Flowers Foods: Setting a New Benchmark
Flowers Foods’ bakery at Bardstown, KY, explores energy management and automation advances that could profoundly change the way the company operates for years to come.
BakingBusiness.com, October 01, 2010
by By Laurie Gorton and Dan Malovany

Make no mistake about it. The top-line manufacturing imperative at Flowers Foods, Thomasville, GA, is to be the industry’s low-cost producer. In fact, that’s been “The Flowers Way” for decades. It’s also been the primary objective for Robert Benton, corporate vice-president of manufacturing, and the company’s engineering staff since Flowers launched its long-term strategy for sustainable growth in 2004. That’s when the company began to steadily expand beyond its core market in the South to contiguous territories throughout the Southwest, Mid-Atlantic and lower Midwest.

To accomplish this initiative throughout the past six years, Flowers has made eight acquisitions, spent an industry-leading $482 million in capital investments and added 15 new production lines as well as hundreds of new routes that now deliver its products to 40 million additional consumers or nearly 50% of the US population. “We’ve been growing so fast and had to build bakeries so quickly that we’ve been concentrating on how fast we can go, how fast we can build the bakery and how fast we can get out and be effective in the market,” Mr. Benton said.

In 2009 with the opening of the new $57 million bread and bun bakery at Bardstown, KY, however, Flowers found itself entering uncharted territory in more ways than one. From an operations perspective, the facility’s energy management system is turning out to be a game changer when it comes to building new bakeries as the company continues to expand in the future. Specifically, the Rockwell Automation RSEnergyMetrix program architecturally sits on top of information gathered by the other Allen-Bradley PLCs and control devices throughout the bakery and provides a central warehouse of data that tracks energy, electricity, natural gas and water usage. It also monitors heating, cooling and air quality systems that the company hadn’t been able to consistently gauge, according to Eric Lewis, manufacturing manager for Flowers Baking Co. of Bardstown.

“I can see the humidity in the building, the temperature in the building, the temperature outside the building and the differential pressure within the building,” Mr. Lewis said. “In the past, we had to guess how to change the process. Now we’re putting numbers to how we have to change the process in ways that we never could before.”

BENCHMARK STATUS. While many bakeries designate a flagship plant that defines their operations, the Bardstown bakery can be best described as Flowers Foods’ new benchmark facility. The data gathered from this operation will likely create new criteria for improving the company’s 39 other plants and for developing additional parameters for designing facilities and even selecting what equipment it buys, noted Ken Buxton, senior staff engineer for Flowers Foods. “We typically build off of what we found works in the past,” he said. “We learn from our successes and our mistakes.”

Because of this learning process, the Bardstown facility, not surprisingly, resembles the company’s more recently built bread and bun bakeries that opened at Denton, TX, in 2004 and at Newton, NC, in late 2006. In fact, its bread line, which produces 10,000 loaves an hour, is a near replica of the line at Newton. What may not be so apparent to the eye are how Bardstown’s energy management system as well as other advances in process technology provide different ways for Flowers not only to remain the industry’s low-cost producer, but also to more consistently control product quality. For an engineering team that learns from the past, that’s the ultimate win-win proposition.

“RSEnergyMetrix is the key to making us better going down the road from an efficiency standpoint, from a productivity standpoint and from a quality standpoint,” Mr. Benton explained. “This program has given us an education and an opportunity to see what’s going on. In the past, we thought we knew what was happening, but we weren’t exactly sure. Now, we have hard numbers and facts.

“With this bakery, everything is measurable, so it’s going to be our baseline in the future,” he said. “That is what makes this plant unique, more than any other plant we have right now.”

Mr. Benton and Mr. Buxton also discovered their first big jaunt into energy conservation may result in building future facilities that could be certified for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the green building rating system developed and administered by the US Green Building Council. Reviewing a checklist for LEED certification, in fact, they discovered that the company had been pursuing green initiatives albeit under the name of good manufacturing practices. “It’s always been on our mind when we think about effi ciency and about saving more money, but we just never had a name for it,” Mr. Buxton said.

Specifically, the review pinpointed several surprising areas of savings that the company had previously taken for granted. For instance, it revealed that the bakery’s ventilation system consumed the second largest amount of energy, even though the building is the first Flowers facility with variable-speed drives on its intake and exhaust fans to add some seasonal “creature comforts” for employees, according to Mr. Buxton. “What we found out in making it more comfortable for the people working here is that we can improve the process and product and save on energy as well,” he said.

CHARTER MEMBER. Just three years ago, Flowers became the charter company occupying the city’s new Nelson County Industrial Park, located right off the Bluegrass Parkway. Set on a 30-acre site, the 200,000-sq-ft building allocates 70,000 sq ft to production, 36,000 sq ft to packaging operations, 12,000 sq ft to warehousing and 30,000 sq ft to shipping. Offices on the first and second floors occupy 36,000 sq ft, and ancillary functions require 16,000 sq ft. Motion sensors control all lighting throughout the facility. Shop flooring consists of polished hardened concrete.

Because Flowers couldn’t find an existing facility to meet its needs, the company built the Bardstown facility from the ground up, which provided certain advantages.

“When you design a new building, you can lay things out the way you want to maximize speed and effi ciency through the plant,” Mr. Benton said. “When you get down to counting the dollars, you really don’t save that much money by buying an existing building and then having to modify and expand it. What you do save is a lot of time. We had the luxury of time that we normally don’t have.”

The Bardstown bakery is the biggest of the company’s one bread line/one bun line plants. Technically, the Villa Rica, GA, bakery is larger in capacity because it was recently enlarged to bake additional product styles. Bardstown makes white and soft variety breads, 8- and 12-count retail hamburger and hot dog buns and 4-and 5-in. bulk restaurant buns. Varieties include 100% Wheat, Honey Wheat, Whitewheat, 100% Whole Grain, Whole Grain White, 35-calorie varieties, Giant Sandwich and Old Fashioned.

Earlier this summer, Bardstown’s route system started supplying retail and food service customers in Kentucky, southern and central Indiana, southern Ohio, central Tennessee and a few markets in West Virginia and southern Illinois, according to Billy Donaldson, plant president of Flowers Baking Co. of Bardstown. Previously, these markets had been served by the Morristown, TN, bakery’s distribution network. In addition to covering such metropolitan areas as Louisville, KY; Cincinnati, OH; Nashville, TN; and Indianapolis, IN, the Bardstown bakery, which is Flowers’ northernmost facility, also ships products to the company’s bakeries in Morristown and Batesville, AR, where products are then distributed throughout their territories.

MOVING THE STANDARDS. When equipping Bardstown, the engineering/manufacturing team opted for the familiar as well as the innovative. Although Mr. Benton and Mr. Buxton described the bread and bun lines as “cookie cutter” installations in terms of their design, each is subtly different from the ones installed before … and those to come in the future. “The bread line here is pretty much the same as at Newton and Villa Rica differing only in size, but the footprint is pretty much the same,” Mr. Benton said. “The roll line has a few tweaks.” Specifically, the Baking Technology Systems (BakeTech) conveyorized proofer and oven system is technologically more advanced and larger in capacity than previous installations, but because Flowers’ unique “maxi” bun pans run the wide way, its conveyors operate at slower speeds.

Having built a new bakery about every 18 months for the past several years, Flowers Foods maintains a number of longtime vendor relationships . For example, Register Construction, Lakeland, FL, managed the building work while equipment vendors included AMF Bakery Systems, BakeTech, Burford, Cannon, Fortress Technology, Laramore, LeMatic, Oshikiri, Pfening, Stewart Systems, Trinity Process Solutions, Turkington USA, UBE and Workhorse Automation. Flowers also put FANUC, pcdata and Rockwell Automation on its roster to add new technologies for robots, warehouse management and energy monitoring, respectively.

Vendor selection, according to Mr. Benton, all goes back to what the market is demanding. “That determines the kind, size and capabilities of equipment on every line,” he observed.

As bakers realize that sustainability can be part of good business, bakery equipment manufacturers are responding with new designs and innovations, according to Mr. Buxton. “Several equipment vendors approached us with ideas for making current equipment designs more energy effi cient,” he said.

The new energy management system was recommended by another long-term vendor, Higgins Electric, Dothan, AL. “Flowers came to us wanting to start a project to monitor energy use,” said Jim Knighton, Higgins’ president. He recommended Rockwell’s RSEnergyMetrix system because the bakery used so many Allen-Bradley devices, thus simplifying the integration of communication.

In terms of electricity, the goal was to minimize Kwh per lb of product produced, but the implementation taught Flowers a great deal more. For example, the bakery found it was spending more energy and water dollars in cleaning mixers than labor dollars. So cleaning procedures were changed to employ dry methods such as scraping first, with water washout second.

Such methods have already been deployed to other bakeries. “As with cleaning the mixers, we can now weigh the electrical consumption versus manpower,” Mr. Benton observed . “We see higher energy costs coming, so we need to drive these costs out as much as possible.”

Web implementation of RSEnergyMetrix enables around-the-clock, across-the-globe availability of data from the Bardstown bakery. “It’s live 24/7, and we can log onto it at any time and study exactly what is happening,” Mr. Benton said.

AUTO TO THE MAX. Laying out the Bardstown bakery in a greenfield plant provided certain advantages, according to Mr. Buxton, who was on-site for the entire project. Like other recent Flowers bread and bun plants, the two lines run side-by-side, separated by an open corridor down the middle. These lines parallel the front of the building, with perimeter locations for bulk ingredients and ancillary services.

A series of large overhead roll-up doors in the raw materials warehouse and adjacent to the enclosed flour silos provide access for equipment. The building’s 2-story layout accommodates offi ces, labs and work bays for production, engineering, maintenance and QA on the first floor, with management and sales offices on the second. A large training room is located adjacent to the bakery’s entrance.

Closed-circuit cameras stationed around the property provide physical security, which is also incorporated in the building’s traffi c pattern. “There’s one way in and one way out,” Mr. Benton commented.

As a “technician labor” plant, Bardstown is laid out and equipped to maximize automation, which is amply demonstrated by its approach to ingredient delivery. “The only manual addition is the oxidation and enzyme tablets,” Mr. Benton remarked. All other ingredients are either pneumatically delivered or pumped to dispensing points at the mixers.

Six Pfening 150,000-lb-capacity silos supply flour, two for whole-wheat and four for enriched white. Set on load cells, the silos provide constant verification of their contents. Three in-line sifters feed three flour holding bins. The bulk system also encompasses four large liquid storage tanks for sugar, molasses, pan oil and soy oil. Other liquid ingredients come in via tote bins. A Pfening supersack system, comprised of four unloading stations, dispenses the bulk minor ingredients. A 2-tank cream yeast system accepts bulk yeast supplied by USA Yeast’s Hattiesburg, MS, facility. A Trinity Process Solutions batching system manages ingredient delivery.

PROTECTIVE MEASURES. Both bread and bun lines employ the sponge-and-dough method for dough preparation. For bread, an AMF 2,800-lb horizontal tilt-bowl mixer prepares sponges, which dump into large troughs that carry the sponge through the AMF fermentation room. Troughs emerge and are hoisted to one of two AMF 3,200-lb final mixers. Flowers selected its mixers to use 250-hp motors, all interchangeable.

Finished doughs are tilted out into a pump that feeds a vertical conveyor to transport the dough to the divider. Mounted on rails, the vertical conveyor can be positioned to serve two different divider/makeup lines. Depending on divider choice, the Bardstown bread line runs 165 loaves per minute on the Oshikiri ram-and-shear divider or up to 185 per minute on the AMF rotary divider.

Flowers took the precautionary step of stationing a Fortress metal detector on the belt feeding dough to the dividers. “Traditionally, metal detection is done at wrapping,” Mr. Lewis explained. Bardstown’s packaging operation is no exception, but use of this technology at the dough side is unusual. “We now do metal detection prior to the dividers to protect the equipment,” he added.

The high rate of production means that up to 30,000 lb of product is present in the system at any given time. Breakdowns are expensive. These are big lines, not only in capacity but also in capital outlay, and their dividers control scaling and, thus, potential loss. “Scar a piston with a nut or bolt, and you’re giving away dough until it’s replaced,” Mr. Benton said.

“If something like that is going to get into the product, it will most likely happen during the early stages of mixing or makeup,” Mr. Buxton stated. Thus, the metal detectors on the dough sides protect both food safety and processing equipment.

Also new, a flighted conveyor belt set at a 45° angle delivers dough balls from the divider to the resting belts. Dough pieces complete a short resting period as they travel to the moulding station. Bardstown put in AMF Tend’r Kurl sheeter-moulderpanners for its bread products.

ROBOTS AND PANS. To place lids on pans for baking sandwich-style loaves, the company installed a Stewart lid system that uses a FANUC robot to move lids between stacks and pans. Although a first for Flowers, robotic handling of lids follows successful use of automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) for pans at the Newton facility. The Bardstown bakery depends on two such systems from Workhorse Automation, one handling the four bread pan sets (two sizes plus their matching lids) and the other managing the seven bun pan sets. Stewart stackers and unstackers complete the pan management systems.

Supplied by American Pan, all bread pans are the same width, so conveyor guides and stacker settings do not need adjusting during changeovers. The 6-strap bread pans are big, and they are heavy. “We have to employ more robotics because of the speeds at which we operate,” Mr. Benton said.

“We do not want our staff to stack pans,” Mr. Lewis added. Under normal operating circumstances, no human intervention is required for handling pans; however, an emergency stack-off station is provided after the Stewart depanners to remove pans from which bread or buns did not release.

Flowers’ manufacturing staff decided to look at robotic lidding because pans and lids are the most expensive “consumables” in bakeries. Knowing that automated handling of pan stacks reduced the potential for damage, the Flowers team decided to explore automated lidding in the form of an articulated-arm robot. More specifically, “we wanted to find out if robotics could be applied to lids and then look at doing it with bun pans,” Mr. Benton observed. “After all, a pan lid looks a lot like a bun pan.”

Bread proofs in a Stewart conveyorized proofer before the Stewart conveyor system delivers it to the Turkington USA tray oven. An Allen-Bradley PanelView graphic interface terminal at the ovens allows the technician to track pans, zone temperatures, burner status and other variables all the way through the oven. All information feeds back into the RSEnergyMetrix program. This oven also has a direct spark ignition system to control flash heat.

THE WIDE WAY. Even more change characterizes the high-capacity bun line at Bardstown. “When baking 5-in. buns, we run more than 10,000 lb per hour,” Mr. Lewis said. Mr. Benton added, “We’ve been told that this is one of the fastest single-divider lines in the world.”

The bun line employs a pair of AMF 3,200-lb horizontal tilt-bowl mixers and an AMF fermentation room for maturing the sponges. Final doughs move into the AMF rotary divider and Accupan intermediate proofing and moulding system. A Laramore flour reclaim system keeps dusting flour contained.

Yet the operating speeds of the bun line conveyors belie the high output numbers. “BakeTech actually slowed the equipment speed but increased the output rates,” Mr. Buxton noted. Such results come from a seemingly simple approach: running a specially engineered large bun pan the wide way and traveling as straight a path as possible.

A unique aspect to the Bardstown bun pans is their “inverted” design. In other words, the support band set around the edge is positioned level with the pan’s base instead of its top rim. Such placement not only strengthens the pan but also provides a good indexing point, according to Mr. Benton. The cups never extend into the pan below when stacked, thus protecting the cups from damage by incidental contact. Mr. Buxton observed that the inverted placement of the band improves support so bigger pans can be built. The pans are made specifically for Flowers by American Pan and are designed for Flowers’ larger bun lines.

Because of its size, the pan determined nearly everything about how the bun line was designed, laid out and operated. The line was laid out to run straight whenever possible, with only curving turns. The BakeTech conveyorized proofer, oven and transport systems carry the pans on stabilized chain-mounted grids, equipped with magnets to hold pans in place.

COOL AND WRAP. Removed from pans by a Stewart wide-way depanner, the buns climb up to a BakeTech overhead conveyor where they cool for 15 minutes. Laid out in racetrack style, the BakeTech wide-way bun cooler can double up on rows of buns, thus conserving space and energy for the chain-driven system. A Stewart overhead conveyor with a center multitier drive carries bread loaves, which require up to 50 minutes to cool because of their larger mass.

Although located side-by-side at the far end of the bakery, the packaging departments for bread and buns involve separate technologies. Improvements in AMF bread baggers, for example, allowed the Bardstown team to go with four machines instead of the five that are usually installed, according to Mr. Benton.

Bread wrapping is fully automated from the horizontal switches that feed the wrapping stations through AMF slicing and bagging systems, Burford twist-tying units and AMF basket loaders. Bun wrapping encompasses both retail items and bulk buns for food service clients. Current volume at Bardstown supports four UBE retailpack lines and three LeMatic lines, each consisting of a slicer and a bulk wrapper.

Both wrapping areas send packaged products to AMF basket loaders, one per wrapping line. Here, the individually packaged loaves or bags of buns travel onto orienting tables. Following programmed instructions, the basket loaders group the packages into optimized patterns and transfer the entire assembly into a waiting plastic basket tray.

Every delivery basket is supplied clean to the wrapping room. As baskets return to the bakery, an AMF tray unstacker separates and routes them to two AMF tray washers. Water jets strip the baskets of soil and debris, and heated air knife blowers dry them.

VERIFIED LOADS. Discharged from the basket loader, the filled delivery trays move into a bottom-up stacker. When the correct number of trays has accumulated, the whole stack moves out onto the Cannon in-floor conveyor that loops around the shipping area. Before reaching the conveyor, however, the shipping operator places on each stack a barcoded tag, generated by Flowers’ shipping automation system, which is new to the company and is the result of a joint effort with pcdata.

“This system manages shipping,” Mr. Donaldson explained. “Every stack is coded for the proper truck. It won’t allow the wrong stack on the wrong truck.”

The shipping operator pulls the stack off the chain and stages it for delivery. As the stack enters the trailer, the system reads the tag. If incorrect, the system sounds an alarm and “locks out” the trailer until the shipping operator can clear the error.

“This allows everything to be accounted for,” Mr. Donaldson said. “We know that everything is going to the right place.”

Bardstown ships to depots and operates no routes directly from the plant. This effort currently supplies 26 distribution locations serving 187 routes. “The bakery runs three full shifts on both bread and buns,” Mr. Lewis said, “and we’re loading trucks three shifts, too, unloading inbound products transshipped from our other bakeries and loading outbound goods.”

IN SUPPORT. Bardstown comes fully equipped with an on-site QA laboratory. Mr. Lewis observed that the company follows the protocols of the Global Food Safety Initiative. “It falls on our people, from receiving to wrapping through shipping,” he added. The lab provides testing support for incoming ingredients, products in progress and finished goods.

An ammonia refrigeration system, located in a separate room, cools the glycol supplied to the mixers, chilled water system and yeast holding tanks. “Ammonia is friendlier to the environment than other refrigeration choices,” said Bill Countryman, chief engineer, Flowers Baking Co. of Bardstown.

“One aspect of greenfield design is you can centralize the electric system,” Mr. Benton stated. Because mixers are typically the largest consumer of electricity, the company located the bakery’s electrical room close to them to reduce cabling and installation costs.

Flowers also earned significant energy savings with a new design for the two Ingersoll-Rand air compressors. The air line’s loop is configured as its receiver, and compressed air is produced only as needed rather than being kept constantly available. “A lot of power is wasted on air compression at other bakeries,” Mr. Benton observed.

Management of boiler capacity differs as well. The bakery has two boilers, and the system shuts off entirely as demand permits, rather than keeping the second boiler on constant standby.

Flowers equipped Bardstown with an emergency propane system and an electrical generator because the region is subject to ice storms. So far, however, weather has not interrupted bakery operations.

IDEA LAB. Having designed and commissioned so many new bakeries in recent years, Flowers managers look at these activities as a way to improve operations throughout the company’s facilities. The new sites provide an opportunity to “push the outside of the envelope” and to do so in a real-time, results-oriented setting.

“All of the innovative ideas we pursue are executed in the field at the bakeries,” Mr. Benton said. “The challenge for Ken and me is to build a big, effi cient plant that is flexible enough to meet the changing demands of the marketplace.”

For its next bakery, currently in the planning phase, the building’s design will incorporate several lessons from data gathered from Bardstown. “The next time around, the emphasis will be on LEED, on power consumptions and efficiencies of a different kind, and those factors will determine who supplies our equipment,” Mr. Benton noted.

Being the low-cost producer, however, will remain the driving force for manufacturing going forward. The new data simply provides a new benchmark that the company can use to identify additional costs to eliminate in the future, Mr. Benton explained. “We’re all long-term bakery people, and we were taught by others who were drilled in the art of baking. Now, we have the technology to better understand the science,” he said. •

(Sidebar) Spirit of Bardstown

Market demand dictates when and where Flowers Foods builds new bakeries. In addition to its location near interstate highways that allow easy access to new markets within a 250-mile radius, Bardstown, KY, was selected by the $2.1 billion company because of its highly skilled labor force. Previously, the region had supplied components to the automotive industry, but the recent recession decimated these businesses, resulting in unemployment as high as 15% in November 2007 when Flowers came looking at the property.

“When word got out that Flowers was building in Bardstown, everyone in three counties wanted to work here,”said Donna Hardesty, head of the bakery’s human resources department.

Ahead of the bread line’s startup in May 2009, in fact, Ms. Hardesty collected a pool of 1,000 applicants by just posting employment ads in local newspapers and going through the state department of employment services. Prior to ramping up of the bread line, a core group of recently hired technicians traveled to the Newton bakery for a week of training, then returned to the Bardstown plant to train newer recruits who would work on additional shifts. Today, the bakery has approximately 250 total positions.