Production Flexibility Migrates From an Option to an Essential Capability

With a technology assist, food processing professionals are transforming their production lines.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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The need for turn-on-a-dime production keeps increasing, yet the migration from manual processes to machines that deliver high-volume at low cost work against that need. Reconciling the goals of line flexibility and machine reliability is the kind of challenge that keeps engineers and operations managers up at night.

NASCAR pit crews often are held up as the gold standard in rapid changeover, but speed is only half the challenge. Precision also is critical. Returning a line to a steady state can be the most costly aspect of changeover, with lost production time compounded by the financial cost of out-of-spec product.

Dedicated lines solve the problem, but dedicated lines are inflexible. When designing production flow and specifying equipment needs for its Camp Hill, Pa., case-ready meat plant, Vantage Foods managers wanted to move toward just-in-time production.

“We get an order in the morning, and we ship it that night,” says Scott Hardiman, vice president and general manager of the facility. Seasonal variability meant some lines had to be able to produce multiple products. That need was addressed in the line design.

The 162,000-sq.-ft. Camp Hill facility is owned by Ahold USA, a Dutch grocer that counts Giant Food and Stop & Shop stores among its North American holdings. Ahold funded the $63 million project but contracted with Calgary, Alberta-based Vantage to operate the plant. Fresher perishables are being emphasized by Ahold, and the Camp Hill facility helps close the loop between the cash register and the daily production schedule.

Vantage Foods standardized on Vemag HP-E series stuffers from Canton, Mass.-based Reiser & Co. for Camp Hill’s four lines. Three lines are dedicated to production of ground beef loafs, chubs and patties, but the fourth will alternate between sausages, meatballs and, if necessary, the other products. “The stores’ needs change by the season, and we’ll be able to meet those needs with minimal changeover,” says Hardiman. The biggest design challenge was engineering machine infeed and outfeed systems to handle multiple products; swapping out components on the stuffer itself is fairly straightforward.

Another Camp Hill distinction is its primary grind capability. Case-ready operations typically receive beef trim from grinder operations and convert it to loaves, explains Hardiman, who has managed three case-ready plant start-ups. By performing the grind on site, he estimates the operation cuts 8-10 days out of the cycle, from slaughter to shelf. “The ground beef is much fresher in this format.”

Although it has 850 workers and is producing 2 million lbs. of finished goods a week, Camp Hill still is in start-up mode, with the longest tenured workers only seven months on the job. Once steady state is achieved, an ambitious scope of lean manufacturing and employee engagement programs will begin. “Employee involvement in finding solutions leads to improved quality, reduced turnover and greater operational efficiency and flexibility,” Hardiman believes.

Best of both worlds

Flexibility and throughput are often viewed as either-or options: an effort to boost one requires a decrease in the other. That may not be the case, however: Campbell Soup Co.’s Napoleon, Ohio, plant has diversified production substantially in recent years as it assumes responsibility for products previously manufactured at now-shuttered facilities. Despite more complex scheduling and frequent changeovers, Napoleon produced record volume last year, suggesting that, in terms of flexibility and throughput, food companies can have their cake and eat it, too.

Napoleon Plant Aerial Photo

Campbell Soup’s largest production facility hugs the East bank of the Maumee River, opposite downtown Napoleon, Ohio. Although production diversity has increased, throughput has not suffered. Photo: Campbell Soup Co.

Scheduling software is one of flexibility’s enabling technologies, and ERP vendors spent the past decade acquiring best-in-breed scheduling programs to include in their applications suites. Schedules are subject to change, though, and incoming and delayed orders along with events on the plant floor can create huge gaps between the plan and the production reality, points out Mike Edgett, industry solutions director for process manufacturing at Infor, New York. Quickly spotting deviation from plan is particularly important for perishable foods, a need Infor is addressing with its Fresh Food Planner. “Instead of waiting until the end of the day, the program tells you if you’re producing on target hourly,” he says.

Supply chain management and product lifecycle management impact flexibility, adds Edgett. ERP solutions help reconcile production plans with raw material availability and can guide organizations in critically evaluating their ingredient specifications. One processor Edgett worked with was specifying five types of condensed milk. ERP analytics helped flag the situation and trigger a standardization effort that decreased the likelihood of production disruptions caused by an out-of-stock of a commodity.

Greater visibility of processes and procedures is another aspect of ERP, suggests Katie Moore, global industry manager-food and beverage at GE Intelligent Platforms, Charlottesville, Va. Visibility is essential for line flexibility. For example, a sanitation procedure may be specified after an allergen run, but the protocol may not actually be executed. “Technology can take it a step further by validating that the prescribed action was taken,” says Moore.

Precision changeovers are easier to prescribe than to execute. Everything from scribe marks on machines to laser measurement devices are used to reliably return mechanical settings on machines. A device that’s gaining champions in cereal manufacturing is COT2, shorthand for changeover tool-second generation. Originally commercialized five years ago by Manufacturing Improvement Devices Inc., COT2 consists of a sensor, controller and customized software to record and store the optimum settings for up to 250 machine positions per sensor.

“Mechanics introduce variance by insisting they know how to set a machine better than anyone else,” MID founder Dragan Filipovic observes. Filipovic began work on COT while employed at Kraft Foods as an associate principal scientist.

COT2 Sensor in use

Precise, repeatable positioning of a machine’s moving parts is accomplished with COT2, a changeover tool that records and stores the optimum setting.

His device relies on a sensor and string potentiometer to precisely measure the optimum setting for a machine position. The sensor is mounted on a nonmetallic bracket mounted on the machine, and the string is pulled to a peg to measure distance. Green/red lights guide the mechanic in dialing in the precise setting. “If a mechanic believes he can set the machine better, his settings can be tried and date-stamped in the system,” says Filipovic. If performance improves, that setting becomes the new standard.

COT2 has added functionality as a machine-health monitoring tool. A major cereal manufacturer uses COT2 to monitor the stability of key mechanical components. If drift is detected, preventive maintenance is performed.

Most installations involve packaging machines, according to Tom Dunhoft, operator of TSD Packaging Inc. and COT2’s U.S. distributor. Higher-tech changeover tools for high-speed machines exist, Dunhoft says, but for flow wrappers, cartoners and casepackers running in the 200 units per minute range, COT2 is a more affordable option.

Manufacturing flexibility is a continuous improvement challenge, and its importance is increasing. By addressing issues in line design and production execution, operations personnel can improve the long-term viability of their plants.

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