Investing in bottlenecks

To keep up with the millions of cookies and bars Oak State produces every day, the company relies heavily on efficiency. And that starts with strategic — and limited — partnerships with suppliers on each of its four production lines. “You could call it one main supplier per capability,” Byron suggested. This includes Benchmark Automation infeeds, Baker Perkins ovens, Formost Fuji wrappers and Blueprint Automation robotics. “We identify best-in-class equipment providers and permeate that technology throughout the plant,” he said, explaining that this type of partnership ensures that employees can hone a specific skill set and leverage that skill across lines.

As production picks up and new product launches continue, Oak State recognized bottlenecks in the process, the latest being at the mixing stage. “It’s kind of funny because the balance of throughput has shifted,” Byron explained. “We invested in packaging to wrap the products faster. As that investment peaked, we had to get back to the beginning to invest in mixing so we could keep up with the high-speed packaging.”

As throughput increased, Oak State found that some of its lines could not handle just one mixer, so it invested in three more — bringing the total to six from both Peerless and Champion — over the past five years.

From the mixers, which are housed in two rooms, dough is transported to four lines: A1 runs wirecut cookies; B2, which runs 24/7, produces bars; C3 is for sandwich and chocolate-enrobed cookies; D4 also produces wirecut cookies — typically heartier ones with inclusions. During Baking & Snack’s visit, Lines A and D were producing cookies while Line B produced pumpkin bars.

Formulaically speaking, Byron suggested, there isn’t a big difference between many cookies and bars, and for the products being made this particular day, the biggest difference was the wirecut. “The only difference between Lines A and B is that the wire cuts the cookies on A,” he said. “They would be bars if we had a post-oven guillotine cutting them.

Once cut or extruded, cookies and bars travel through Baker Perkins indirect-fired four-zone ovens. Because of the strict specifications that come with contract baking, Oak State must strike a delicate balance between dough temperature and oven temperature — and sometimes even the temperature in Wenona — to precisely meet those requirements for each of the million cookies it’s producing every day. “On a hot, humid summer day, cookies will bake differently than on a cold day in December,” Byron said.

From the oven, cookies travel through refrigerated cooling on an IJ White spiral conveyor before heading to packaging. Cooling is critical when making products that are individually wrapped. “If they’re not ambient, moisture will accumulate inside the package and mold,” Byron cautioned.