Snack Facilities Tighten Up

Hearthside Food Solutions is a case history in keeping up with the complexity of snack manufacturing.

By David Phillips, Plant Operations Editor

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To continue to meet new regulatory requirements, as well as the expectations of its food manufacturing customers, Hearthside is spending millions of dollars each month on line improvements, packaging automation and other capital resources. It is also implementing a series of quality programs.

"We are spending anywhere from $50 million to $60 million a year on expansions and on removing cost and inefficiencies through automation and better control," Hughes says. These efforts included robotic palletizers in 2010, and a completely automated packaging line with robotics that was recently completed at one of Hearthside's Grand Rapids, Mich., plants.

"We are doing more gas packaging, so that customers can offer longer shelf life on products, and we have made numerous improvements in all areas," says Hughes.

Other improvements have included: multiple new cookie and cracker direct fire ovens, several new enrobing lines in multiple plants, an additional cold-form bar line and expanded form/fill/seal packaging capacity.

Better equipment is part of the puzzle, but practices are at least equally important, as snack processors and bakers work to improve their scorecard.

"Because the company started from a series of acquisitions, we really had three distinct cultures," Hughes says. "So those came with a variety of continuous improvement and best practice programs including things like TPM, Lean and Six Sigma. These are all different pieces of the continuous improvement model we are using.

The company is also moving to SAP 6 for its communications, and to a 5S program on the floor. "It takes a long time to get that process in place," Hughes says of 5S, a Japanese-origin methodology of workplace organization. "It means everything has a place and that everything is in its place. It takes a while to get your workforce completely involved in that process, but when you walk into a plant that is 5S you can really see the difference compared to one that is not 5S."

Hearthside also has lead plants, followers and shadow plants for areas of specific improvement. Where possible, improvements made in the lead plants will be extended to all or at least some of the other facilities, Hughes says. Energy-saving efforts have been implemented on a number of fronts, including low-wattage, high-efficiency lighting installed in all plants through a federal initiative program. Water conservation efforts have focused on things such as dry cleaning prior to wet cleaning.

Handling and sorting

New technologies in sorting offer plenty of opportunity for companies like Hearthside to make measurable improvements in production efficiencies.

Johnson, from Key Technologies, says sorting and handling can often harbor scenarios that leave room for improvement.

"One of the things that speaks to the quest of customer satisfaction is optimizing yield," Johnson says. "As an example, Key Technology is about to launch a new sorting solution using algorithms to optimize the grading of product.

"Traditional manual sorting at its most basic involves grabbing the bad material," Johnson says. "Optical sorting does that on a more finite level and provides a two-way stream of pass and reject — rejecting for size irregularities and other defects."

But newer sorting systems feature three-way streams that include a reject and a good and medium grade. The good and medium can be blended in an "acceptable" proportion and then combined for packaging. Johnson uses the example of walnuts.

"A whole blonde walnut is the ideal, and those are very valuable," he says. But broken blonde and whole black walnuts can be blended with the whole blondes to create a product that is perfectly acceptable for many applications."

Johnson points to a white paper the company published earlier this year that looks at feed systems for form/fill/seal lines that are typically used by manufacturers of savory snacks. The study concluded that right-sizing equipment on an FFS line is only the beginning if processors hope to achieve serious performance improvements:

To optimize the packaging operation, food processors – or their line integrators – must understand the interaction of the components and consider the line holistically rather than as separate machines that are connected. Fully integrating the controls costs more initially, but the added cost is quickly recovered by increases in overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and the increased output of the FFS machine producing salable bags.
  • Technologies that can boost productivity and reduce waste continue to emerge, and they are finding applications throughout all areas of the snack-processing facility.
  • In order to avoid allergen contamination, Hearthside has segregated its facilities into three groups—nut facilities, nut-free facilities and peanut free facilities.
  • Allergen control is one of the most crucial issues facing snack manufacturers today. It coincides with less life-and-death concerns such as organic certification, free trade and environmental/production issues.
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