If you’re walking around your plant one day and hear an echo, you might want to listen closely.

Click Image to Enlarge

The switch to solar power helped Echo Molding slash energy costs and generate revenue. Standing on the roof of the custom molder’s Union, N.J., plant is the ownership team of (l. to r.) Gerhard Schlotterbeck, Armin Schlotterbeck, Robert Hekler, and Dieter Hekler.

If you’re walking around your plant one day and hear an echo, you might want to listen closely. It might not be the usual hum of your purring injection presses popping out parts; instead it might be a little voice giving you tips on how to be a better molder and recoup business once lost to the Chinese.

Best listen to that voice. Echo Molding Inc. (echomolding.com) started as a family-owned toolmaker in 1975 that was nudged into injection molding at the request of its customers. Now, it operates a 65,000 ft² facility in Union, N.J., where state-of-the-art machine and processing technology, an emphasis on automation, and a newly implemented project to slash energy expenses combined to help Echo charge up its business during what’s been dubbed The Great Recession.

Echo runs about 4 million lb a year of a wide range of materials but focuses primarily on PS, ABS, PP, and PC. The firm custom molds point-of purchase displays and food-service platters and utensils on 22 injection presses from Nissei America, Anaheim, Calif. (nisseiamerica.com). Every press is equipped with a robot from either Star Automation, Milwaukee (starautomation.com), or Wittmann Battenfeld, Torrington, Conn. (wittmann-ct.com). Echo employs 45 people. A single operator typically covers up to three presses at a time.

Echo’s injection machines, which range from 90 to 950 tons, “are workhorses and easy to operate,” says Gerhard Schlotterbeck, who co-founded the company with Dieter Hekler. Schlotterbeck says Echo buys a new machine about every year; its newest is an energy-efficient Nissei Ecoject FNX hybrid with servo pump drive.

The Ecoject purchase demonstrates Echo’s commitment to lowering its energy expenses in an effort to become more competitive with rival molders from low-cost countries. But perhaps a more dramatic demonstration of its green commitment came about a year ago, when the molder spent $1.6 million to convert its plant to solar energy. It teamed up with GeoGenix, Rumson, N.J. (geogenix.com), to become one of the first plastics processors in the state to go solar. The project began in December 2008 and concluded three months later. Echo installed a 231-kW system with 1320 solar panels that measure 32 × 62 in. and can put out 175W each. The installation required no roof penetration—the entire system is self-ballasted.

In the first year, roughly 20% of Echo’s power usage was derived from the sun, “but not a day goes by—not even a cloudy, rainy day—where we don’t produce at least some energy from the system,” reports Armin Schlotterbeck, son of one of the founders and part of a second-generation team that includes Robert Hekler.

Right off the bat, Echo was able to cut its annual energy bill by $38,000, which allowed it to become more competitive with the Chinese. “In our foodservice business, we used to get just the overflow, what the Chinese molders couldn’t handle, mainly because our cost structure was 17% higher than theirs” explains Robert Hekler. “Partly as a result of our decision to go solar, we’ve been able to lower our costs and more than triple that volume.”

Echo refinanced its plant to pay for the installation, and received a reduction of 0.5% from PNC Bank because the project was considered “green.” It also received rebates from both the state and federal governments totaling roughly $600,000. Under New Jersey law, the switch to solar power has also provided Echo with a new revenue stream: For every 1000 kWh Echo’s system generates, it receives from the state a Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC), which is a tradeable commodity. In the first year, Echo generated $150,000 by selling its SRECs. Echo is looking at a payback time of less than seven years on a system that is expected to have a life cycle of 30 years.

Echo has found that its earth-friendly position has had a direct sales impact as well. Says Gerhard Schlotterbeck.: “When we talk about our solar program, that has helped us gain business.”