Mastering the art of juggling requires coordination, synchronization and never taking your eyes off the balls in the air. For New Horizons Baking Co., Norwalk, OH, the keys to juggling its business during the past four years involved coordination through planning, synchronization through proper execution and seeing one project to completion while planning for the next.

By simultaneously keeping several balls in motion, the company more than doubled the size of its 52,000-sq-ft Norwalk facility, originally built in 1967, without significant downtime. In addition to upgrading its aging equipment, including a temperamental proofer and oven system that was more than 40 years old, the bakery enhanced product quality and added much-needed capacity for its burgeoning soft roll and English muffin businesses.

In 2009, New Horizons got the ball going with a rail spur to reduce flour costs. While finishing that project, the company began building the first of several additions for its new conveyorized proofer and oven system, which came online in 2010.

New Horizons also added a 1,000-pallet storage freezer and expanded the facility again to allow it to install a second English muffin production line and packaging systems in March 2011.

While wrapping up those projects, the company reconfigured bun production with new fermentation, makeup and packaging systems that boosted capacity by 20% in August 2011.

In the coming months, it plans to install even more packaging systems as a part of the ongoing $15 million investment for the now-125,000-sq-ft bakery, according to John Widman, senior vice-president of operations. Looking back on these accomplishments, perhaps the biggest juggling act involved completing the projects while keeping the production running and servicing customers without a glitch. It required no magic, just a lot of work and, in hindsight, a little good luck.

“We had to plot and plan,” he said. “The easiest thing — and we didn’t know it then — was to tie the bun makeup line to the new proofer and oven. We did that over a weekend. We probably spent more time taking down the old system than we did to put up the new one. It was the smoothest changeover of that dimension that I have ever seen.”

From a business perspective, two forces drove the expansion. First, sales for New Horizons Baking continue to expand at a record rate. Today, the core business supplies fresh buns to 1,130 outlets in five states for the nation’s largest quick-service restaurant (QSR) chain. The bakery also supplies frozen buns and English muffins throughout the same region.

Second, sales for its Genesis Baking Co., a division of New Horizons, have taken off, noted Mike Porter, vice-president of sales administration for that subsidiary. This sales arm serves all third-party accounts — other than its core QSR business — with unsliced, sliced and fork-split English muffins and a variety of soft rolls including Kaiser and dinner rolls, hot dog buns, and seeded or unseeded hamburger buns.

Genesis Baking also will custom-design products. Mr. Porter cited its slogan: “Each day brings a new beginning.” With this venture, the company can explore new business opportunities beyond its horizons.

Additionally, the minority-owned company operates a bakery in Fremont, IN, and a distribution company called Metraco, which is short for Melissa Williams, director of human resources; Trina Bediako, executive vice-president; and Aaron Brown, Norwalk operations manager, who are children of Tilmon (Tim) Brown, president of the company.

“Planning for the expansion actually began when Tim, along with his partners John Paterakis and Peter Grimm, purchased the company in 1995,” Mr. Widman said.

With capacity strained to meet sales, the planning and plotting got serious a few years ago. New Horizons relied on its vendors, visited several other bakeries and talked to their operations executives about what equipment to purchase.

“If there is reliable, previously owned equipment available, we’ll go look at it,” he said. “If we like what we see, we’ll purchase it. In the event that it’s not available, we’ll shop for new.”

He noted the company did shop at the 2010 International Baking Industry Exposition, where it purchased several pieces of equipment off the show floor.

Flat-out flying

In all, 215 employees — including production, office and Metraco Transportation — work at the bakery in Norwalk. More than 30 of them are new employees hired because of the expansion of English muffin production for its Genesis Baking division. The facility sits on 25 acres and has 65,000 sq ft for processing, 20,000 sq ft for packaging, 30,000 sq ft for warehousing/freezing and 10,000 sq ft for office and other departments.

The bakery runs nearly around the clock, with 20 shifts a week and a short break for maintenance and sanitation. The plant houses two older English muffins lines and a high-speed bun line. The bun line’s throughput has increased to 5,200 doz 4-in. buns per hour from 3,900 doz buns.

“We’re flat-out flying for what our equipment can do,” Mr. Widman said.

Flour comes via railcars, each of which can hold up to 216,000 lb of it. The new spur can accommodate up to eight rail cars. The flour transfers via a 325-ft, 6-in.-diameter underground pipe from the rail spur across the street and to the bakery.

Four ShickUSA 50,000-lb indoor holding bins feed flour to the bun line, and two Horizon Systems 80,000-lb outdoor silos supply the English muffin lines. Soy oil is stored in a 48,000-lb tank, while liquid sugar comes from a 50,000-lb tank and cream yeast in a 100,000-lb Red Star system.

On the bun line, all bulk ingredients and water are automatically metered via a ShickUSA system while operators manually add minor and micro ingredients. New Horizons uses the sponge-and-dough process. “That decision was made because it’s the optimum in flavor for all dough preparation methods,” Mr. Widman said. “It’s more cumbersome to work with than a liquid sponge, but you get a better product.”

A 1,300-lb horizontal mixer kicks out sponges every 5 minutes. The troughs enter a Workhorse Automation system for about 4 hours of fermentation at 85°F and 45% relative humidity. “We had a trough system that was locally made, but that system still involved pushing the troughs to the hoist,” Mr. Widman noted. “Now, you don’t have to touch a trough anymore. You don’t have to grease a trough anymore, and you don’t have to dump the dough anymore. It took away a lot of labor.”

The bakery relies on two Shaffer 1,600-lb horizontal dough mixers. Sponges are automatically dumped from the troughs into the back of the two-way tilt bowl mixers. Because of their open frames, they are easier to clean, Mr. Widman said. Two ShickUSA 600-lb scales — one for flour and one for all other dry ingredients — feed each mixer from above.

After mixing for 9 to 10 minutes, the dough tumbles into a traversing batch dough pump that moves back and forth between the two mixers. A Shaffer programmable system monitors the mixers motors’ RPMs, torque and other factors to ensure optimum dough development. “We find that smaller batches are better,” Mr. Widman said. “You get more consistent products.”

The dough streams up a self-tracking belt conveyor to the hopper of an AMF 8-pocket extruder divider, which makes 132 cuts to produce 1,040 pieces a minute. After traveling along rounder bars and through a flour dusting station, the pieces receive a 30-second intermediate proof.

Next, the dough balls slide down positioning chutes and through a sheeter-moulder before dropping onto pans that each hold 32 pieces in an 8-by-4 configuration. The pans pass under a Laramore flour recovery system and are aligned by a Burford pan shaker.

Jaw-dropping buns

The pans travel to a 9,000-sq-ft room that houses a BakeTech conveyorized proofer and oven. Before installing the system, New Horizons’ engineering department consulted with the bakery’s sanitation staff to determine the exact locations for floor drains in the proofer and even on the type of coating to protect the floor. The old system was so mechanical and needed so much grease that it took a full 32 man hours for sanitation and preventive maintenance. “We now do both in 8 man hours,” Mr. Widman said.

The previous system was not only unreliable, but it also produced inconsistent products because of cold spots in the proofer. “When we first ran product through our new proofer and oven, we stood there with our jaws dropping,” he recalled. “We said, ‘Look at that.’ We couldn’t believe the quality.”

A Burford Smart Seeder applies sesame seeds and other toppings after proofing. Proof times range from 52 to 55 minutes at 110°F and 78% humidity. Bake times range from 7.5 to 8.5 minutes at around 450°F on average.

The Stewart Systems depanner removes buns from baking pans, but it also has the ability to catch sesame seeds and funnel them into a catch pan for better sanitation. During Baking & Snack’s recent visit, the bakery was installing a Rexfab pan cleaner. The bun line also employs a Stewart pan stacker/unstacker and a refurbished overhead cooler.

The buns then double back to a packaging area located next to the mixing and makeup systems. During the refurbishing of the bun line, New Horizons took time to realign these areas as well. Housing the new proofer and oven in a separate room keeps the heat away from mixing, makeup and packaging operations. Today, the mixers, makeup lines and pan cleaners are where the old proofer and oven were.

All buns pass through a Dipix vision system before entering two of three LeMatic slicers and bulk packers. The third system is used as a backup.

“Because we’re producing 5,200 dozen buns an hour, we need a little security,” Mr. Widman said.

Packaged buns pass through metal detectors, and Markem thermal print coders put easily readable lot tracking and shelf life data on the bulk bags. A LeMatic pre-stacker takes two baskets at a time and automatically places double stacks of bulk packages of 4-in. buns into each basket. The system also can automatically load three trays at a time for jumbo sandwich rolls.

Stacks of baskets are either wheeled away to the dock for fresh delivery or shrink wrapped and palletized for storage in the new 12,000-sq-ft holding freezer, which is set at -10°F and can freeze skids of products down to 20°F in 5 hours, Mr. Widman said.

Making more English muffins

Two English muffin lines can each crank out 330 pieces a minute. One line is dedicated to New Horizons’ core QSR business, while the company added a second line to supply Genesis Baking customers. Production on the two lines is similar except one griddle uses hinge lids while the other drops lids on top of the griddle.

Each line features a Peerless 1,600-lb cold-bar plus horizontal mixer. Generally, a batch mixes for a 2-stage process for about 10 minutes to a desired 68°F dough temperature. The dough is 80% water and more like a pancake batter in consistency, according to Mr. Porter. A Vac-U-Max tote system feeds the mixers a base for the English muffins.

After mixing, the dough is pumped into the hopper of a Reiser Vemag 6-pocket divider before traveling through rounder bars and into an intermediate proofer for 30 minutes. The products bake in a 12-across griddle for 9 to 10 minutes at 300 to 450°F. “All the griddle does is bake the product and make steam that creates the tiny holes in the English muffins,” Mr. Widman said.

The English muffins receive an application of the potassium sorbate and travel up to overhead cooling conveyors. When adding the second line, the bakery also installed a catwalk, parallel to the overhead cooling conveyors for more efficient maintenance and sanitation.

After cooling, the English muffins are conveyed to the new 20,000-sq-ft packaging room and pass through an EyePro Q-Bake automatic inspection system. If a product is out of spec, the vision system takes a photo of the product before kicking it off the line.

“We don’t have to search through catch pans anymore,” Mr. Widman said. “The inspection system takes out the human factor and keeps the process analytical.”

The room houses four packaging lines: a LeMatic slicer/bagger, a UBE slicer/bagger, a LeMatic bulk bagger and a UBE penny packer with Kwik Lok closure system. During Baking & Snack’s visit, the LeMatic bulk bagger packaged 12 English muffins in a 3-by-4 configuration and applied a tamper-evident heat-seal. Nine packages were robotically picked and placed in each basket, and baskets were automatically stacked 17 high. Four of the stacks were then shrink-wrapped together before freezing and distribution.

In the end, Mr. Widman said, doing such juggling couldn’t be accomplished without a little help from his friends. “Our local contractors as well as our equipment suppliers were invaluable,” he noted.

The company continues to look at ways to improve its operation, especially in the packaging area. “We’re just like any other bakery,” he said. “We have our peaks and valleys. We continue to work on our line efficiencies to open more capacity. We routinely discuss future growth.”