Bread, Buns...Now Tortillas

by Laurie Gorton
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Flour tortillas headed to East Coast markets started rolling off the new line at The Indianapolis Bakery on April 5. Success with the launch of refrigerated tortillas prompted the bakery to enter the fresh tortilla business in October.

“When Kroger decided to offer its own brand of flour tortillas, a corporate team studied whether to make the tortillas ourselves or to buy from an outside source,” explained Don Krapinski, general manager for The Kroger Co.’s bakery at Indianapolis, IN. The line’s quick startup and the products’ quick acceptance more than justified the Cincinnati, OHbased food retailer’s decision.

The new tortilla line marks the latest addition to a workhorse plant now also benefiting from Kroger’s current initiatives in control and automation technologies. It went through a major refocusing effort in 2000 that upgraded the plant’s infrastructure. The company then replaced its bread lines in 2003. Addition of the tortilla system followed in 2005. Networking of the facility’s PLCs and computer-run equipment is now underway with completion targeted for February 2006.

“We are very proud of this plant, and we are able to keep raising our standards,” Mr. Krapinski said.
Bakeries run by The Kroger Co. operate in an environment of continual improvement measured against best practices. It’s a way of doing business common to the company’s whole manufacturing group, 42 plants strong.

FOUR DIVISIONS. Located on the East side of Indianapolis with access to interstate highways, The Indianapolis Bakery supplies fresh bread, buns, rolls and flour tortillas to four Kroger divisions. “We also distribute products from sister plants and national suppliers to those stores — more than 200 SKUs in all,” Mr. Krapinski explained. “And we are a contract manufacturer in the Kroger grocery manufacturing group.”

At 165,000 sq ft, Indianapolis is the second largest bakery in the Kroger system. Kroger also operates bakeries at La Habra, CA; Denver, CO; Hutchinson, KS; Columbus, OH; Clackamas, OR; and Anderson, SC. Mr. Krapinski became Indianapolis’ general manager in March 2002 and has worked in the Kroger food manufacturing system for close to 30 years. The bakery has 203 employees: 25 management and 178 hourly associates.

Kroger originally built the Indianapolis facility in 1960 as both a bakery and a dairy. The company consolidated volume from four smaller bakeries into the plant’s bread and bun lines. Over the years, the bakery and its product mix changed to meet shifting customer demand. In 1975, the dairy operation moved across the street into a facility then ranked as the largest in the world.

Infrastructure improvements that accompanied the bakery’s refocusing altered its electrical distribution system and added an air purification system and ammonia refrigeration capacity including compressors. The building’s power plant and maintenance department were also expanded to meet future needs, according to Mr. Krapinski.

PLANNING FOR CHANGE. Kroger follows a rolling multiyear plan for capital investment involving its manufacturing plants. Reviewed annually, the plan is subject to approvals throughout the process.

“The ideas in the plan come from the plants, some from sales and marketing and others from customer requests for new products,” said Barry H. Blackwell, vice-president, engineering and plant services, The Kroger Co., Cincinnati.

To make decisions about technology as well as foster best practices, Kroger uses both external and internal resources, and the company maintains an intranet site to share information among the plants. “Part of the reliability effort focuses on reapplication of efforts across the company,” said Mike Brown, the bakery’s facility engineer, confirming the value of intranet communications capabilities. “The challenge in capital appropriations is to look ahead to put something into place to get to the future,” he continued.

VERTICAL STARTUP. Kroger market analysis identified Indianapolis as the site for the new tortilla line and set the project in motion in mid-March 2004. The Indianapolis project team researched the technology by visiting other tortilla manufacturing plants, equipment vendors and attending American Institute of Baking tortilla seminars. The bakery hired the tortilla line’s supervisor six months ahead of time, so he could participate in the selection and startup of the line.

Deciding on a Lawrence Equipment Legend 36 automated doubledrop tortilla line, the team commissioned its construction. Before accepting delivery, however, they traveled to the vendor’s factory to run the line for 10 days.

Kroger engineers employed a method called vertical startup for installation of the new tortilla line. This involves advance work on the line’s critical control points, product formulations, drive choices, operation standards and lockout-tagout protocols. A written document describes each aspect of startup including space requirements and spare parts inventory. Key to the approach is validation of machine operations.

“As part of a vertical startup, we brainstorm about possible failures,” Mr. Brown explained. “We test the line extensively to see how it recovers from failures. We do all this before taking delivery of the equipment. At the factory, we ran the line during the day and then crawled under the machinery the next morning to check the settings.”

Mr. Krapinski voiced the reason behind this degree of care: “We wanted to achieve a very high level of reliability in our first 10 days of operation at Indy, and we did. Vertical startup is one of our reliability tools.”

The discussion doesn’t end once new systems are up and running. Teamwork is a core value at all Kroger manufacturing facilities, and Indianapolis is no exception. “Every month, the managers meet with plant employees to reinforce our core values,” Mr. Krapinski said. “We also discuss SQR and total manufacturing results. We want every employee to be engaged. These meetings also provide a forum for feedback.”

“The communications run both ways,” said Dana Widger, the plant’s human resources manager.

AUTOMATED TORTILLAS. Indianapolis houses its tortilla line in the former dairy with its quarry tile flooring. Because of the well-insulated tortilla ovens, the climate-controlled room holds temperature and humidity at constant levels. As in other areas of the plant, equipment is clearly marked by its use, and at each station, the machine’s lockout-tagout procedures are posted along with photos and clear descriptions providing vital safety and operating information.

“We do strictly flour tortillas here,” Mr. Krapinski said.

A Peerless horizontal mixer prepares the dough from ingredients fed to it by the bulk flour system. The mixer dumps the dough into small mobile troughs, which are then wheeled to a hoist in front of the divider. The Lawrence system consists of twin processing lines, each with its own press, oven and cooler.

The overhead proofer allows portioned dough balls to relax for a few minutes and then drops the balls 12 at a time into funnel-like guides mounted on a single plate. The conveyor belt containing the carefully placed dough balls moves forward an inch or so, and the guide-plate descends to lightly tap the balls, so they stay in place on the conveyor. The belt moves forward again pausing under the platen that flattens the balls into thin round disks.

The pressed tortillas enter a hightemperature oven. Very quickly, they traverse all three passes in the oven and then enter the multilevel cooling conveyor system. After the automatic stacker assembles the required number of tortillas, the system gives the stack a light tap to make sure the tortillas stay properly stacked as they travel to the bagger. The Hartman paddle-bagging system handles the output of both lines. The bagger’s reciprocating arm gently moves the stack into a waiting opened bag and carries the filled bag through to the sealing system.

ONE BIGGER THAN TWO. The 2003 bread line project replaced two outdated bread lines with a single higher-capacity system from APV Baker (now Turkington APV USA). “We were at capacity on bread,” Mr. Krapinski explained. “In September 2003, we completed the new line, and that allowed us to accept new business once again.”

Installation and startup took place in phases to avoid disrupting production, according to Mr. Brown. Over the course of a year, the bakery removed one line at a time. This line was the first in the Kroger system to use automated pan storage and retrieval systems: a Fanuc robot manages sandwich pan lids, while a Capway system handles strapped bread pans.

The bakery also replaced overhead proofers with belt proofers and installed a large Laramore flour dust recovery system. “We want to be a dust-free plant,” Mr. Krapinski said. The system allows hygienic recycling of recovered flour, according to Jerry Strom, the bakery’s recently retired operations manager.

Early this fall, the bakery redid its Capway robotic pan storage and handling system. Surge capacity was improved and the holding rails realigned, according to Mr. Brown.

PLCs run nearly everything on the bread line. As part of the 2003 installation , Indianapolis set up three control stations for operators consisting of Allen-Bradley VersaView touchscreen terminals on Strong Arm mounts. These provide real-time information on all aspects of the line. Software enables quick identification of alarm conditions, while authorized user protocols protect system settings. When changing pan sizes, for example, the operator taps the description of the next pan size, and the computer instructs the storage and retrieval system to start removing the previous size while bringing the new size on line.

“An alarm will pull up a picture of the affected system, not just sound the audible alarm,” Mr. Brown stated. The terminals are also programmed to show lockout-tagout information with detailed photographs for every piece of equipment on the line.

The bread line’s depanner is also computer-controlled to adjust to the right height for each product. An air knife and brushes clean the pan as it is returned to use or put into storage. Bread continues along into the overhead cooling conveyors to travel more than a mile as the loaves cool for proper slicing. Loaves travel through two metal detectors, which are checked every half hour. “The redundancy is for product safety,” Mr. Brown explained.

A computer-operated distribution conveyor moves bread to baggers and maintains an even supply to each Formost wrapper. The bagger operator functions as the final quality control inspector watching loaves as they are sliced, bagged and sealed by a Burford twist-tier. Bagged bread moves automatically into the AMF pattern former for placement into delivery baskets.

NEXT IN LINE. At the same time the tortilla line went in, Indianapolis also upgraded its flour delivery system.“We added a bulk tank for whole-wheat flour because we produce so many varieties here,” Mr. Krapinski said.

The bakery is also working with new sanitation and maintenance methods including a carbon dioxide blast cleaner, which avoids the damage that water can do, according to Mr. Brown.

Mr. Krapinski added, “With carbon dioxide, there’s not a lot of residue left behind. We are always searching for new levels of technology in sanitation. We want to be the leader in that category.”

The next project will be to network the many PLC-operated systems in the plant. “We are about to install a Wonderware system,”Mr. Brown said. “We have all the processing equipment PLCs on Ethernet connections already.” This project should be finished by the end of February.

“Having equipment networked means real time data for us and our operators,” he continued. “Such data will help us make better decisions about maintenance and where to best invest labor and time in such activities.”
Mr. Brown added, “In the three years I have been here, there’s been a project pending all the time.”

“And we’re not done yet,” Mr. Krapinski said.

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