Sunfiber means success

The name ‘Sunfiber’ may not be familiar to everyone, but around Chester County, it’s another word for “success.” The plant located outside of Richburg continues to expand their building spaces and continues to expand their number of employees.
Sun Fiber produces PET (a plastic material in the polyester family) stable fiber. The fiber is used in clothing, furniture and hypoallergenic stuffing for pillows. Sun Fiber makes this material from plastic bottles, drink bottles or water bottles.
Vice President of Administration Chris Winters recently provided an update on the construction and the hiring process. He began with celebrating not only his own company’s success, but that of many Chester County industries.
“With Giti Tire across the road from us and Jones-Hamilton down the road, these are all very positive things for Chester County. We’re very excited about all the announcements, whether big or small, or new industry or existing industry. It’s still a benefit across the board.
As for us, we are currently sitting at 75 full time associates. We’re nearing the end of our construction. What some people have called our “parking deck” is getting walled in and looks more like a manufacturing facility now. We are trying to button up the last components of our construction and we are finalizing the last components of our equipment installation.
“If all goes to plan, by the end of this month, were going to try bump some motors in our existing structure. Again, all of our equipment is custom and completely brand new so the commissioning and testing phases of that equipment might go very smooth, or we might have some hurdles,” Winters said.
Depending on how well the “dry tests” go in the existing building, 30 days later, they will make similar tests in the “tower” portion of the plant.
“We’ll start turning on some motors, turning them over and just testing to make sure everything is running the way it’s supposed to,” he said. And by the middle to end of September, construction will be completed and Winters expects the plant will conduct some “wet” tests.
“We’ll be just running some product through the plant and make sure everything flows the way it’s supposed to. If that goes to plan, in October or the first part of November, we’ll be running in production. Production will take place in 2015, barring any catastrophic concerns,” he said.

Associates and the future of youth apprenticeships at Sunfiber
“We’re still on track to have about 170 associates. We’re looking at 120 on the floor. We are trying to lay out our shifts; we are a 24/7 operation and we will be running four shifts. We are trying to identify positions for our existing folks, to get a understanding of where the holes in our personnel may be.
“Sunfiber is a growth-from-within organization so we want to ensure that our associates are given the opportunity to find their long-term home here. As more associates come in and as we get closer to production, we’re offering them the same opportunity, but we really want to ensure we give that opportunity to the people who’ve been busting their knuckles from the beginning putting this stuff together. We are where we are because of our associates,” Winters said.
Sunfiber has also been the first Chester County industry to come on board on the school district’s youth apprenticeship program, which is dependent on the cooperation of the school district, York Tech and local industries.
Winters said their workforce will have to be trained. Eighty percent of the material they will produce comes from China.
“No one around here is familiar with the process; no one around here is familiar with how to make the product we make. So with the understanding that we have to train our workforce, something like the apprenticeship program actually drives home preparing the next generation of that workforce, whether it’s for us, or any other industry around here. The program is going to provide the youth of the county an understanding of what it truly means to be in today’s manufacturing world,” Winters said.
“The level of technical expertise, from a maintenance or a production operator’s standpoint, is a whole lot higher than it was in previous generations. With all due respect to those who have come before us, the more we can integrate technology into our production, the leaner it can become, the safer it can become. We need to ensure we have a workforce prepared to handle that equipment,” he said.
Winters said unfortunately, Sunfiber will not be able to partner up with the youth apprenticeship program for this phase of production, “but the timing on that is really nicely aligned for Phase II. Once we can get an understanding of the process, once we can get these first production lines up and running, the sooner we can step into that next level of partnership with them,” he said.
Winters said the exact training that Sunfiber will provide for the apprentices has yet to be determined as all of the plant’s processes are new. “We’re still building the airplane while we’re flying it, but ultimately the youth apprenticeship is a program that I have a lot of personal drive and attention towards, because Chester is my home. Any program that will keep youth here, give them a venue for a well-paying job and build the next generation in this county, I’ll stand by that.”

Sunfiber hiring employees, not job-seekers
“As far as hiring associates right now, we’re looking for some skillsets that are required. Right now we are doing interviews for shift production supervisors. As we morph from construction to production, our focus has been on what is tagged a ‘general laborer.’ I’m not a fan of that term as it exists in this role, however we are limited in how we can position this. These are the folks that are kind of pushing us over the goal line – these are the folks that are aiding in the final completion of the equipment install. If you have hands on the machinery during the install, you have a sense of pride and ownership in it and you’re going to take care of it and watch over those who might not be, because if you put it together, you don’t want someone else messing it up” Winters said.
“So if you understand how the equipment goes together, you understand how to run it; if something goes wrong, you understand predictive or preventative maintenance. There’s a little piece of you in that machine. But we’re not quite at production yet, so we exist in that vacuum where as a general laborer, you might be painting one day, turning wrenches the next and pulling wire on the third day. If there was ever a time you wanted to figure out what you wanted to be when you grew up, this is it,” he said.
Sunfiber is partnered with readySC and SC Works. Prospective associates can go to those websites to begin their job search. But, cautions Winters, Sunfiber isn’t looking for people who just want a job.
“We are a growth from within company, we are driving our associates to their long-term home here. There’s a good bit of training that’s going into these positions. We look for employees, we look for team members. I don’t want somebody who’s just looking for a job. I want somebody who’s going to be here for the long haul, someone who wants to come in here and ultimately, be an integral part of this team,” he said.

Noise and other emissions at the Sunfiber plant
While the plant is in production 24/7, Winters said, there will be shipping and receiving, but he anticipates that will be during normal business hours. With regards to the noise “our investors have put a great deal of money into building up engineered controls on driving the noise or any kids of emissions down. What the actual noise levels are going to be? I’d love to give you the numbers, but I can’t. This is brand new, custom equipment, and we won’t know until we run it.
“I will tell you that our investors are great advocates of being integrated into the community. We care about our neighbors (and in fact, since we have temporary housing next to the plant, we are our own neighbors). What impacts our neighbors has a direct impact on our members as well. Whether those members are there or not, we still want to ensure that we’re trying to do as much as we can to keep noise and other emissions down,” Winters said.

By Brian Garner, Staff Reporter with The News & Reporter