By Skylar Deckoff-Jones
When strolling through the supermarket for the weekly groceries, one can easily forget the impressive infrastructure responsible for the formation of the neatly packaged food stacked in the aisles. Prior to being placed on the grocery store shelf, before it was distributed across the country, the food was escorted through a factory on a carefully engineered maze of plastic and metal belts. With specialized designs for purposes ranging from sorting to packaging, conveyor belts are the unsung heroes of modern convenience.
The plastic conveyor belt is now vital to the food packing industry; however, it comes from the humblest of beginnings. Daydreaming during one Sunday sermon, 16-year-old J.M. Lapeyre began thinking of ways to streamline his father’s New Orleans-based shrimp peeling business. He plotted a number of mechanisms to squeeze the shrimp’s tender meat from its shell. The young inventor realized this goal could be effectively accomplished with the gentle friction of rubber rollers, and he filed his first patent in 1944. However, young Lapeyre was not satisfied with merely peeling the shrimp—he dreamed of an automated process that could clean and even package the tasty crustaceans. To circumvent the standard rusty bacteria-ridden metal conveyor belts, Lapeyre conceived belts composed of modular, easily cleaned plastic. Equipped with an idea and a passion for progress, Lapeyre founded Intralox in 1971. Little did he know at the time that Intralox would spawn hundreds of patents and lead the frontier of plastic conveying solutions.
Today, Intralox serves over 60,000 long-term customers around the globe. The company’s success is likely attributed to the dedication to the southern values that Lapeyre founded the company on; Lapeyre stated that “Great companies are built on doing the right thing each and every day, and treating customers, employees, and suppliers honestly, fairly, and with respect.”
These principles are exemplified by the impressive lengths Intralox goes to serve its customers. If a factories belt breaks, for example, Intralox guarantees the shipment of a replacement belt within four hours—a valuable commitment when a conveyor belt enables the distribution of millions of dollars of product. Perhaps even more crucial than quality customer service is the employee backbone of Intralox. Ted Freed, a design engineer at Intralox, has a clear passion for the company and conveyor technologies. Freed remarks that Intralox has “done a lot with regards to how they treat their employees. In terms of benefits, they have been very generous, while many companies go the opposite direction.”
Despite having assembly plants across the globe, Intralox’s headquarter has remained in Lapeyre’s hometown of New Orleans. “The family has very direct ties to the city,” Freed explained, “Intralox has actively recruited many of the employees from this area over the decades. Intralox alone employs about 1,500 employees, and roughly 1,000 of them are here in New Orleans.” Intralox was even able to roll with the punches of devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina. “It took one week to get fundamental operations up and running. Within two weeks we were running at a satisfactory level.” Freed recalled, giving further proof of Intralox’s commitment to customer service. “It’s always had a tie to New Orleans. It’s never gonna leave New Orleans,” Freed said with a smile.
Walking onto Intralox’s main floor feels like entering a scene straight from a science fiction novel. Giant tubes crisscross above head, carrying plastic pellets of a variety of colors to huge molding machines. The automated molds effortlessly move in tandem, spewing pieces of the modular plastic conveyor belt at an astonishing rate: “800,000 square feet of modular plastic belting each month”. Employees inspect each piece before the belts are packaged into massive boxes and sent to the assembly plants. The factory operates with an impressive level of automation that would make J.M. Lepeyre proud.
Although Intralox’s success can be attributed to state-of-the art technology and committed employees, an ever-growing market for conveying technologies is also largely responsible. Since Freed joined Intralox in the early 2000s, the company has seen 300% growth in sales, primarily from countries with developing industrial needs. Intralox has also found success through its “activated roller belts”, which allow packaging of products faster than ever before. The belt’s surface is covered in hundreds of tiny wheels which allow for careful positioning of products before even reaching packaging, Freed explained with zeal. However, the conveyor belts are often underappreciated. Freed shared, “All of these are in some factory somewhere, some processing plant. A lot of our products touch the products that we use every day, but we still just never see an Intralox product. Its somewhere behind closed walls in a plant. A Coca Cola plant, a Tyson chicken plant, a car manufacturing plant. So it’s very prevalent. It’s in the background of some factory, but it never sees the light of day. It’s out there; you just don’t see it. It’s behind those big walls.”