10 billion feet … and count | Plastics technology

Humble beginnings … If processors were asked to trace their roots today, many would use those words. Advanced Drainage Systems (ADS) is no different. It was launched in 1966 in Wilmington, Del., By Ron Martin and Marty Sixt, two engineers who grew up on farms and knew a thing or two about maximizing crop yield through better water management. Together they modified old extruders – “putting parts and parts together” as Brian King, Executive Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at ADS put it – and laid the foundation for the still burgeoning plastic pipe market by creating a company based on HDPE corrugated pipe as an option for clay tiles in agricultural water distribution.

In the years that followed, ADS added talent, technology and facilities. It moved to Ohio in the early 1970s and began adding works in the county that were within 300 miles of hot markets for construction. ADS also began training civil engineers, commercial and residential builders, and anyone else involved in construction and infrastructure about the advantages of plastics over established steel and concrete products for water management.

Today ADS is one of the largest manufacturers of drainage pipes worldwide due to the organic growth that is driven by product developments, acquisitions of competitors such as Hancor and the consistent focus on truly sustainable development. Headquartered in Hilliard, Ohio, the company is now a publicly traded company with 65 plants in North America (and three in South America through a joint venture), more than 5,000 employees, an extrusion capacity of approximately single-digit growth that brings annual sales to 1.9 Brought in billions of dollars. It estimates it has more than 10 billion ft of pipes in service around the world.

ADS N12 HDPE corrugated pipe is used for rainwater management and agricultural tile systems.

The company has an unknown number of extrusion lines across the country, in-house development of tools that are built by its tooling suppliers, and injection molding capabilities to manufacture pipe fittings. It has expanded its line of corrugated pipe products – which probably includes the first corrugated PP pipe ever – with what ADS calls related products – retention / retention chambers made of extruded PP, basins, sewage treatment plants, special pipe products, water quality units and a Variety of connections and fittings. ADS also operates its own fleet of trucks, which strengthens its service platform for its customers.

“We have had a variety of investors and leadership changes over the years, including being an Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP),” notes King. “Our growth has been mostly organic, resulting from the development of new products and the addition of new plants. One of the breakthrough products came in 1987 when we introduced N-12 corrugated double-walled HDPE pipe with a smooth inner wall to improve water flow. We extrude a green stripe onto our corrugated pipe, which has become an iconic symbol and representation of our brand, signaling to customers that they are working with an ADS pipe. We have also made acquisitions, of which 2005 Hancor was the largest with 15 plants in North America. “

ADS went public in July 2014, a move King believes put ADS on a rapid growth path and in a better position to attract top talent. “As a public company, we have easy access to capital,” he notes. He specifically cites ADS ‘acquisition of Infiltrator Water Technologies in 2019 as something that “probably wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t gone public”. Infiltrator manufactures PP-based leach field chambers and systems, septic tanks and accessories, primarily for use in residential areas. Prior to the acquisition, Infiltrator was a 15 year old customer and supplier to ADS.

ADS sells its products through a network of distributors and in large home improvement centers. In some cases this can be seen as a bit risky as it puts a third party between the company and the end users. This could be of concern in the markets ADS serves, where, as King notes, “plastic is still the newcomer to the block” compared to some other materials like concrete and corrugated iron tubing. “But our distributors are our partners and do not stand in the way of establishing and maintaining our relationships with end customers. We usually share new product designs and prototypes with them because their input is invaluable. “

He continues, “Our sales people and distribution partners work together, which is critical to JIT and the ability for the customer to get the right products from a single source. And we have people – in sales, engineering, product development and other areas – who speak to our sales partners, engineers, contractors and local government officials on a daily basis. “

These relationships benefit ADS today as residential and commercial construction is booming. King says, “The main drivers we pursue for our business – commercial construction, infrastructure, housing – are all positive. During the pandemic, we were concerned about the commercial sector for a while. But that bounced back when we saw warehouses and large manufacturing plant projects kick off as companies get serious about supply chain streamlining and reshoring. “

ADS extrudes corrugated tubing in a variety of diameters and lengths.

There are also opportunities for ADS with an upcoming national infrastructure law. King comments, “Plastic pipes are a sustainable product. It’s faster to install and has a better value proposition than competing materials. The term “resilient infrastructure” has appeared many times in discussions about what is in the bill. We have to dismantle resiliently, and we believe that plastic pipes are the most resilient solution. ”

Recycling works

ADS sees its ability to “make money off of post-consumer recycled material” as a big difference between ADS and its competitors. Since 2007, ADS has granted more than 30 patents in the field of recycling and literally sets the standard for the use of post-consumer HDPE in corrugated pipes and develops guidelines together with industrial groups. The purchase of Infiltrator has increased the amount of recycled material that ADS will use to approximately 550 million pounds / year. .

ADS started recycling by buying scrap from third parties, including other processors. ADS Recycling now operates nine recycling plants across the country, in which both old and industrial scrap are processed. “But getting recycled material is still a challenge,” says King. “If we could include more in our manufacturing process, we would. In fact, we want to double the amount of recycled material we use in our products without limiting the amount of virgin material we use. “

“We want to double the amount of PCR that we contain in our products without limiting the amount of virgin material we operate.”

In particular, ADS is looking for additional sources for post-consumer PP and has joined The Recycling Partnership to support these efforts. The Recycling Partnership is a national not-for-profit organization that works with communities and businesses to improve recycling systems. Financing partners include a wide variety of materials companies, processors, brand owners and retailers.

ADS recycles more than £ 500 million annually and aims to double that amount.

Manufacturing strategies

In total, ADS has 20 different product categories and thousands of SKUs, considering that its products can be ordered in a variety of lengths and diameters. This can complicate matters even for a manufacturing facility of the size and scope of that business. “Whenever and wherever we can, we like to turn on machines and keep them running for as long as possible,” says King. “But we don’t always manage that. Demand changes. The challenge for our operations team is how you can support manufacturing as demand changes. How do our customers get the products they need when they need them most profitably and economically? “

“Today the demand is pretty high and any product that comes off the line is most likely going to be sold and given to someone right away.”

Typical runs at ADS can take days. Manufacturing is set up with product wheels, and at ADS this means that orders smaller to larger (in diameters) and longer to shorter (in lengths) are planned in order to minimize changeovers. Some systems run 24: 7. Most pipe ADS extrudates consist of a monolayer of several material mixtures. King says ADS is doing some coextrusion, but more multi-layer structures could be in sight.

He explains: “We are always looking for a better product, a more comprehensive package and system. We look at market segments in which we are not sufficiently penetrated compared to metal and concrete. There are structural loads in certain applications. So how do you use plastic in these applications? This is where coextrusion can come into play. “

Operator fixes sealed HDPE corrugated pipe with iconic green line.

Whether one or more shifts, ADS has not inventoried any products lately. “Today the demand is pretty high and any product that comes off the line is most likely going to be sold and given to someone right away,” notes King. “If we can do it, we’ll sell it. In normal times we hold a certain amount of stock and ship from it. Distributors help by stocking certain products. “

ADS has added materials science and engineering experts to the team to translate ideas from regular field research into products. “We’re working to solve the right problems, and the best way to do that is to speak to distributors and customers and see what they do, experience the challenges they face, and share that information to develop products that solve these challenges, ”says König. He notes that in anticipation of growing demand, the company has made major investments recently in both new extruders and injection presses.

“Our bottom is water,” says King. “We catch it in some form of basin, convey it through pipes, then store it in some of our containment / restraint systems and then treat it before we release it back into the environment. This shapes our thinking about products and applications, how we manage our product categories, and even how we market. Ultimately, it will allow us to make better products and teach people what we do and how we do it. We are stewards of the environment and water. “

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