As a custom precision mold builder, Superior Mold specializes in aerospace, medical and other tight-tolerance parts. For more than 30 years, the Ontario, Calif.-based molder has invested in innovative, efficient equipment and process upgrades to maintain its competitive edge. No part of its manufacturing process was overlooked in the pursuit of innovation and efficiency improvements, so it was natural that the company would eventually cast a critical eye on its process cooling system. Was it a prospect for improvement?
For years, Superior Mold had been using two separate cooling systems - a 15-ton tower and a 10-ton chiller. According to the company, neither provided efficient cooling for the company’s tight-tolerance molding operation; instead, the systems ultimately added to cycle times. In addition, the tower and chiller drove up maintenance costs and caused large amounts of cleaning chemicals to be released into the wastewater.
The cooling system also wasted energy because the chiller delivered colder water than what the molder’s processes needed. After exiting the chiller, the water had to be heated for individual machines before it was used in the process.
Superior’s situation was not unique. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, an improperly maintained cooling tower produces inaccurate temperature in its cooling water. This reduces efficiency, wastes energy and increases costs. For example, a chiller will consume 2.5 to 3.5 percent more energy for each degree rise in the condenser temperature.
Further adding to the cooling system challenges was Superior’s location, directly in the path of the famous Santa Ana winds. The seasonal currents blew sand and hot air from the desert directly into the cooling tower’s water. Without complete filtration, the contaminants would find their way into the heat exchangers, machines and molds. The poor water quality and local environment made it difficult to control the cycles of concentration (blowdown), eliminate scale and maintain the quality of water - all leading to additional maintenance while taking a toll on budgets and productivity.
Executives at Superior Mold at first considered replacing the tower with an air-cooled chiller. However, Tony Codet, the company’s president, recalled reading about a closed-loop cooling system that might allow the company to save more on water, energy and maintenance. In addition, the clean process water would allow Superior to reduce downtime and thereby improve productivity.
An audit by a third-party energy consultant convinced the decision-makers at Superior Mold that the single, combined system, called Ecodry and manufactured by Frigel North America, East Dundee, Ill., could produce more savings than the alternative system being considered (the air-cooled chiller) as well as the existing tower and chiller. Ecodry, a closed-loop cooling system, uses ambient air rather than evaporation to cool process water. The system provides clean water at the right temperature to process machines year round. Following the audit, Superior Mold selected the combined system to replace its tower and chiller.
Breaking Free from Maintenance BurdensClean water was one of Superior Mold’s biggest challenges. In addition to the sands from the Santa Ana winds, leaves, pollen and other contaminants were drawn into the outdoor cooling tower, and the contaminants led to fouling and a buildup of scale on machine parts. In a molding operation, as with many manufacturing processes, the scale reduces the effectiveness of the cooling water, so the system requires more energy to cool the same part. The result was a constant need for a great deal of chemical treatment and maintenance.
The clean water of the closed-loop system, along with precise cooling water temperatures for each machine, allowed for greater efficiency and productivity, lower water consumption and less maintenance and downtime. Perhaps just as important for the company, the cooling system’s modular design offered the ability to continue meeting the company’s high-tolerance molding needs when business increases.
In all, Codet pointed to four reasons that his company chose the Ecodry from Frigel.
“The main reason we got the unit was for the water and power savings. Secondly, it gave us a competitive edge in the pricing of our products,” said Superior Mold’s president. “Third, we had lower maintenance, and finally, the way the product was designed and its high quality makes it very efficient.”
It also helped that, based on efficiency findings in the third-party energy audit, Superior Mold received a 30 percent rebate on the cost of the Frigel system from the state of California.
Following installation of the Ecodry, the system quickly began delivering operational improvements, including a 60 percent savings on energy and a 90 percent savings on water and chemicals. In addition, the equipment change-over has offered other benefits, especially for a company located in a state as eco-conscious as California. Superior no longer must discharge chemically treated water, nor must it evaporate chemicals into the atmosphere, as with a cooling tower.
One specific area of improvement was in Superior Mold’s medical process, where clean cooling water is especially important. Frigel’s closed-loop system enabled the company to eliminate its chiller yet circulate clean water to the molding machines without chemical treatment - a big requirement for the Class 100,000 clean room. The ability to replace that chiller with a unit that still meets the sanitary needs of the clean room was one of the closed-loop cooling system’s biggest selling points.
Running a cleaner, greener operation was not the only upside for Superior Mold. Ultimately, as with any business, the bottom-line improvements were the most important benefit. The increased energy efficiency and shorter mold cycle times made possible by the Ecodry, compared to the previous tower and chiller, delivered cost savings that have helped Superior Mold keep its products competitively priced. Adding the closed-loop system also has played a part in the company’s commitment to Six Sigma and ambitious process-improvement goals.
After all, Codet observed, the quest to be more competitive cannot wait for the economy to improve. “It’s essential to our survival,” he said, “so buying this unit now, while others are cutting capital spending, was an important move.”
Superior Mold anticipates a complete payback on its investment within 12 months - results that started coming to pass on “Day One,” when the new system was installed in February.