Investing in new equipment can be a tricky proposition for companies that co-create or co-manufacture baked goods and snacks because it involves predicting the future. Sometimes new products don’t do as well as expected and get removed from the market. Other times, the launch is so successful that a client decides to bring production in-house. It’s a challenge determining whether a new product will end up being a longstanding project or not. Not everybody is a psychic.

As a result, some companies call retired equipment “lawn furniture” because it just sits around taking up space in the plant. Vince Nasti, vice president of operations, Nation Pizza and Foods, Schaumburg, IL, has his own term. “I refer to [the equipment] as ‘boat anchors,’ ” he said. “Furniture you can still use. Boat anchors — you have to be very careful with them.”

As a result, versatility remains a top priority when justifying the purchase of a new system. “You have to make sure that you’re going to have the same business six months to a year from now, or that the equipment can be used in another fashion. That’s the delicate balance we face,” Mr. Nasti said.

In all, Nation Pizza and Foods — or Nation, for short — offers 450 SKUs ranging from more conventional frozen and microwaveable pizzas to a plethora of grab-and-go, immediate-consumption foods for snacking or meals throughout the day. For co-developers and co-manufacturers like Nation, which serves many of the nation’s largest consumer packaged food companies and foodservice chains, versatility in packaging is vital because of a plethora of customer requests for many different sizes and formats.

The company’s 192,000-sq-ft USDA-inspected facility in northwest Chicagoland houses six processing lines and seven packaging lines and is designed for both flexibility and large-scale production. Packaging, for instance, ranges from manual stacking and case packing of frozen pizza crusts to high-speed cartoning of 12-in. frozen pizzas at high rates of speed.

“Our packaging lines aren’t as automated as they could be, but this has allowed us to accommodate many different packaging configurations and has helped us with our speed to market,” Mr. Nasti said. “It gives us an edge to do things that others do not want or simply cannot do in their plants.”

Mr. Nasti noted the packaging department includes a dizzying array of Bosch Doboy flowwrappers, a Conflex horizontal flowwrapper, GEA Tiromat PowerPak NT form-fill-seal wrappers and Adco cartoners.

Packaging speeds range from extremely high speeds for the smaller items to lower speeds for the larger items. The department can also create club packs containing two family-sized pizza cartons that are shrinkwrapped before case packing.

Production runs three 8-hour shifts, 24 hours a day anywhere from seven to 13 days consecutively, depending on seasonal and customer demand, according to Gerardo Del Rio, bakery production manager. Located on 11 acres, the facility allocates 65,500 sq ft to processing, 20,000 sq ft for a centralized packaging department, 40,000 sq ft to warehousing and 50,000 sq ft for office, freezer and other ancillary space.

Nation continues to search for new ways to automate production and packaging. Its biggest payback, however, comes from investing in its long-term team players who have a “heart for baking” and who are vital to the company’s future success, according to Mr. Nasti. The prepared foods provider relies on its veteran team members — 650 in all — to adapt to consumer trends and ongoing shifts in the market and to possess a “can do” attitude to move products quickly throughout the development process.

“We have a lot of knowledgeable and experienced people who have been working here a long time,” Mr. Nasti said. “The teamwork atmosphere and the collaboration among everyone are vital. What we do here is challenge one another. If someone says, ‘we can’t do that,’ we ask, ’Why? What’s preventing you from doing it?’ Our culture here is, ‘Hmm, that’s challenging. How can we do that? How can we make this a reality?’ ”

That type of culture, with an emphasis on food safety, speed to market and a commitment to quality, requires a committed workforce who have the tools to adapt to any new opportunity that comes along. In the end, Mr. Nasti noted, they are ones who keep Nation anchored in its culture and ensure that the production and packaging departments are operating smoothly.

“The people who work with us are intelligent, motivated, hardworking and dedicated,” he noted. “They have a willingness to adapt and are not afraid to work long hours. The culture at Nation is that things are constantly changing and expectations continue to rise. Once we change or add something, we continue to look at it to determine how we can make further improvements.”

For more on Nation Pizza and Foods, check out the May issue of Baking & Snack.