RANSON – As many as 300 shipping containers are stacked outside Rockwool’s new 460,000-square-foot factory and another 100 containers are scheduled to arrive in the near future.
The containers are filled with brand new industrial equipment, much of it uniquely designed and built to serve Rockwool’s own proprietary processes for manufacturing stone-wool insulation.
That equipment is steadily finding its way to and assembled in massive gleaming metal structures inside the cavernous factory.
“It’s really going to be the focus of our activity in the coming months,” said Paul Espinosa, the public affairs manager for Rockwool’s newest factory to come online.
Toward the end, red-shirted Rockwool employees and blue-jeaned construction crews, wearing reflective vests, hard hats and steel-toed boots, are working patiently, seemingly with a clear picture of the end result in mind, toward the factory’s targeted opening next spring.
Most of the building construction was completed during a visit two weeks ago to the 130-acre factory site near Kearneysville on the outskirts of Ranson. Components of a melting furnace, what the company’s employees call “the volcano,” were still being assembled.
The furnace will be essential for melting basalt rock ground into a sandy consistency and other materials used to make the foamy, fire-retardant insulation Rockwool is known for.
The factory represents an accumulation of countless “best learnings” that Rockwool employees have acquired—and encouraged to acquire—over 80 years of the company’s operations, said Peter Regenberg, Rockwool’s vice president of U.S. operations.
Continual improvements, efficiencies and waste reduction is a driving corporate philosophy and mantra at Rockwool, Regenberg said. Everything possible is recycled back into the manufacturing process, he said.
“Our goal is to have virtually nothing go back to the landfill,” he pointed out.
The factory is designed with giant lagoons that capture rainwater that falls on the site to be piped into the manufacturing process here. “The factory is actually designed so that up to 90 percent of our [water] consumption will come from the sky,” he said.
The operations at the factory will also represent a mix of human ingenuity and highly calibrated, specialized equipment, where orange warehouse robots will sort, stack and track vast numbers of custom-ordered and precisely custom-made products.
“It’s a long chain and every link needs to be strong in that chain,” Regenberg said of the company’s manufacturing processes.
Danish-born but world-traveled, Regenberg, whose first job with Rockwool was as a software developer, is now in charge of the factory’s construction, an assignment that began well before a groundbreaking ceremony took place here two years ago in June with gleaming sliver shovels, a lineup of local and statewide bigwigs, and platters of fancy finger foods.
“When we build factories, Rockwool doesn’t just have a prototype factory and say, ‘OK, here’s the stamp, this is what I must look like,’” he said. “The newest factory in the Rockwool Group is always an improvement of all the best knowledge and best learnings from all the previous factories.”
While as many pictures as anyone wants can be taken outside the factory, its processes are so proprietary and vital to the company’s competitive edge, that Rockwool won’t allow pictures taken inside.
Rockwool officials originally estimated that the factory would cost about $150 million to stand up and start the machine rolling. Regenberg said the cost of the equipment inside the factory represented about half of that estimate.
He now expects those accumulated man-hours to grow to as much as one million by the time the factory opens.
He acknowledges that the factory has blown that original budget by miles, but he declines to say how much with a smile and shrug. Past delays caused by extreme wet weather and the current coronavirus pandemic were major factors in the delays and extra costs, he said.
Regenberg simply gives a no-nod over whether persistent local activists who’ve done their best to stop the factory with protests and lawsuits have delayed the factory’s construction.
He points out that more than 650,000 hours of construction work keeps humming on-site without a single accident.
“We’re really, really proud of that,” he said. “Safety takes time but it doesn’t cost money.”
About 20 employees have been hired for the factory, Espinosa said. A new robust round of hiring to fill the roughly 150 jobs remaining at the facility is expected to begin soon, he said.
The Danish company operates 46 factories in 39 countries worldwide, from China to Croatia. Several Rockwool managers preparing to work at the factory and make their homes in Jefferson County will represent a cultural melange of people from throughout Europe and beyond, Espinosa said.
A low-key, meticulous man who radiates an engaging excitement for the job he performs, Regenberg said Rockwool looks for employees willing to be not just problem solvers but proactive problem anticipators, people who can keep the factory’s equipment running continually and efficiently, Regenberg said.
Saving a minute here, another minute or few seconds there quickly adds up for a busy facility that will operate 24 hours a day.
For that reason, unscheduled shutdowns from multimillion-dollar equipment built to last a lifetime if maintained properly are what the company places a huge premium on avoiding—just below avoiding work-site injuries, he said.
Regenberg said he understands that a segment of Jefferson County residents will always oppose the factory. He said he also hopes that those factory opponents don’t deter anyone looking for a new personal and professional opportunity from applying for a job at Rockwool.
For the right people, there are opportunities at the factory to transform lives for the better, often beyond what many might imagine, he said.