Hostess' technology transplant

by Laurie Gorton and Joanie Spencer
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EMPORIA, KAS. — To pull off what was called “the sweetest comeback in the history of ever,” Hostess Brands needed more than revitalization … it needed reanimation. Three years after flat-lining, the company’s flagship bakery in Emporia, Kas., now cranks out more than 9 million individual Twinkies and almost as many CupCakes every week in a state-of-the art facility that’s constant motion, outputting products with speed and precision.

Hostess Brands L.L.C., Kansas City, Mo., required a big engine to drive market reentry. It got just that when it invested major capital sums on technology not only for its Emporia facility but the other two bakeries and a new distribution system.

Emporia was shuttered by the second Interstate Bakeries Corp./Hostess Brands bankruptcy in November 2012. The new owners — the New York City-based private equity firms of Metropoulos & Co. and Apollo Global Management LLC — purchased the cake assets in April 2013 and reopened processing operations in July of that year.

Resuscitating Hostess was about more than just pouring dollars into new projects. It was about breathing life back into an American icon. Todd Crook, senior director, plant operations, and Emporia plant manager, added, “It’s been a fun two-and-a-half years.”

Over half of total

Following the installation of two Auto-Bake Serpentine systems; E.T. Oakes mixing, depositing and cooling equipment; and Delta, Kliklok-Woodman, Pearson and Propack packaging and robotic technology, Emporia now produces more than 50% of total company output for Hostess. And that includes all Twinkies.

The company streamlined its production of Twinkies and CupCakes. Processing and packaging operations require far fewer people and yield much higher output. And the original cake line, still running at Emporia, isn’t too far behind the volume of the two newer lines. It’s not just cake items that have ramped up. The bakery houses four lines making Donettes, small donuts coated with powdered sugar, cinnamon sugar, chocolate or a variety of seasonal toppings.

At Hostess, things now happen quickly, especially in product development. With seasonal offerings and hip flavors such as red velvet and pumpkin spice, S.K.U.s are increasing faster than a teenage boy’s height on a growth chart.

While Emporia houses Twinkie and CupCake production, the Columbus, Ga., plant bakes Ding Dongs and similar items, and Indianapolis is the center for muffins. Preparation of other products is scattered between the plants, but all wind up at the central distribution warehouse in Shorewood, Ill., a southwestern suburb of Chicago. The warehouse reassembles products into customer loads.

At times, demand sees large increases, such as when school starts back up after summer or winter breaks, and during those peak periods, the company makes Twinkies at the Georgia facility as well. “Everything we make, they can make,” said Ron Wilson, director of cake manufacturing at Hostess Brands L.L.C. He also noted that Georgia makes pies, which Emporia does not.

Chad Bechard, Hostess Brands’ director of commodity procurement, added, “We’ve gotten more specialized. You do need some versatility so you can do things at other bakeries, but we have the bakeries set up for certain things.”

Rapid installation

When Metropoulos and Apollo bought Hostess, Twinkies and other products had been out of production for several months, and the distribution chain was exhausted. The decision to upgrade production had to be made quickly.

“We committed in June 2013 to buy the first Auto-Bake line,” said Rob Kissick, senior vice-president, of purchasing for Hostess. “That was a month before the big back-to-the market launch.”

Specs and engineering work occurred during fall 2013, and in the spring, the equipment arrived at the bakery. Hostess’ corporate engineering staff and the Emporia engineering group, headed by chief engineer Ken Robinson, handled the installation as a team effort. The line was making salable product by July 2014. That summer, the company decided to add a second Auto-Bake line. A condensed installation timetable enabled production to start up in April 2015.

The Auto-Bake technology completely upends any older methods for cake production. Instead of a long tunnel oven followed by an even longer cooler, it uses compact serpentine design for both baking and cooling. The outfeed modules are smaller than older designs, saving space on the shop floor. These systems even manage to tuck in-line pan washers into their layout.

The wide “free” pans for both systems come from American Pan, a Bundy Baking Solution, and the bakery stocks two sets for its CupCake line and one for Twinkies.

Matching these lines is an array of equipment supplied by E.T. Oakes. New slurry mixers and continuous aerators deliver batters, icings and creme fillings at the proper specific gravity for each component.

The Twinkie line typically runs around the clock for six to seven days a week. It is so automated that it requires just one operator to manage mixing, one to apply labels to cases at the end of the packaging line and seven to oversee the automation.

Every step of the journey from ingredients to palletized cakes is tracked by an integrated PLC system mated to a SAP manufacturing management program. Allen-Bradley PanelView touch-screen terminals on the new lines give operators real-time information about specific gravity, batter density, flow rates and deposit weights straight through to zone-by-zone oven and cooler conditions, plus packaging rates, numbers and production lot data.

Getting started

On both new lines, filled pans travel through the oven in a rising back-and-forth pattern. Each zone can be controlled separately to yield optimum quality. The pans move along a brief ambient-temperature transfer bridge above the pan washer to reach the cooler, also a serpentine design. The cooler is housed in a Bally temperature-and-humidity controlled chamber.

Before depanning, an Oakes injection system squirts the filling inside the cooled CupCakes or Twinkies. It travels at the same speed as the conveyor while performing the injection.

The vacuum depanning system supplies 100% vacuum to all points across the pan. The heads can be switched out without having to decouple and then recouple the vacuum hose or pneumatic tube.

CupCakes tumble onto an indexing section with hold-down belts that present them topside up for icing. They pass under an Oakes continuous ribbon icer that lays down a stream of chocolate frosting. Then they get the characteristic Hostess squiggle by passing under the Oakes squiggle depositor.

On both lines, the used pans travel backward to the washer. Clean pans travel below the oven returning to the front of the line to reach the depositing station and start the baking cycle again.

To set the icing, CupCakes pass through an Oakes tempering tunnel. Although chocolate is the most temperature-sensitive style, Hostess now offers CupCakes with vanilla, golden and seasonal icings.

Wrap, pack, palletize, ship

All products from Auto-Bake No. 1 — exclusively Twinkies — are packaged using a highly automated system that requires no human intervention from individual wrapping, to placement in the folding carton, to the corrugated case packing and to palletizing.

As filled Twinkies enter the packaging area, they separate into lanes leading to the bank of Delta flowwrappers.

ProPack carton loaders use pick-and-place robotic arms to move wrapped Twinkies into cartons supplied by Kwiklok-Woodman carton erectors. Each robot is fed by two wrappers. The filled cartons move into the Pearson case loader, and another Pearson robot places cases on pallets. A Lantech stretch wrapper stabilizes the pallet.

As the CupCakes leave the cooling tunnel, they separate into lanes leading to Delta flowwrappers equipped with servo-driven flow controls like those packaging Twinkies. Once filled, the cartons move along to Kwiklok-Woodman carton closers and Pearson casing and palletizing systems. Products made on Cake Line No. 1 are packed in this area while a separate location is devoted to packaging Donettes.

The bakery can actually run single and multi-packs at the same time with its multiple case loaders. The pallet stacker is programmed to identify and put single-serve items and multipacks on different pallets.

Then the system sorts the styles and stacks them for immediate transfer to the warehouse. Once the pallets hit the warehouse, it’s only a matter of hours before they’re on their way to the distribution center via common carrier.

Direct-to-warehouse model

The first thing any visitor to Hostess Emporia sees is the huge new warehouse grafted onto the side of the bakery. At the same time the first Auto-Bake was installed, the plant expanded its shipping area. The bakery needed the floor space to stage shipments because just as the production cycle is in constant motion, the finished product is moving out the door just as quickly.

The big on-site warehouse represents the second half of the Emporia revitalization. The thinking behind it is revolutionary … for a baking company. All fresh products now travel to customers through a warehouse system, not by a fleet of small vans doing direct-store delivery.

“Hostess follows a direct-to-warehouse model,” Mr. Kissick said. “Everything we do — cakes, donuts, pies, everything — goes out in a corrugated case on a shrink-wrapped pallet.” Not only is each case marked by a Pearson coder for time of manufacturer and other traceability factors but also every pallet. This information is sent to the SAP system and supplied to the trucking operation and the central warehouse. A forklift operator picks up every finished pallet and takes it to the distribution area. There, the pallet is loaded onto a truck.

Busy and getting busier

Things move fast around the Emporia bakery. It’s in constant motion. Once a product is made and packaged, it’s out the door. Any product that’s in the warehouse for more than 24 hours has overstayed its welcome. Production schedules are written to ensure rapid turnaround.

Hostess managers put credit for this performance squarely on the bakery’s staff. “Emporia has a great workforce,” Mr. Wilson said. “I’ve never seen a bakery run like this in all my years. A lot of good people make this operation run so well.

“Three years ago, we were out of business,” he continued. “When we came back, we started all four bakeries up in the same week.”

Hostess got the benefit of considerable bakery expertise when many former Hostess employees came back to work at the bakeries. New hires were added, and at Emporia, the town gave the company enthusiastic support. “This is a unique community,” Mr. Crook said. “Emporia is a small town with great values. The reopening was received very well. The town got behind us, and that helped us get staffed.”

Now configured as three bakeries, Hostess gives considerable authority to each. “All our plants are very good,” Mr. Kissick observed. “And we have a lot of freedom to operate. And as for the future, we’re always looking at ways to run more efficiently and improve the ways we deliver product.”

Once again, life at the Emporia bakery is sweet.

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