Big, fast and agile. Those three words not only describe the perfect 350-lb lineman who can make all of the moves on the football field. Those qualities also make Hearthside Food Solution’s flagship facility in McComb, OH, unique, according to Dwayne Hughes, senior vice-president, supply chain, for the Downers Grove, IL-based contract manufacturer.

“I’ve been working in the food industry for 25 years, and this is the biggest, most flexible plant that I have ever been in,” Mr. Hughes said.

How big is big? Sitting on 41 acres, the 1.1 million-sq-ft operation allocates 750,000 sq ft to production, 200,000 sq ft to warehousing and 150,000 sq ft to office space and other operations, including a machinery design and maintenance center and the company’s main product development lab.

How fast is fast? The facility houses 14 production lines that can crank out 150 million lb of cookies, crackers, bars, brownies and other baked snacks on an annual basis. To produce such high volume requires about 1.3 million lb of flour, 800,000 lb of bulk sugar and 750,000 lb of oil a week.

And what about its agility? That’s where the plant’s versatility enters the picture. According to Mr. Hughes, all a customer needs to do is look at the packaging department where a spaghetti bowl of conveyors and a maze of 27 packaging lines can be reconfigured at any time and in any which way to bag, carton, tray, wrap and even place snacks in sealed to-go cups.

Specifically, the back end of the operation can mix and match a wide variety of equipment, including 50 vertical form/fill/seal bagging machines, 46 horizontal wrappers, 25 horizontal cartoning systems, five bag-and-box lines and one go-cup system. In all, the maintenance department monitors 5,800 pieces of equipment throughout the facility.

Even the production area presents a balancing act between fast and flexible. The bakery has 19 dough mixers — most of them in the 2,000-lb range — and seven creme mixers. Its 14 ovens range from 220- to 250-ft long, but only two of them are dedicated to a single product. Otherwise, how else could a bakery output 660 SKUs of products in an ever-changing portfolio as its customer base rolls out new products?

“In some bakeries, you gear up for an item, and you run it for 15 shifts. That’s not our business,” explained John Aldrich, vice-president of manufacturing, Ohio region. “You’d be amazed at the production changeovers or packaging changes that we do.”

On average, changeovers occur two to three times a week, but they can be daily on some of the more versatile lines. However, a dedicated line may run for 13 days straight, with the 14th day assigned to sanitation and preventive maintenance.

“It all depends on the line and what we’re producing on it,” Mr. Aldrich said. “If it’s a cracker, and all we’re doing is changing the seasoning, I don’t count that as a changeover. In the old days, your changeovers were dictated by how quickly you can get your mixers and ovens set up. In today’s world, it’s more dictated by changing packaging machines over. It’s just getting more and more complicated.”

Nature of the business

Complicated is often the nature of the beast in the co-manufacturing world. As a result, managing Hearthside’s business requires coordination between sales and production. That’s because as its major branded customers bring Hearthside new business, they may also be discontinuing products, replacing them with new concepts or taking back the best-selling new items for production in-house, according to Rich Scalise, chairman and CEO.

Not surprisingly, scheduling can be difficult with so many changeovers, which can take between 12 and 24 hours. “You have allergens to consider, and you have to determine which products you can run one after ­another. It gets very complicated,” Mr. Aldrich said.

The McComb bakery has a “war room” for managing production flow. “Some say it’s a little old-fashioned,” he added. “We have a scheduling board that’s a very manual process. Someday, we hope to make it less manual and more automated.”

That day may come sooner rather than later.

In January, the McComb plant became one of Hearthside’s latest bakeries to roll out SAP enterprise business software. According to Mr. Aldrich, the enterprise resource planning software will reduce inventory, save working capital, help identify other operational ­efficiencies and better integrate the company with its premier customers.

“From an operations standpoint, the information is more timely,” he said. “As we learn how to use it, we’ll make better decisions, which should result in cost and efficiency savings and better operational controls.”

One of the biggest adjustments, Mr. Hughes said, will be adapting the bakery’s fast and flexible model into the structured SAP system. “The challenge for us is that we have to build our billing materials and product specifications into the system before the first pound is produced,” he said. “With dedicated lines, once SAP is set up, you don’t have to make any changes unless you change the product formula.

“Because we have to follow a rigid process, we’ll need a lot more upfront planning, which involves working ahead with our customers,” Mr. Hughes explained. “We need all of the specifications and other information inside the system prior to start-up.”

Mr. Hughes expects the McComb bakery to better harness the system to reap benefits in the near future. “Typically, with a plant this size, you need one good year of working with SAP,” he observed. “You then really can maximize the data that’s coming out of the system and develop reports and add controls.”

Different day, every day

The McComb operation has 1,600 hourly and flexible-force employees along with 88 salaried workers. The number changes with demand and seasonal fluctuations. Production runs anywhere from five to seven days a week. Typically, employees will work three 12-hour shifts one week followed by four 12-hour shifts the next. “We have 14 lines, but very few times do we have all 14 running at once,” Mr. Aldrich said.

That’s because, at any given time, some lines may be down for preventive maintenance, sanitation or a changeover. Moreover, Mr. Aldrich said, with 27 packaging lines and 14 ovens, half of the packaging lines may sit idle, even though the bakery is at full production.

The plant can make mini-sandwich cookies and crackers with either single or dual deposits. Its fruit bar output ranges from large particulate co-extrusion to triple extrusion. In addition to producing large ­single- and dual-deposited cookies, the versatile lines can make pretzel chips, all types of crackers, soft cookies, hard cookies, brownies, organic snacks and even cookie grinds and pieces.

A brief overview of each line paints a pretty clear picture of the capabilities — and flexibility — of the McComb bakery, which has seven cookie and seven cracker lines.

Nearly all of the lines are 48 in. wide. Line No. 1, armed with a 240-ft, indirect-fired oven, makes soft, high-moisture cookies and brownies in a multitude of sizes. Lines No. 2 through 7 all have 220-ft direct-fired ovens. No. 2 makes sandwich cremes; No. 3 can produce fig bars, wire-cut cookies and wafers; No. 4 produces bars as well as rotary and wire-cut cookies in individual packets; No. 5 makes muffins and pan products; No. 6 produces sandwich cremes; and No. 7 is a bar line with an automated flowwrapper.

All cracker lines have 250-ft ovens. Line No. 8 features a hybrid oven with convection and direct-fired zones to produce baked chips and graham crackers; Nos. 9 and 10 make multiple varieties of crackers; No. 11 uses dual depositing to form mini-sandwich cookies and ­crackers; No. 12 focuses on cheese cracker items; No. 13 produces a variety of baked snacks; and No. 20 employs a 60-in.-wide ­hybrid oven for baking crackers.

To add even more production versatility, many makeup lines are located 40 to 60 ft from the mixers. This extra space allows the bakery to install sheeter, wire-cut or die-cut cookie systems to adeptly respond to customer demand.

To provide front-end control and traceability, all minor dry ingredients are prescaled in a separate room, placed in sealed separate bags and rolled to the mixer on tri-level carts. Each shelf contains a “kit,” or a single batch of ingredients. Operators scan a barcode attached to each shelf before and after the ingredients are added to provide lot tracking, inventory recording and other information that feeds into the bakery’s SAP system. “With SAP, we’re scanning everything,” Mr. Aldrich noted.

Likewise, minor liquid ingredients are metered from totes into buckets in a central area of the bakery. All allergens such as eggs and dairy are stored in a separate temperature-controlled room in the peanut-free facility.

Key to this operation’s flexibility is the packaging department, which contains more switches and conveyors than a New York rail yard. Most ovens feed multiple packaging lines. According to Mr. Aldrich, it’s not unusual for the same variety of cookies coming from a single oven to be diverted for hand packing, tray packing or bag-in-box and cartoning.

Although such flexibility is the bakery’s biggest asset, it comes with a cost. Mr. Aldrich estimated that the bakery’s 60-in.-wide dedicated line — its most efficient — averages about 30% more throughput than the others and provides 40% more in cost savings. “We don’t have to shut it down for changeovers since it’s dedicated to producing crackers,” he said.

During the past three years, Hearthside spent $25 million in capital improvements at the McComb bakery, which was originally built in 1963 but with multiple additions over the decades. This year, the company will invest $3 million at the plant.

Many improvements aren’t glamorous. They’ve included replacing the roof, refitting floors and other facility modifications ranging from enhancing employee safety to ­improving sanitation and operational efficiencies.

From a food safety perspective, Hearthside requires all its plants to maintain a baseline of SQF Level 3 — a certification held by the McComb facility since 2009. For sustainability and improved air quality, Hearthside invested in electric forklifts. In the maze throughout the packaging department, the beeping from forklifts is never-ending as their operators shuttle hundreds of pallets of finished products or packaging materials to and from the warehouse each hour..

When it comes to investing in equipment, Hearthside needs to be selective in such a nimble operation. Although it sounds counterintuitive, most of the capital spending for automation has made the packaging area more versatile. At its other bakeries, Hearthside recently installed the latest in robotic pick-and-place packaging systems as well as automated palletizing operations.

A continuous journey

To steadily streamline production and improve ­efficiency, supervisors and managers meet with line operators in a continuous improvement room, located right on the production floor. Focus improvement teams (FIT) gather there to analyze problems, determine their root causes and schedule a fix or solution using a structured process, ­according to Michael Cozad, Hearthside’s continuous improvement manager for the Ohio region.

On the wall of the room, the FIT group gathers data on such common ­operational issues as reducing scrap or improving throughput. It then maps out the line to identify the loss point, for example, where waste is occurring. Next, the team develops a playbook on the whiteboard to outline how to fix the problem either mechanically or by adding more manpower. “The key is then validating that the problem is fixed,” Mr. Cozad said.

Additionally, Hearthside’s continuous improvement process assists in defining new supervisors’ or employees’ jobs.

The last time the McComb facility expanded was in 2001, but that doesn’t mean the largest privately owned bakery in North America hasn’t grown over the past decade. “We’re just packing more and more production into this building,” Mr. Aldrich said.                                       

Scaling up new products

Hearthside’s R&D center

Hearthside’s product development lab in McComb, OH, is more like a mini-bakery than a conventional R&D center. The 34,000-sq-ft center contains three 40-in.-wide ovens — two direct- and one indirect-fired — that are about one-eighth the scale of those inside the bakery. About 28 employees work in the center.

Additionally, the center has 40- and 180-lb spiral ­mixers as well as two single-sigma and one double-sigma horizontal mixers ranging in capacity from 400 to 1,000 lb. Other equipment includes 18-in.-wide rotary and wire-cut systems, a dual-feed co-extruder, a sheeting line, three cutting machines (including ultrasonic) and an enrober with matching cooling tunnel.

The lab’s packaging area includes a bagger and cartoner as well as a horizontal autoload, cardsheet-ready, form/fill/seal wrapper.

John Aldrich, Hearthside’s vice-president of manufacturing, Ohio region, explained that the lab can also crank out short runs of new products during their initial rollout until their volume ramps up enough to shift production inside the main bakery.