Efficient Plant Design Using Virtual Planning Tools

Uponor North America, a PEX pipe manufacturer, benefits from digital twin technology and other tools to plan for current and future growth with a huge plant expansion project. 

By Michelle Segrest, Navigate Content, Inc. – Reporting for Efficient Plant Magazine

virtual plant design
Virtual Planning Tools for Plant Expansion
PEX Pipe Manufacturing
Virtual plant design
Uponor North America plant expansion project

Jon Sillerud has spent half of his 30-year career managing new-growth projects for large manufacturing facilities. This experience has taught him valuable lessons about strategic planning. “Spending time in detailed planning is always time well spent,” said Sillerud, the vice president of operations for Uponor North America and executive leader for the biggest expansion project the company has ever undertaken. 

Thanks to continuous, long-term growth, Uponor North America made the commitment to invest in a gigantic expansion project that has included $17.4 million for new construction on a 58,000-sq.-ft. expansion on its main Apple Valley, Minnesota, campus and the $6.35-million purchase of an existing 237,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility in the nearby town of Hutchinson—located about 70 miles west of Apple Valley.

Uponor North America, which manufactures crosslinked polyethylene (PEX) pipe and related products, is growing its U. S. manufacturing operations to support continued opportunities in commercial and residential construction. It has taken only nine months for Uponor to complete the new construction project on its campus, and the company expects to begin pipe production in the first quarter of 2018. Production in the Hutchinson acquisition facility is expected to begin during the second half of 2018. The new acquisition, combined with the new construction, brings the company’s total footprint in North America to more than one million square feet. 

With such a large expansion project come specific challenges, Sillerud said, particularly with regard to space planning. The construction on the 24-acre Apple Valley campus uses the last amount of available space. Planning the layout was crucial. “First, we needed to understand the main functions we want from this space from a manufacturing standpoint,” Sillerud explained. “Then we had to have a clear understanding of what we need on the people side.”

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Digital Twin Technology Revolutionizes Virtual Plant Design

With 24/7 manufacturing operations, Uponor personnel had to take into account the actual production space, along with planning fully appointed break rooms for the employees and office space for future needs. To make the most efficient use of the space, the company worked with a general-contracting firm and a design firm that used digital-twin technology to virtually plan the space using 3D modeling. 

“There were some things we wanted to do with the layout of the new construction, specifically to improve the flow and make operations more efficient,” Sillerud explained. “By starting with a clean slate, we were able to design the new building so that we could have more optimal flow, and in some cases a safer flow, with less traffic congestion. This was a big advantage rather than simply having to fit a certain number of machines into a particular-sized space.”

Through digital technology, Sillerud and his team determined an ideal two-row layout and orientation for its extruders, which are the heart of the manufacturing process. “We found out that one configuration is far superior to the others,” he explained. “This is a fairly new learning for us, and we were able to incorporate the new learning into the new space as well as the acquired space. This helps us with efficiency and safety by providing less conflict between humans and forklifts.” 

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Digital twin technology is a dynamic digital representation of an industrial asset that enables companies to better understand and predict the performance of their machines, find new revenue streams, and change the way their business operates. Many companies produce various forms of the virtual technology. “It’s not easy to go back and change things that are already incorporated into a main manufacturing space,” Sillerud said. “It is time intensive and expensive to turn the machines 180 degrees.”

By determining the ideal flow of machines, materials, and personnel using virtual technology, Uponor will also be able to use the newer, more-efficient concept when retrofitting the Hutchinson facility, which was previously used to manufacture digital disc components. While Uponor manufactures an entirely different product, the infrastructure of the acquired building is ideal, with advanced systems already in place, such as high-capacity electrical power, high-capacity chilled water, and compressed-air systems.

Most of Uponor’s strategic planning for both spaces has been based around material flow and reducing non-value-added activities. “We are very heavy into the world of operational excellence and lean manufacturing,” Sillerud said. “So anytime we have new space, we are able to implement many new concepts which reduce waste and make us more efficient.” 

The company had to consider many priorities when designing the space with productivity and efficiency in mind. “What we’ve learned is that we need all future space to be very flexible. That means having fewer center posts. Little things like that have been considered so that the space can be easily reconfigured if needed as future demand presents itself,” Sillerud stated.

“We used a large general-contracting firm and a design firm, and they used virtual-reality tools so we could see the designs in 3D,” he said. “This technology really helps the users visualize the space, and it also helps to de-risk the construction process because you can design without conflicts between electrical, mechanical, and pneumatic lines. You can move things around virtually now to avoid having to move things physically later.”

Sillerud said that the technology is also beneficial when virtually considering aspects such as plumbing and electrical systems to ensure adequate clearance with regard to floor height and other specific variables. Looking at the 3D modeling for machine layout helps to better integrate the building’s drawings with machinery placement.

Five-Year Master Plan for Virtual Plant Design and Plant Growth

The new building and the Hutchinson facility are linked to Uponor North America’s five-year master plan. “We started out strategically looking at the projected growth for the business,” Sillerud said. “Then we brought that down to a granular level in terms of what we need for space, machines, and personnel. At the existing site, we have to look at how to configure space, based on the overall envelope of the building, that would be the most efficient use of the land that we had available. The new site—which is a 237,000-square-foot building on a 34-acre site—gives us very significant headroom for future growth.”

In addition to using strategic digital-twin tools and careful planning, Uponor made extensive use of the experience and input of the employees who work on the manufacturing floor every day. 

“It was important to get their understanding and buy-in and ideas,” Sillerud said. “This has been very helpful. They are the ones who have to live it every day. We have a very collaborative continuous-improvement culture here at Uponor. In the past five straight years we have been named one of the top workplaces in the state of Minnesota. We work together very openly. It’s just natural for us to work together. We don’t work in silos.” 

Change management is part of every large project, continued Sillerud, who has spearheaded two new greenfield construction projects for large plants, nine plant closures, and four brownfield projects. “I have a lot of experience dealing with growth,” he said. “The more you can communicate and involve people with the change, the more they feel that they are part of the change rather than feeling that the change is happening to them. Through the planning and execution process, it’s very much a cross-functional team effort involving production, maintenance, engineering, facilities, EHS, quality, IT—all functions were represented to be able to optimize our plans and then the execution.”

Factory Expansion in Hutchinson Using Virtual Planning Tools

The Hutchinson building already has the benefit of solid manufacturing infrastructure. 

“The envelope of this building works quite well for us,” Sillerud explained. “We are able to renovate certain portions inside to get the process-specific infrastructure that we need for mixing and tooling, quality labs, etc. We are able to convert the building quite easily to be very well suited for our needs. We will now have the ability to continue our profitable growth and provide more opportunities for our people as we grow. We are also excited about the ability, with these new spaces, to do layout and other organizational things in a more efficient manner than we’ve been able to do in the past.”

Even with a good existing manufacturing infrastructure, the company was able to find opportunities to design improved flow and processes. In addition to the forklift-only aisles, all IT systems have been coordinated with the multisite manufacturing scheme. “This is something you can do when you have a wide-open canvas to work with,” Sillerud said.

“Because of the five-year master plan, we were able to project into the future where all the additional assets would reside. That really helped us from a layout standpoint. We had to design with a fast-forward of five years and knowing what will be there. We had to begin with the end in mind. This kind of planning will pay huge dividends for us.”

Originally published in Efficient Plant, January 2018 (Updated November 2019)

Michelle Segrest is President of Navigate Content, Inc., a full-service content creation firm. She has been a journalist for more than three decades and specializes in covering the people and processes that make a difference in the industrial processing industries. Contact her at

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Uponor North America, a PEX pipe manufacturer, benefits from digital twin technology and other tools to plan for current and future growth with a huge plant expansion project.

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