Tennessee Bun Company: Engine of Innovation
Tennessee Bun Company opens the throttle at its busy Nashville plant as it revs up a new line, producing more than 1,800 biscuits per minute to serve its growing list of clients.
BakingBusiness.com, Sept. 1, 2011
by Laurie Gorton
At Tennessee Bun Company, a key customer’s need prompted a large capital investment. That’s not unusual for the Nashville, TN-based company founded and led by CEO Cordia Harrington. But for the most recent expansion of the Nashville facility, she and her staff employed a Decision Matrix approach for the multi-million-dollar fast-tracked project that resulted in building a 30,000-sq-ft addition and installing a sheeted biscuit line.

Better yet, Ms. Harrington explained, “The expansion frees up 200 hours of production time across the enterprise.” The high-speed, highly automated, highly efficient hearth line also adds flexibility and capacity to increase the volume of the business by half.

In October 2010, a key customer told Ms. Harrington it needed baking powder biscuits for its growing line of frozen breakfast sandwiches. Although such products could be made on the existing hearth line in the Nashville site, the quantities far exceeded the line’s output. “We were basically out of capacity last fall,” said Alan Edington, general manager, Nashville Bun Company, and vice-president of operations, Tennessee Bun Company.

Managers also took into account the customer’s desire to win when focus groups compared its sandwiches with competitors’ products. The bakery’s existing hearth oven showed excessive across-the-belt variability in crust color and bake quality. Determining that a new line would be needed, managers applied the discipline of Decision Matrix analysis to the project. The breakdown gave preference to consistency and product improvements. In addition, new equipment had to come with built-in flexibility to handle a diverse range of products — the capability that defines Nashville Bun Company’s role within the larger enterprise.

NASHVILLE’S FIT.

With Tennessee Bun Company (TBC) executives headquartered at the Nashville location, this facility provides the engine of innovation for the whole enterprise. Its muffin, bun and sheeting lines readily accommodate confidential customer projects, and its central-US location facilitates fresh and frozen transportation needs. Today, customers of Nashville Bun Company (NBC) range from big-name food service operations and hotel chains to a wide variety of food companies, many proudly listed on the company’s website, www.buncompany.com.

“Flexibility is the key to our future,” Ms. Harrington said. “Our customers want to serve the most current products, and in food service, the products change as consumer tastes change. We are prepared to walk with them on those changes, and we have always tried to share the benefits with our base customer.”

Consensus decision-making is vital to TBC’s growth. Ms. Harrington outlined the expertise and responsibilities of the company’s F5 Leadership Group. Tom Harrington, partner and CFO, takes a strong interest in strategic and technology innovation. “He is brilliant with helping team members understand financial implications,” she said. Another member of the senior leadership team, JR Wilson, director of engineering, joined the company four years ago and contributes seasoned engineering and people skills. Beth Westjohn, CPA and controller, heads the administration team and support functions. Mr. Edington provides strategy and tactics and leads the team in calm, visionary way. Alan Barton, partner and president of the joint venture CornerStone Baking, contributes his skills in innovation, discipline, quality and people expertise. Mr. Harrington, Ms. Westjohn and Mr. Barton are members of Ms. Harrington’s family.

“Our F5 group brings a great mix of disciplines,” Ms. Harrington said. “We ‘fuss and discuss’ and then decide, lock arms and move forward.”

The NBC management team comprises Dewey Edwards, chief engineer; Torino King, sanitation; and Katie Austin, human resources, with consultant Clint Adams providing support.

Dave Nemecheck, the longtime head of TBC operations, recently took on a new role as a consultant. Based at Nashville, he gives half his time to TBC. The company hired Mr. Edington, a former Kroger grocery products manufacturing manager, to run NBC and oversee operations companywide.

“Dave is a baker’s baker,” Ms. Harrington explained, “and Alan is a genius at bakery management and leadership.” She noted that Mr. Edington provided the management disciplines — risk-adjusted performance measurement techniques that include Decision Matrix analysis and computer-supported mind-mapping, among others — that sustain the company’s forward-looking culture as it doubled in size.

CRITICAL TIMING.

NBC baked the biscuit line’s first shippable product on Aug. 4, the day of Baking & Snack’s visit. The original plan set a May date for startup, but a problem with one subsystem delayed things. Initial expectations also changed, according to Ms. Harrington. “With a continual focus on the objectives and missions of this project, we needed to spend about $500,000 more than desired and move the startup date to August,” she explained.

Yet plenty of practice and the whole-hearted support of the lead equipment vendor and ingredient suppliers enabled a smooth first day. Target capacity is more than 1,800 biscuits a minute.

“Our timeline was quite short,” Mr. Edington said. “Although we were held up by one piece of equipment, it was important that we did things right.”

Ms. Harrington outlined the project’s three objectives. First, improve overall consistency of the product for the customer. Second, increase capacity for the enterprise, not just one plant, and thus help achieve the company’s 3-year roadmap. Third, start up in May. The first two were met, but the third was not, yet even that experience provided valuable experience for team members.

“Sometimes, it is frustrating to each of us when we do not achieve our targets as originally established,” Ms. Harrington said. “However, continually restating the mission objectives helped us accept the changes that were necessary for team success. This was a large growth step for us as a strategic leadership team. We had to acknowledge that our original plan needed to change so the mission could be successful. Without us changing the expectations, our teams would not be successful, and in turn, each of us as individuals would not be successful.”

The project used fast-track procedures, set on a 6-month timeline. As the building went up, design and equipment bids were completed. As installation went forward, so did testing and training. Mr. Wilson handled the installation with the equipment vendors. NBC managers involved line operators in decision-making, too.

After bidding the project with several vendors, NBC selected Tromp Group USA, Dacula, GA, to provide the new line. The Nashville team met Jim Cummings, Tromp’s president, during an experimental flatbread project conducted for McDonald’s. Performing the introduction was Jeff Dearduff, director of US bakery operations for East Balt, Inc., Chicago, IL.

For the NBC biscuit line, the company tasked Tromp with putting the line together from start to finish, from silo to cooler. Mr. Cummings and his team also worked with Topos Mondial, Pottstown, PA, to supply several pieces of equipment, including a remanufactured APV/BP horizontal tilt-bowl 2,500-lb mixer, a remanufactured Northfield sprial product cooling system and a rebuilt Capway vacuum depanner. The Tromp biscuit sheeting system was originally installed here as part of getting NBC into the biscuit business, according to Mr. Cummings.

“We’re now working on another new line with Tromp,” Mr. Edington said. “Topos, as well, has been excellent to work with.”

THE GUIDING LIGHT.

Working with Decision Matrix techniques allowed team members to make objective decisions and proceed swiftly and confidently. For example, to answer the question of where to locate the new line, the Decision Matrix quickly identified the Nashville site over others available. “Each of our decision matrices provided us with valuable help,” Ms. Harrington noted.

Things were not always so orderly. “Previously, we expanded under the gun,” Mr. Nemecheck said. “We had to buy used equipment and adapt it ourselves. But because of Alan’s work in planning ahead, we could buy new equipment for this expansion.”

“A benefit to having the business run well is that you can buy the best,” Ms. Harrington said. “Our customers need us to produce consistent product for both their operations and end-user satisfaction. For us to remain competitive, we needed a line that produced at a high rate and had less waste.”

To research the new line, the NBC team networked with peers and other bakery experts, requesting advice from customers, equipment manufacturers and “some friendly competitors,” as Ms. Harrington put it. Tests conducted on ovens evaluated their bake characteristics, which were then reviewed with customers for feedback and approval. The company solicited competitive bids.

NBC wrote its value equation, weighting factors according to project objectives. The team gave a maximum weight of 10 to three factors: 1) consistency and product improvement, 2) capacity increase and 3) timing of delivery. The following four factors were weighted partially at eight or less: 1) cost, 2) efficiency and sustainability, 3) maintenance and technical support and 4) footprint. Two of the pieces were tested at the vendor’s factory, and the third was determined off an engineering study. Most of the decisions were based on value, quality and price.

FLEXIBLE FIRSTS.

Focused clearly on boosting output capacity and product quality, the new line also allowed the company to adopt new technologies — specifically, the Den Boer impingement oven, supplied by Tromp Group USA, with its innovative burner chambers, airflow design and temperature control. Also new is the pan buffer system that smooths product flow during temporary stoppages. A novel air exchange system manages temperatures within the enclosed cooling tower. And the bakery is about to install two Fuji computer-operated robotic packaging lines.

“The new oven gives us a lot of flexibility,” Mr. Nemecheck said.

High-velocity, low-pressure air does the baking. The heated air impinges on the top and bottom surfaces of products in a dynamic airflow pattern. The result is efficient heating and consistent crust color. “This oven transfers its heat right into the biscuits,” Mr. Edington said.

The biggest difference in this oven, according to Mr. Cummings, is the design of the plenums that deliver heated air to the baking chamber. The plenums, located above and below the belt, bring hot air from the top-mounted heat exchanger units into the middle of the plenum and push it out to both side edges. Other designs bring in hot air from one side and move it across the plenum to the other side. Compared with older ovens, this system uses about 40% less fuel. The NBC oven has four heating zones.

NBC chose a line that includes a pan buffer. Should a stoppage occur, the buffer gives the line operators up to 10 minutes of live storage time during production to solve the problem. The buffer also allows storage of all the system’s pans, recirculating them to the sheeter without any need for manual handling. This helps minimize pan damage.

Another new idea applied to the NBC line changes the way control terminals look and function. The operations team requested a simplified approach, and engineers answered with an interface that functions as an automated run-time chart. Recent history and current readings display line status in easy-to-read, colored-bar line chart. Operators can access additional control screens to diagnose and adjust machine conditions.

CONTROLLED PROCESS.

Current schedules call for 80 hours of production per week from the new line, making both fresh and frozen products. Mr. Edington builds the line’s schedule around making fresh products first.

The straight-line layout inside the new building extension allows ample floor space around the machines. (Now at 87,000 sq ft, the Nashville plant nearly fills its 5-acre site.) Although the facility has four other flour silos, the company installed a Pfening 150,000-lb silo on a separate pad right outside the expansion that houses the new biscuit line. When called for by the mixer program, flour transfers through a sifter to the Pfening weigh hopper above the mixer.

Other bulk and major ingredients, including proprietary bakery mixes delivered in supersacks, enter the ingredient system through a bulk-bag unloading station. A second Pfening above-mixer weigh hopper handles these materials. A custom-built water chiller delivers ingredient water at pre­prog-rammed temperatures.

The company planned to install two mixers for this line, with the idea that spare parts would be consistent with those of the bakery’s existing mixers. During the design phase, however, the line staff suggested using one big mixer instead of two smaller ones, thus decreasing ingredient handling needs. So a large APV/BP horizontal tilt-bowl dough mixer mixer, remanufactured to NBC specs by Topos Mondial, was selected. And, according to Mr. Edington, it did indeed cut the time and energy needed for ingredient supply. Batch size is generally 2,000 lb, with a mix time of 4 minutes.

“That change came from the team on the floor,” he added. “It goes to prove that it is impossible to involve too many people if you want to get good decisions.”

During design, the NBC team improved worker safety in the area around the mixer by elevating the dough conveyor high off the floor, rather than running it at waist level straight from the dough pump in front of the mixer. This change improved sight lines and visibility and enables better access for sanitation. The mixer’s rubber mounts cut vibration noise.

Dough moves via conveyor from the mixer to the Tromp sheeting line’s hopper. The sheeter creates a wide, thick ribbon of dough that passes under a flour-dusting station. Two sets of reduction rollers gently reduce the depth of the dough sheet. Another flour-dusting station is positioned before the third set of reduction rollers.

The cutter turns the dough sheet into individual biscuits, and a few feet later, an angled conveyor belt pulls off the web of excess dough. The scrap dough returns to the hopper feeding the sheeter. Although scrap dough aids flavor characteristics, NBC carefully controls the amount reincorporated.

The raw biscuits continue along to a reciprocating conveyor that drops down slightly before it retracts to release the dough pieces onto a waiting flat pan. Panned biscuits proceed at once into the Tromp Group USA oven loader, which assembles pans into groups of five and sweeps them forward onto the oven belt. Alternately, the loader can route pans into the buffer for temporary storage.

Baking proceeds quickly in the Den Boer impingement oven. Engineers placed the oven’s control terminal at the infeed end. Its interface displays run conditions as well as air temperature, belt speed and heat exchanger function, along with machine diagnostics.

At the end of the oven, a Tromp Group USA unloader removes pans and sends them immediately through the Capway depanner rebuilt by Topos Mondial. Pans cool as they circulate back to the sheeting line, while hot biscuits move along a conveyor leading to the Northfield spiral cooler, also rebuilt and installed by Topos. The fully enclosed cooler gently removes heat from the biscuits. It operates at temperatures just 5 F° cooler than the oven room and exhausts excess heat to the building’s exterior.

NEW PACKAGING OPTIONS.

For the time being, biscuits made on the new line move along to the packaging area also used by the hearth line. NBC took delivery on two Fuji horizontal form/fill/seal machines for the new line and is waiting for the automation package for these systems. The new wrappers can be set up for bulk or tray packs or so both styles can be run at the same time. When fully on-stream, the packaging lines will send items through the warehouse to the shipping docks.

“We customize the packaging as best fits the customer’s applications,” Ms. Harrington said.

The company currently offers three different packaging styles. Tray packaging employs a thin board that keeps the product properly oriented during overwrapping and distribution. This style allows one, two or three trays to be overwrapped in a single package and best suits sliced items, and orientation is important. Pillow-packing is the second method and does not require the thin board. Such packages can be cased or put into basket-like delivery trays. Bulk packing, the third style, assembles products by piece count from 108 to 240 per case and puts them into lined shipping cases.

All of these packaging processes can be delivered to the customer either fresh or frozen. If frozen, the product goes to Cold Storage of Nashville, the company’s cold-storage warehouse, where it will be static-frozen.

While installation and commissioning of the new biscuit line have kept NBC engineers and operators busy, the bakery also moved forward with improvements to other areas. For example, when upgrading the English muffin line, the company put new stainless steel skins on the equipment. Then it boosted the lighting in this area from 35 to 50 candlepower. The result is a much brighter work environment. Another project renovated makeup systems for the hearth bread line.

It’s all according to the company’s very flexible plan. “Because we thought ahead, we could actually achieve 2013’s goals this year,” Mr. Edington said. “The plan is quite fluid.”