AUBURN – Designing a container to ship sodium cyanide halfway around the world isn’t that tough for the staff at Wrangler Corp.

In fact, their patented Orca containers have been getting the job done for months for Dupont, the chemical company that uses the poisonous compound in its mining operations in Africa.

The challenge now for the 20-year-old company is to refine that container – and others like it – using a new technology that could double production within two years. Last week, Wrangler was awarded $320,000 from the Maine Technology Institute to help with those R&D costs.

“We use high-tech materials to make packaging lower weight, which in turns lowers the customer’s freight costs,” said John H. Lapoint III, president, picking up a sample panel of the material the containers are made from.

The slat-shaped panel is fashioned out of composites joined in a honeycomb pattern that are fused between two layers of woven synthetics. Light as a feather, the panel has the strength of plywood.

A container made of this material and capable of shipping 300 gallons of water would weigh 42 pounds; a comparable, conventional container made out of plywood would weigh about 200 pounds. And, as an added plus, the Wrangler containers are collapsible and reusable.

“The idea is that the customer sees freight savings, packaging savings and can reduce their disposal costs,” said Lapoint.

He and his team are using the MTI money to buy equipment that will let them harness a new technology used in the aeronautics and automobile industries. With it, they hope to design a hinge function into the walls of the containers that will allow panels to be bent repeatedly without breaking. The added flexibility means they can design new containers for specific clients.

“The market is very large,” said Lapoint. “We tend to be specialists, but our customers share the same concerns.”

Some of their containers are being tested by the Department of Defense and Exxon-Mobil to ship commodities as diverse as water contaminated with bird flu to spent catalysts from oil refineries.

The company has pioneered several packaging innovations. The panel with the strength of plywood could equal the strength of steel if carbon were incorporated into the outer layers.

Lapoint demonstrated another container made of four composite panels that snap together and then into a specialized base for stability. After the container has been emptied, the panels fold flat onto the base and can be reused.

Some of the containers have a life span of 50 uses vs. the two or three uses for conventional plywood containers. Lapoint said he encourages customers to return the composite containers to Wrangler for a rebate, since the materials can be separated and recycled.

“We didn’t intend to be green, but it’s been a beneficial byproduct of this technology,” said Lapoint.

He said their in-house analysis projects a savings of 48 percent in a client’s total packaging costs if they use the composite, collapsible containers.

“If a customer spends $2.5 (million) to $3 million in packaging per year, it means that within a year and a half, they’re looking at a potential savings of $1 million,” said Lapoint. “That’s significant.”

He’s optimistic that the R&D on the hinge technology will bear fruit soon. The $2 million project has been in the works for seven years; a patent attorney will be visiting within a couple of months.

Once the technology is refined and incorporated into the manufacturing operation, Lapoint said he expects the First Flight Drive company will increase annual production from about 110,000 containers to 250,000 within two years. That means between 75 and 100 new jobs within a five-year window.

“I guess you could say this is the calm before the storm,” he said.

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