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Under Pressure – Baling nets without electricity

By Luca Achilli and Jon Khoo |

How good are you at packing a suitcase? How much can you squeeze into that carry-on luggage? Do you fold carefully or throw it all in?
In many ways, packing the discarded nets from our Net-Works project is like packing a giant suitcase full of nets (and folding them like a pro).

There’s no special treatment for the Net-Works partnership, neither do we want one. In return for a commercial price for our nets, we agree to seek to meet the same requirements as any regular Aquafil supplier, it needs to be competitive. We have to ensure that the nets are all the right kind of nylon, that they are all cleaned and also that we can pack them densely and squeeze them into a container for shipping.

The challenge: Nets: Not so Easy to Squeeze-y
The problem is that nets are anything but dense… in fact, they pretty nebulous…un-baled, 3,000kg of nets would easily fill a 40ft high cube shipping container. That’s about the same size as a 50-seater coach or school bus. To meet Aquafil’s standards, we needed to multiply this from a density of around 40kg/m3… to 200kg/m3… that’s five times as dense.

Luca Achilli, Innovation Project Manager at Interface, has been the brain behind this operation. He recalls, “I had some experience of compressing materials, but nothing quite like this, I remember thinking at the time that this would be difficult for several reasons: getting the density without electricity, bale size would be critical, getting the right straps to keep the bales together and the getting the bales from island to Cebu, to the container – all of this would be tricky.”

In addition to materials, the baler has been borne out of a combination of basic physics, prototyping and sheer determination. Our first effort was a hand-operated wooden baler based on levers, as you can see from the photo, it ended up as a four-man, eight handed baler.

The next step of the baler’s evolution was to bring in some pneumatic support… by adding a bottle jack (the same kind of device you’d use for lifting a car, compressing air to lift the jack). It was pretty effective – a kind of power squeeze. But this progress came at a price, the more you squeezed nets, the more they want to spring back and bust the bales. Also, the process was far too slow… in order to keep costs down you need a slick and speedy baling operation.

Having found a way to keep the nets in shape with strapping, attention turned back to pressing them speedily… Where would you look for inspiration?

For us, the inspiration lay in an unusual parallel. With the question crowd-sourced into Interface’s manufacturing business, Ton Van Keken, Senior Vice President for Operations (EMEA) had a thought… you use a screw-press for pressing grapes and this system had a track record of hundreds of years of tried and tested use. When you look at our latest baler you’ll see the vineyard-inspired screw-press added to the current model.

Credit also has to go to Dr Nick Hill and Amado “Madz” Blanco for their work on turning Luca’s sketches and plans into reality by working with local carpenters and metalworkers. They’ve also worked with the communities to train up the baler operators … another example of a village employment opportunity sparked by Net-Works.

Can you help us better our baler?
Have you ever encountered a problem that took creative engineering to solve? We would love to hear your stories. We are also always looking to improve our baler and the baling process, so please let us know if you have any suggestions by adding your comment below.

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