Better Made Snack Foods is one of America's oldest potato chip manufacturers. The company's formula for success has been to maintain its original standards for high product quality. Demand for its brand name and private label snacks is now higher than at any time since the company fried its first chip in 1930.
That growth recently prompted Better Made to find a better way to season and package its potato chips and sticks.
Mike Schena, president/COO at Better Made, recalls, "Our old conveyors were too noisy. Our old seasoning tumblers and bag-makers limited production output. And our product handling system could barely move the output of one 3,200 lb/hr fryer. It was so overloaded we'd have chips spilling onto the floor."
For potato chips and sticks alone, Better Made runs up to 20 different bag sizes and 14 types of seasonings with four or five changeovers per shift. "We had to run some products several times a week, which made order scheduling incredibly complicated," Schena explains.
Luckily, a better system was readily available. "We conducted our own industry survey and Heat and Control was the company others kept recommending," Schena says, "For our needs, Heat and Control's FastBack and Ishida system was the best choice because of its efficiency and product delivery without broken chips. Heat and Control's history of installing complete systems was also very encouraging."
Many machines, single system
The new, integrated operation—installed at Better Made's plant in Detroit, MI, in September 2011, and which represents a portion of the facility's output—is composed of:
• Four integrated Ishida weighers and bag-makers;
• FastBack on-machine seasoning and Revolution product distribution systems;
• An ITM-Plant iT control and manufacturing execution system (MES);
• A modular Rapid Deployment packaging platform.
"To achieve the highest level of quality and productivity for Better Made, equipment for the entire on-machine seasoning and packaging room was designed to behave as a single cohesive system, and not just a room full of individual unit operations," explains Blake Svejkovsky, product handling systems manager at Heat and Control.
"The product demands of each weigher/bag-maker are continuously communicated to the FastBack conveyors and Revolution distribution gates through a sophisticated Revolution DF Control system," Svejkovsky says. "This assures each weigher/bag-maker never has to wait for the product and can run continuously. In addition to producing very accurate bag weights, this allows the on-machine seasoning system, weighers and bagmakers to operate for longer uninterrupted periods. That improves overall seasoning and product quality without missed cycles or overweight bags."
That's certainly true at Better Made, where Schena says the longer uninterrupted product runs have greatly improved efficiency. Seasoning tumble drum "on" time now averages 5 to 10 minutes, he says, adding that the previous seasoner stopped and started every few seconds.
In addition to providing greater seasoning uniformity and bagmaker efficiency, Schena discovered that longer runs also improve operating effectiveness in other ways. "Longer production runs are allowing us to revisit our scheduling practices because we can now run the same product fewer times each week to meet orders," he notes.
"The spice applicators are so effective. You get 100 percent coverage, beautiful looking. And it has reduced the waste spice by 30 percent already," Schena adds.
A different flavor can be applied at each of Better Made's four weigher/bag-makers. "Load cells accurately measure seasoning delivery to maintain consistent coverage and application rates," says Heat and Control's Svejkovsky, adding that "the seasoning-to-product ratio is the tightest in the industry thus reducing seasoning usage and improving product quality."
To realize all of the system's advantages, Svejkovsky says, it also must be easy for operators to run, clean and change over. To accomplish this, Better Made chose to upgrade the line control system to Heat and Control's ITM-Plant iT, an all-in-one software package with pre-loaded control code, OIT code and MES services. "The system allows us to monitor line performance in real-time and make adjustments remotely without having a service call," Schena says.
"It has reduced the guessing. ‘What do you think it is? Is it this? Is it that?'" Schena continues. "It's a great asset to have because you don't know if it's electrical or air; it can be any number of things. With this, you know immediately where the problem is. And they can tell you what the solution is."
Chris Farver, controls and information manager at Heat and Control, recalls, "We were able to view real-time and historic trends for the line from 1,300 miles away and successfully address a set-up issue."
Learning how to use the line control system wasn't difficult, according to Schena. "Every generation of machines gets more sophisticated and requires learning different skills, but they also get easier to operate," he says.
Going with the flow
Better Made uses 50 million pounds of potatoes each year. Its four fryers deliver a total of 8,400 lbs per hour of finished potato chips and sticks. Distribution of the volume to the four new seasoning and packaging systems is managed by a FastBack Revolution conveyor system.
"Product breakage is minimized by the gentle horizontal motion of our FastBack conveyors, and our patented Revolution rotary gates eliminate pinch points and product breakage," says Svejkovsky.
Better Made's bag sizes range from 1 oz to 1 lb, and the Revolution distribution gate system maintains consistent product flow for all package weights.
Seasoned product flows directly from the seasoning tumble drums into Ishida CCW-R-214 multihead weighers. Using an extremely fast processor, the Ishida weighers double the number of possible target weight combinations over conventional scale systems to achieve high speed and accuracy with near-zero product giveaway. "We're saving money by controlling the overweight that goes into the bag," Schena says. "These machines hit, consistently, near 1 gram, where we were giving away up to half an ounce prior to that."
Each weigher is direct-mounted to an Ishida Atlas 233-R vertical form/fill/seal bagger. Developed and priced specifically for potato chips and similar snack products that do not require the ultra-high speed and accessories found on Ishida's flagship Atlas models, the Atlas 233 uses a single "D" motion sealing jaw. This produces tight, wrinkle-free seals at speeds up to 125 bags per minute.
Schena notes the new Ishida weighers and bag-makers have increased packaging capacity by 40 percent. "We were blown away by how many cases we're packing. Bag seals are always perfect. We now run 90 to 100 bags per minute with only two operators handling four bag-makers. With our old equipment, it took four operators and we could only make 60 bags per minute."
Changeover happens multiple times during a shift, but is as easy as touching a button. "Film waste—you can add a new roll onto the back of the machine and maybe lose one impression or two perhaps—that's a huge savings," Schena says. On the older systems, it was typical to lose 14 to 16 impressions with each roll change.
Installation a dream
Installation of the system was completed in 10 days, one week before Better Made hosted the Snack Food Assn's Management Development Seminar and tour of the plant in full operation. "Delivery, installation, operation, quality: every phase of the project exceeded our expectations," Schena says. "Heat and Control told us what they were going to do and they did it with no questions or excuses. In my long experience in this industry that is a very rare thing. I sleep very well at night."
"Better Made was initially concerned about downtime during the installation and commissioning. Naturally, they wanted to minimize this as much as possible," Svejkovsky says. "So we delivered a Flex 4 Rapid Deployment packaging platform in fully wired and plumbed modules for quick installation and start-up. The platform looks great, it's clean, there are almost no conduit and wires showing, and the laser-straight structure went in without fuss or headaches. Elevation of conveyors and other components also provided an ergonomically-correct workplace."
The system shows helpful attention to detail, such as stainless-steel lower legs of the support structure which frequently come in contact with workers and forklifts. The underside of the structure is powder coated a bright white for maximum illumination, and minimal lighting and energy costs. "We expect our platform to continue looking good 30 years down the road," Svejkovsky says.
"Quality and speed. Savings on spice, product and film. Add in the improvement in product quality and the system was a home run," Schena concludes. "Even our operators are beyond thrilled and show a new respect for their jobs and the equipment. It actually saves them work."
Although the older filling lines still feed into automatic case packers from BluePrint Automation, the bags coming off these new systems are hand packed into cases. "We didn't think hand packing could keep up with the new machines, but they are," Schena says.
Cases are then sent through an x-ray inspection system from Smiths Detection (now Eagle Product Inspection), automatically taped closed, palletized and delivered to one of four warehouses for storage or immediate shipping.
Savings fund further upgrades
This installation was the first of a multi-phase upgrade plan, which Better Made has accelerated because efficiencies—and savings—are so high. "We're achieving a higher degree of efficiency and waste reduction than we had hoped for. That's rare," Schena boasts. "We're saving so much money that, by the third part of the program, it'll be paid for out of the savings."
Better Made financed the first phase itself, but is applying for government funds for the second round of equipment investments—more fillers, spice applicators and all-new delivery conveyors—targeted for installation by 3Q2012.
Two or three years down the road, Phase 3 will entail replacing the rest of the older equipment, including fillers and case packers. "When we're done, we will need about 12 to 15 new machines and spice applicators. That will give us about a 40 percent increase [in output] over the 27 we had," Schena says. As for the outgoing machinery: "We're selling it," he says. "There's a market for it."
BluePrint Automation, 804-520-5400. www.blueprintautomation.com
Heat and Control, 800-227-5980. www.heatandcontrol.com
Eagle Product Inspection (formerly Smiths Detection), 877-379-1670. www.eaglepi.com