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Insulating its competitive edge

Roxul's sustainability drive pays off.


April 25, 2012
by MATT POWELL, ASSITANT EDITOR

With increasing focus on the environment and concern about climate change, running a greener operation is not only good for the environment, it could make a company more competitive.

In fact, a Canadian manufacturer in Milton, Ont. is running a sustainable operation while making insulation that prevents the warm and cool energy produced by wind turbines, solar panels and other power generators from escaping your home.

A blast furnace liquifies rock, basalt and slag.

Roxul Inc., a subsidiary of Denmark’s Rockwool Insulation A/S, produces fire-proof, water resistant and energy efficient stone wool insulation made from at least 75% recycled material at its facilities in Milton and Grand Forks, BC. Product with 93% recycled material is also produced on a per project basis at an extra cost.

The company’s efforts have earned it the distinction of being the first stone wool insulation producer in the world to get certification from the US-based International Code Council Evaluation Services (ICC-ES) for innovative building materials, components and systems.

Stone wool is derived from a volcanic by-product called basalt rock. Roxul says the stone wool saves 12 times as much energy per pound in its first year as the energy used to produce it.

But the company’s sustainability credibility isn’t confined to its product. During production, it recycles waste materials, heat and water, which Roxul claims is giving it a competitive advantage.

“It’s not only about being a corporate citizen, it’s also a strategic goal,” says Ion Leoveanu, the Milton facility’s factory manager. “We like to talk the talk and walk the walk. It’s difficult to claim you’re making a product that saves energy and reduces your carbon footprint if you don’t follow those same principles in your own plant.”

Rockwool has more than 25 operations worldwide and employs more than 8,800 people in 30 countries. The company’s Canadian operations started in Milton in 1988. It acquired a second manufacturing facility in Grand Forks in 1995. By 2005, both operations were at full capacity, so it was time for some improvements.

Freshly spun wool travelling quickly along the conveyor.

By 2009, they were upgraded at a cost of more than $160 million, a project that involved reducing their environmental impact. The company cut municipal water use by 50% with a waste and rain water recycling system, an energy recycling system was installed to re-use heat needed for the manufacturing process, and a company wide, zero waste-to-landfill protocol was implemented.

“In Canada we’re very close to that,” says Leoveanu.

Even the production process is one with the environment. Not only are the furnaces powered by recycled energy, the rocks are sourced from Drain Bros., a local supplier in Havelock, Ont., a sleepy blue-collar town of 4,500 about three hours north-east of Milton.

Automation upgrades

The group produces most of its own machining and equipment through Rockwool’s engineering group in Denmark, which provides more control over the impact the machines have on the environment.

“We also have a number of proprietary technologies such as spinning, wool processing and cutting machines,” he adds.

When it comes to automating those machines, the company relies on Siemens products, which include integrated control, monitoring and communication devices.

A roller softens cured wool prior to prepare for cutting.

“There are no longer any manual operations within our manufacturing process; it’s completely automated,” says Leoveanu. “We had one manual packaging operation left, but when the plant was upgraded in 2009, we automated that process as well.”

To make the stone wool, Roxul combines volcanic basalt rock, waste and coke briquettes with steel slag. The combination is melted down in a cupola furnace ­– the same kind used in foundries to melt cast-iron and bronze ­– at 1,500 degrees C.

The melt runs out of the furnace onto a machine that spins it into fibres. Small amounts of binder and oil are added, then the wool is collected on a belt conveyor in the spinning chamber. The structure and density of the wool is adjusted before it enters a curing oven, then it’s led into cutting machines and moves on to the packaging equipment, where it’s finally ready to ship.

Off-gases collected from the cupola furnace, spinning chamber and the curing oven are cleaned in filters and after burners before they enter the chimney. Any waste materials collected during production are re-used as feedstock in future manufacturing.

Roxul says the recycled stone wool is also used as a raw material in bricks. Since 2001, the company has reduced landfill waste by 13% across the entire Rockwool Group.

“The process is truly built around the cupola furnace,” says Leoveanu. “It’s basically a blast furnace that efficiently melts down the stones and other raw materials.”

The heat makes it ideal for substituting virgin raw materials, such as rock and steel slag, with waste materials of similar chemical composition, so the same material is used multiple times.

Throughout the entire Rockwool Group more than 300,000 tonnes of waste materials have been recycled and re-used.

A robotic arm stacks packaged insulation onto pallets.

Although Leoveanu wouldn’t provide specifics about its facilities, the approximately 650,000 square-foot plant operates four shifts 24/7. The company wouldn’t provide financial information either, but according to Industry Canada, Roxul has domestic sales of at least $5 million and has sales in the US of more than $10 million.
Roxul’s insulation was tax-credit redeemable under Natural Resources Canada’s ecoEnergy Retrofit program, which provided grants of up to $5,000 for homeowners to offset renovations that lower energy costs and reduce environmental impact.

As the economy continues its recovery, Roxul is maintaining a green focus by ensuring good intentions meet reality and operations comply with final product aspirations. “We’re a corporation with manufacturing facilities around the world, but at the Canadian operations, we have our own parameters to follow and goals to achieve,” says Leoveanu. “They centre around waste elimination and reducing our carbon footprint.”

Green is on in Canada, and Roxul is right in the thick of it.

Comments? E-mail mpowell@plant.ca.

This article appears in the April 2012 edition of PLANT.