Food Processors Must Balance High Throughput With Demand For Fast Changeovers And Flexible Production

Mass production of food has gone the way of the Model T, and nowhere is the need for line flexibility more important than at copackers.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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One of the 20th Century's closing acts was the shuttering of Sara Lee Corp.'s massive bakery in New Hampton, Iowa. It was a brawny, high-volume facility capable of turning out more cheesecake than Americans were willing to buy. Therein was the problem: The plant only excelled at making cheesecake.

It was a one-trick pony. It was vanilla in a spumoni world.

Mainstream America had an appetite for mass-produced products 40 years ago when Sara Lee set up shop in New Hampton, but not anymore. Today's market is fragmented, and even iconic food brands come in variations of the basic recipe. Throughput still determines cost of production, but optimum has replaced maximum in establishing throughput rates. Production and packaging lines can't simply be high speed; they must be sufficiently flexible to produce multiple products in a growing assortment of container options.

This is especially true for copackers, the manufacturers whose production schedules are dictated by incoming orders from private label and branded-product customers, as well as their own brands. How quickly they can switch from one product formulation, or one label or package format, to another can determine if they turn a profit or operate at a loss.

"The key to survival and cost control is keeping our ovens running," believes Steven Huggins, CEO of Pretzels Inc. in Bluffton, Ind. "Changeovers are killers."

Multiple production facilities can spread risk and ease site-specific changeovers, although the philosophy at tomato processor Red Gold, Elwood, Ind., favors a product-specific focus at its three plants. "It adds manufacturing complexity, but it also allows the plant management team to sharpen its focus" and be the best at its assigned products, explains Mike Crooks, vice president of manufacturing.

"You could probably buy your way into flexibility with completely automated changeover," muses Bill Schiel, director of global business development-food and beverage for Invensys Plc, a London technology firm with offices in Houston, Texas. As a practical matter, food processors don't operate with an open-wallet policy, so the challenge is to balance throughput requirements with the ability to produce multiple products. "Copackers have the ultimate need, because their plants must produce the orders their salespeople can get," adds Schiel.

Toolless machine modifications are helping manufacturers tame the changeover beast. "Machinery has come a long way in terms of simple set-ups," suggests Bob Kolodziej, senior project engineer-food and beverage at Stellar Group Inc., Jacksonville, Fla. "Most companies are targeting a return to full production in less than 30 minutes. I think that is reasonable."

Pretzel logic   

Pretzels Inc.'s facility was built in 1998, replacing a plant destroyed by fire. As its business-to-business and private label sales grew, ownership invested in automation that integrates raw materials delivery to high-speed mixers that feed eight ovens and two extruded corn lines. About 900 products are made, requiring about 20 die changes a week for different shapes and sizes. Each change means oven downtime, and Huggins compares the mechanics' choreography to "a race team during a pit stop."

Changeover complexity increases in packaging. The original 23 packaging lines, which integrated Heat and Control conveyors with Ishida scales and Hayssen form/fill/seal (f/f/s) machines with intermittent sealers, have expanded to 32. Robotic palletizing also was added.

Hayward, Calif.-based Heat and Control Inc. has served as Ishida's North American distribution partner for decades, and that relationship helped it deliver a system that more easily adapts to multiple package changeovers every day, believes Jeff Almond, Heat and Control's snack food industry manager for packaging. "The collaboration between Ishida's and Heat and Control's engineers becomes even more important when you want to make a seamless system, from front to back," he continues. But unless a snack food manufacturer is engaged in mass production with minimal changeovers, front-to-end automation results in lost flexibility, he concedes.

Ishida is gradually pushing its engineering expertise further into secondary packaging. The company recently introduced its Total Packaging System for snack foods, integrating the scales and f/f/s machines with downstream checkweighers and seal checkers.

"Manufacturers want more data and information, and using equipment from a single vendor means those units can easily communicate with each other and provide real-time data," says Almond. But Pretzels Inc. is unlikely to automate casepacking that straddles those downstream functions and the f/f/s machines, and the reason is not simply economics, Huggins emphasizes.