High-Tech Bottlemaker Satisfies Beer Company's Thirst For Glass

The sprawling tan building that rises from the snowy plains houses technology its owners prefer to keep under wraps. "There are certain things you can't take pictures of," plant manager Dwayne Wendler advises minutes before leading a tour of the 450,000-square-foot facility.

No, it's not a hush-hush military installation.

It's where beer bottles are born as gobs of molten glass.

Photos could reveal sensitive bottle-making technology inside the $140 million Owens-Illinois Inc. bottle plant - one that the chief executive dubbed "the most advanced and high-tech plant in the country."

Finished in 2005, it's the first such bottle plant in the nation in 25 years - a time when glass plants were shuttered while cans and plastic grabbed market share.

The facility feeds more than 1 billion bottles a year to the nation's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch Inc.

The maker of Budweiser encouraged O-I to locate the plant near its big brewery up the road in Fort Collins, Colo.

While glassmaking has roots dating back more than 2,000 years, the O-I plant relies on technology that early glassmakers could hardly have dreamed of.

Inside, five robotic vehicles use lasers to navigate while they transport stacks of freshly made amber bottles to the warehouse.

Two vast 2,500-degree furnaces melt 800 tons of crushed recycled glass, sand, soda ash and other raw materials - daily.

Such technology has sped up the process. When Wendler joined O-I more than three decades ago in Portland, Ore., production of "100 to 150 bottles a minute was fast," he notes.

Today, the rate is more than 600 bottles a minute for each machine that forms the glass.

Each day, forklift operators load bottles into dozens of tractor-trailer trucks that rumble about 18 miles across the plains to the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

Before stepping onto the Windsor plant's factory floor, Wendler advises visitors to don a safety hat, safety glasses and ear plugs.

Blue-shirted maintenance employees pedal across the concrete floor on big yellow tricycles, making sure all the machinery is working properly.

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