipment is kept sterile, operated mostly by automation and did we mention it’s gihungous??

What they’re making
The size of the operation is something Balch can take in stride. He retired as plant director from the Georgia-Pacific Dixie Products plant in Fort Smith. But the product and production process of Glatfelter paper made at this new, $90 million facility is quite different.

Used for personal hygiene products such as diaper wipes, the paper Glatfelter produces here is called airlaid. That also is a description of the paper-making process, he explained.

Airlaid paper is formed with a mixture of raw materials: A fluff base made from Southern pine is combined with a bi-component, a blend of polyethylene and poly propylene. 

“We mix the synthetic fiber with the fluff pulp in three different layers in the forming section and then put through an oven,” Balch said. “The polymers melt and attach to the fluff pulp. That’s what gives it its strength.” Enormous rolls of airlaid paper are the plant’s final product.

Rolls then are sent to outside companies to be wetted with various liquids, depending on the intended purpose of the wipe. It is then cut, perforated or folded for various styles of final packaging. One of those companies making the retail wipes is Rockline Wet Wipe Manufacturing in Booneville.

“In a traditional paper operation, huge amounts of water are used. Here, there is no water. It is airlaid,” he said. “It has some really nice characteristics. It’s very absorbent, holds moisture and maintains strength. The airlaid paper is a very soft, very sterile and absorbent product.”

Why Glatfelter came to Chaffee Crossing

“Fort Smith certainly knows what losing manufacturing jobs is about, but Chaffee Crossing is about new manufacturing coming to the area. I’ll give city fathers and the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority and Chamber of Commerce credit here, they’ve been working on this for two decades,” Balch said. Like the staff he leads, he had not expected to be making a new product in a brand-new plant in 2018. He didn’t know of the company as recently as three years ago.

Through teamwork that involved state, local and regional economic development marketing, the global manufacturer was sold on setting up an advanced airlaid materials plant in what had been intended to be a Mitsubishi Power Systems plant.

“It took some people with vision to know that they could develop this area and create a lot of jobs in companies that are going to be here for a long time,” Balch said.

Creating their own work culture

Balch came onboard with Glatfelter as the plant set-up was almost done. “Employees were still building the machine when I got here last October,” he said. “I never had done a start-up. I had been at a good place, the oldest plant in Fort Smith, Dixie Cup, which started in 1947. So to come to this newest plant with a brand new facility, assets and brand new people – was a huge challenge.”

Glatfelter had hired excellent people, Balch said. “We started making some product in late January and early February. We went into commercial production, or ‘continous mode,’ with a full four crews, 24/7, in March.” Balch said he helped to hire about half the 70 employees. 

“We’ve got some former Trane employees; some from Planters, Baldor – and some who have just entered the market for the first time. We have a good, diverse crew,” he said.

“They have made our culture,” he said of the employees. “We started up in a lean approach. Today, there are 12 people per shift, running a paper machine about the size of a football field. It’s very automated, with a lot of process control – employees are reading data and making decisions. We want them to think, not to just punch in. We want them to help us get better and they do. We’ve been very pleased with the workforce,” he said in praise.

As a leader, Balch wants to mentor more. Some of the employees were sent to Canada for training, then designed local training. One was made a shift leader, because she was a natural, he said.

Shift leader Tom Turner is a member of Leadership Fort Smith because the company believes in the Chamber of Commerce-led class for career and community growth.

Room to grow

“At the grand opening, our CEO was here with Gov. Asa Hutchinson and he held the ceremony out in Bay 2 of the plant, which will be the home of the next phase,” Balch said. That was done for more than convenience. It showed that Glatfelter was thinking about the future from the very beginning of the start-up.

“Probably the best story about Glatfelter is that it is about half-empty. There’s room for another paper machine. It might come in two or three years. It will absolutely happen,” Balch observed. “When you build a paper machine, it’s going to be there a long time.”


This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.



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