Mass Production Meets Custom Manufacturing at Mars

It’s a blend of new and déjà vu in Mars’ Hackettstown, N.J., plant, where the 21st century technology of My M&M’S meets the 24-hour production of an American icon.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Mars Snackfood’s manufacturing technology has been as low-key and private as its parent firm, one of the most guarded firms in the food industry. But there has been a 97-year history of innovation and technology adoption that has made Mars the leading chocolate company in the world.

Mars Inc. has not wavered from its belief in the competitive edge that superior manufacturing and technological know-how provide. The company has developed product, program and processing innovations and assiduously attended to mastering efficiency throughout the organization. Its chocolate formulations remain proprietary and, despite industry pressures to outsource, it continues to make its own chocolate and chocolate liquor.

But times have changed, and so has Mars.

We visited the M&M’S production facility in Hackettstown, N.J., where manufacturing follows the divergent paths of old and new. On the one hand is the continued commitment to the dedicated mass-production lines that have served Mars and its powerhouse stable of brands for decades. On the other is a newfound excitement about extremely short-run, rapid-changeover production of personalized, made-to-order “special occasion” products.

Each has important purpose. First, high-volume output from lines and equipment dedicated to globally popular M&M’S products are one of the pillars of the company’s success. Second, the M&M’S portfolio offers the kind of universally appreciated products that invite personalization, customer loyalty and the handsome profit margins that customization promises.

Agile to the max

In 2004, Mars North America created “Mars Direct,” a division of the Mars Snackfood U.S. division, with an exciting but daunting mission: to launch special order products with custom-printed names, phrases or identifiers on product or wrapper for weddings, showers, graduation parties, birthdays and fund-raising activities.

Within 90 days, a hand-picked, cross-functional team produced the first personalized “My Message” M&M’S order.

Sales have been hot, but those closest to the action say: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
“We have five to six years of innovation that will be finding its way to the market,” Ralph Jerome, vice president of research and development, says of the technology developed for My M&M’S. “[Personalization] takes the brand from something physical to something aspirational – something with a message. That’s high on the hierarchy of consumer benefits … nearing the Grail!”

What it has taken technologically to reach this degree of truly “personal” product delivery also nears what engineers and manufacturing gurus have regarded as their “Holy Grail” – agile manufacturing refined and leveraged to the max for rapid and highly profitable short-run product delivery.

“There’s a lot of technology – a whole manufacturing process – behind this,” says Jerome. “The enabler is high-speed printing capability with all food-grade materials. A lot of that technology is in the formulation of inks. We have a program printer for four different messages.”

Jim Cass, general manager of My M&M’S, credits three specific systems with the line’s success to date: ink-jet printing technology (“Without our ability to print with food-grade inks, we wouldn’t have a business!”); order-management technology (“to get orders through our firewalls and networks, reviewing every message personally for appropriateness and accuracy … within hours”); and inbound product delivery that provides the critical ingredient – fresh M&M’S product, within 24 hours.

But an outside technology -- the Internet – may be the biggest difference maker, according to John Dodge, site manager at the Hackettstown M&M’S plant. “It’s not just the technology in the plant but the route to the consumer that makes (My M&M’S) work,” he says. “Ordering on-line is the ‘enabling’ technology of the past 10 years.”
By the end of 2006, My M&M’S had registered more than 325,000 orders, all at a premium price. Mars Direct has since added “My Dove” products, carrying the concept to its premium Dove chocolate line with personalized messages printed on the inner face of the chocolate’s foil wrapper.

Winds of change

Mars always is working to help its manufacturing teams better meet global demands and the growing intensity of 21st century competition.

“We’ve introduced lean manufacturing practices for fast changeover and waste reduction, plus work cell and team concepts, too,” says Dodge. “We want to create an environment where teams from operations and maintenance take full responsibility. We’re trying to move from the ‘big factory’ model to a situation where the people who operate the plant own small parts of it.”

In many ways, the seeds were planted long ago. “Our associates have always had a voice, always been involved in decision making,” insists Cass. Furthermore, Mars has cross-trained its managers for decades, bringing along players earmarked for management through a succession of promotions from R&D posts and shift management to plant management and high-level operations and engineering posts. The mix of product understanding, manufacturing experience and technical understanding pave the way to top management positions.

“A position in plant management ranks high in the Mars organization,” says Harald Emberger, vice president-supply chain. “These managers will be our future supply-chain leaders or leaders in other parts of the business.”

The practice of global transfer also has broadened that general base of experience and has the added benefit of cross-fertilizing operations with global best practices.

A team sport

The company is trying to leverage the experience and harmony of existing work units to develop its largely home-grown work team concepts.

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