Dominion Salt at Mount Maunganui has increased its production capacity by 65 per cent and can push for more exports with its pure, pharmaceutical-grade product.
Established in Totara St 40 years ago, Dominion Salt this week officially opened the $13 million extension to its Pure Dried Vacuum (PDV) Refinery.
All last year the refiner worked around the clock to keep up with production and sales - and the additional plant provides welcome relief.
The site operated 24 hours, seven days a week for nearly 48 weeks of the year. "We were hardly shutting down and we were scared of a breakdown," said Dominion Salt chief executive, Robin Goldsack.
"We only just had enough stock to get through, and we needed to get to the place of having extra capacity and reserve stock if we were to sell more."
The refinery extension, improving energy efficiency by 60 per cent, takes Dominion Salt's vacuum production capacity to just over 70,000 tonnes, from 41,000 tonnes - a quarter of it is exported to 29 countries, as far away as Kenya and Uganda.
The refinery was producing five tonnes an hour and now it can do 8.5 tonnes an hour or 200 tonnes a day, with the potential of going to 9.5 tonnes an hour if more steam is added.
The company also produces 40,000 tonnes of bulk solar (industrial) salt for the pulp and paper mills, fertiliser manufacture and supplementary feed on farms. Another 25,000 tonnes goes to tanneries to preserve hides and skins for leather goods, and to treat water in swimming pools.
The domestic table salt we all use is produced at Dominion Salt's other smaller processing plant on the edge of Lake Grassmere in Marlborough, where most of the raw material supply is harvested.
"Humans consume so little out of our total sales," said Mr Goldsack. "The salt that goes to the supermarkets is 2 per cent of what we do."
Phil O'Reilly, chief executive of Business NZ, opened the PDV Refinery extension which came in under the budget of $15 million and was pieced together within 18 months.
Mr O'Reilly said: "Whenever a company puts its capital on the line and goes to the market and sells stufff ... that's a hero company, to me. Dominion Salt has applied its knowledge and skills and developed a range of value added products.
"The company is also an increasingly rare breed in New Zealand. It takes the raw material from New Zealand and Australia, and modifies it here for sale offshore. What makes you rarer is that you are capital intensive and building great connections into markets - a lot of companies can't do that because they are competing with Australia and China.
"You are making and using salt in weird and wonderful ways and contributing to the New Zealand economy. The stuff you are doing around the medical area is what New Zealand needs more of," said Mr O'Reilly.
He described the refinery extension as "a big piece of chemistry."
The extension, made out of the latest anti-corrosive nickel alloy called Incone1, joined three more vessels or evaporators to the existing two in the older plant.
Each of the new vessels boil to 140 degrees C, driving the water and impurities out, and forming clear, little crystals. The salt is clean enough to inject into a human's body.
The five vessels are linked and form five cascades of steam and a continuous processing system.
The cost to produce one tonne of the pure salt has reduced by three-fifths because of the energy efficiency.
"It was quite challenging building on to the old PDV refinery," said Mr Goldsack. "We were adding more temperature and high pressure, and creating a more corrosive environment."
Dominion Salt picked the world's best designer to solve the issues - Chicago-based HPD, of French multi-national Veolia Water, known for its innovative process solutions using evaporation and crystallisation.
The equipment was built in China and engineering consultant Aurecon, out of Wellington, managed the project. Local contractors Page and Macrae bolted and welded the maze of piping and valves together, Philip Jones Electrical sorted out the power, and Automation and Electronics installed the automatic and monitoring controls.
Builders Marra Construction and Watts and Hughes Construction completed the framing work.
Now, Dominion Salt is intent on making the most of its increased production capacity. Alot of the vacuum salt goes to major food manufacturers like Fonterra for cheese; Heinz Watties for sauces, baked beans and spaghetti; Nestle for soups; Goodman Fielder for bread; and Kerry Ingredients.
But it wants to grow its pharmaceutical sales - the salt is used in dialysis machines and for "salty" solutions in hospitals and doctors' clinics.
Mr Goldsack said the pharmaceutical salt market was growing 11 per cent in the Pacific Rim, South East Asia and South America.
"The governments there are providing more treatment for kidney disease, and the Asian countries in particular are becoming more affluent and putting money into healthcare.
"It's a sensible place for us to look for extra sales. As a mature company, we can only grow through exporting," he said.