Philip Morris USA consolidates cigarette making operations in Richmond, VA..

May 10, 2010 - Philip Morris USA's has made a $230 million investment in the giant South Richmond plant,to consolidate cigarette making operations in Richmond. "We're about 98 percent done," Eric Schardt, director of cigarette manufacturing, said about the changes at the plant, during a rarely offered tour of the secure area. "And we did it while continuing to produce product."

The investment came as Philip Morris USA, a unit of Henrico County-based Altria Group Inc., consolidated all its cigarette-making in Richmond last July, when it closed its relatively new plant in Cabarrus County, N.C. (Philip Morris USA production plant in Cabarrus County, North Carolina closed..)

With the consolidation and the modernization here, the Richmond plant now makes about 149 billion cigarettes a year. Adding to the challenge of doing everything in one place is that Philip Morris USA has launched dozens of new varieties in the past few years. It now makes 27 different kinds of Marlboros in 43 different kinds of packaging. In addition to Marlboros, Philip Morris makes 88 other kinds of cigarettes in 114 packages.

Each of the new machines in Bay 1 can produce 10,000 cigarettes a minute, using air pressure to shoot the equivalent of about 3/100 of an ounce of tobacco per cigarette into an endless tube of paper that's moving through its rollers at a rate of more than 22 mph. That's 25 percent more cigarettes per minute than the old machines, which Philip Morris still uses in Bay 3 of the plant, for the smaller runs of its less popular brands. One worker minds two of the high-speed machines in Bay 1. Each machine has its own operator in Bay 3.

Altria employed the equivalent of 4,613 full-time workers in the Richmond area as of January 1, 2010. The company won't say how many work at the South Richmond plant -- it keeps data about its production closely guarded so competitors don't get clues about its operation.

There are brand-new testing machines in the filter-making room, too. Instead of the old days when operators grabbed a handful of new filters and used calipers and a scale to see if they met standards, the new shoulder-high metal boxes can pull filters after they're made. The machines measure weight and circumference and even blow through air to check what cigarette makers call "resistance to draw," which means how hard a smoker must drag to get a puff.

A big part of Philip Morris USA's investment in the plant is information technology. The cigarette-making machines, the pneumatic feed-lines from the tobacco-storage silos in the plant's basement, and its warehouse and the other cigarette-making supplies all talk to each other all of the time -- thanks to technology.

"From the time the tobacco comes up from downstairs, to pallets of cases being loaded on the trucks, you're talking maybe an hour," Schardt said.

Related: Philip Morris adds another cigarette to Marlboro lineup by David Ress, Richmond TIMES-DISPATCH, 7/22/2009..; Marlboro its 15th variety - Blend No. 54 - menthol flavored..

Reference: Philip Morris consolidates cigarette-making operations, DAVID RESS AND JOHN REID BLACKWELL Richmond TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITERS, 5/10/2010.