The Extruder Screw isn’t Always the Problem!

 In Extruder Screws, Preventive Maintenance & Tech Tips

For several months now I have written articles which are bits of advice that I hope can be used to improve a process issue, but this month I want to pass on an experience that happened to me several years ago.

Most of the time when there is a process issue, the plasticating screw is accused of being the first culprit! It does not matter if it is an extrusion, injection molding, or blow molding application in which the screw is used. It is like the old German saying, Der Teufel steckt im die details” or “The devil is in the details.”

Over 30 years ago, the company that I was working for designed and built a one of a kind polyethylene bag reclaim system for a customer located in Wisconsin. This was a very elaborate piece of equipment which included a crammer feeder, a dual diameter vented extruder, and pelletizing equipment. This was a first time, one of a kind project, so “bugs” were expected. The customer was advised of this, and they accepted the fact that what they were asking us to build was on the cutting edge of technology at that time.

The system was designed, built, and quickly tested but nearly not long enough to ring-out the system completely. The system was disassembled, shipped, and installed at the customer’s facility. Once the installation was completed, the “production” began! As expected, “things” happened. First, the bearing area of the screw galled in the newly “one of a kind” feed throat, the key sheared in the quill of the crammer feeder, and the vent port bled (again, the first time a dual diameter extruder had ever been vented). The last blow was when the weld on the large diameter barrel flange cracked. The entire extruder had to be disassembled to make the repair, which was repaired in the field by our company. All of these “devils” were corrected and improved, which lead to a learning experience that was never forgotten.

After the final defect was corrected, there was nothing heard from the customer for about three months; then came the “THE” call! I received a call from the company’s general manager, who was not a happy man to say the least. I could see his frustration through the phone! The reclaim system was not meeting the daily production rate which had been quoted, and he wanted me at his plant IMMEDIATELY!

I flew back to the customer’s plant, and instead of going to the main building I went directly to the Repro Building, which was across town where the “Reclaim System” had been installed. As I entered the building, I could hear the reclaim line in operation. “Joe” the day-turn reclaim operator, with whom I had befriended months before, looked at me and asked why I was back. I told him that his boss had called and was very upset because he had been reviewing the daily production reports and was not getting the production capacities which he had been guaranteed for the past two months.
Well, “Joe” had to excuse himself because he had to take the gaylord of pellets, which just had been filled by the Repro System, to the warehouse storage area using the pallet jack. While he was gone, I started to investigate the system. The very first observation that I made was that the extruder was only operating at about 75% of full speed! Therefore, I gradually started to increase the screw speed and everything increased and performed perfectly until I was able to reach the guaranteed production throughput.

After several minutes of absence, “Joe” returned with his empty pallet jack and wanted to know why I had increased the screw speed. Again, I told “Joe” that his boss had called me and was very upset because the repro production on this daily production report had not been at the capacities which had been guaranteed to him.

“Joe” looked at me, smiled, and said, “There is nothing wrong with the repro line. My fork truck broke down a couple of months ago, and maintenance has been too busy to fix it. So, now I have to pull the gaylords of pellets to the storage area with the pallet jack!”

I could not believe my ears! I went to the main facility to meet with the “boss.” As soon as he saw me walk in, I knew that I was going to get it with both barrels. After I let him vent, I asked him when the last time he had been in the Repro Building was. He said that he didn’t have time and hadn’t been over there for a few months. When I told him
what “Joe” had just told me and what I had witnessed, he would not believe me; so we took a ride across town to the Repro Building.

When we got there, he talked to “Joe” as I stood off to the side and just watched the body language. After a few minutes, looking at the floor, the “boss” walked over to me and apologized for jumping to conclusions. He asked me to send him the bill for the travel expenses and time. As far as I know, that line is still in operation today with only replacing the screw and barrels a couple of times.

The point of this story is to make sure that you ask “The 5 Why’s” and don’t jump to the first conclusion. Usually, if you ask “Why” five times, you will get to the root cause and many times “The Screw isn’t Always the Problem!”