The future arrived in a very workmanlike way at Shearer’s Foods. The snack food company recently completed Phase II of its precedent-setting LEED Platinum-certified Millennium Plant located at Massillon, OH, where Shearer’s is now headquartered. Phase II startup marked a significant rise in capabilities.

Numbers tell quite a story about the snack food industry’s newest plant. Six new batch fryers and one new continuous chip fryer — the biggest such systems installed at Shearer’s — came onstream to bump up nameplate capacity to 120 million lb of tortilla and potato chips annually. Counting potato usage alone, operations consume 85 to 100 trailer-loads a week. The completely state-of-the-art, 110,000-sq-ft, green-constructed building functions at SQF Level 3 food safety compliance. Phase III is planned.

“When it comes to capacity, we like to pick the big number because we know we’ll always fill it,” said company founder Bob Shearer.

In the 2½ years since breaking ground, Shearer’s added 400 jobs to central Ohio. What’s more, all this is added capacity, created without subtracting any volume from the company’s other four snack plants.

Manufacturing shift, acceleration
A little more than a decade ago, Shearer’s reinvented itself by entering the co-packing field to support its manufacturing base and, thus, its livelihood and that of its associates and community. As Mr. Shearer explained, times change and so must business models. “The industry is much more competitive than 30 years ago,” he said.

Mr. Shearer along with his parents, Jack and Rosemary, and brother, Tom, started the company in 1974 by buying a one-truck potato chip distributor to complement the family’s grocery store business. One route became five. The family rented a small building and started making kettle-cooked chips.

During the next two decades, Shearer’s progressed into larger facilities and wider distribution. By 2005, it had become a significant regional player, operating a single 190,000-sq-ft plant at Brewster, OH, and selling Shearer’s branded products throughout Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Mr. Shearer recognized the growing role co-packing plays for the nation’s big consumer packaged goods marketers. This business model fosters rapid movement of new products into the market without requiring often highly leveraged companies to spend heavily on capital equipment. It also enables efficient processors to optimize their manufacturing capacity and raise volume without adding to their own marketing costs.

Shearer’s picked up the co-pack ball and ran with it.

Today, the company ranks as the world’s largest kettle-cooked chip processor and the biggest US private label snack food manufacturer. It enjoys an international business presence supplying products throughout the US and 18 other countries, including Canada and Mexico. Manufacturing occupies more than 1.2 million sq ft at six locations: the new Millennium Plant and the fully optimized Brewster site, plus acquired facilities at Hermiston, OR; Lubbock, TX; Bristol, VA; and a distribution center at Navarre, OH. Employment grew from 480 in 2005 to more than 1,850 people today.

In late October, Shearer’s underwent another big shift. Wind Point Partners, a private equity firm based at Chicago, acquired a majority stake in the company. With the change, Mr. Shearer stepped down as chairman and CEO, and C.J. Fraleigh, former CEO of Sara Lee North America, stepped up into those positions. Mr. Shearer’s legacy of forward momentum continues to shape the business’ decisions.

Art and automation
Of course, there’s more to co-pack success than efficient, high-volume manufacturing alone. “You must be able to sit in your customer’s chair,” Mr. Shearer explained when Baking & Snack visited the Millenium Plant this past fall. “You have to make sure you can produce the quality of products they want. You have to ‘wow’ them above their expectations. As well, the consumer must think of these products as something special.

“And despite all the automation in the process, there’s an art to this, too” he added. “I tell our associates, ‘You are the artisan of your product.’ In other words, ‘You have to bring professionalism and creativity to your position.’ We teach all our people to treat every product as if it went out under our own brands.”

The company’s “move forward” manufacturing philosophy is completely customer-driven, according to Mr. Shearer. “And the business just keeps coming,” he said.

Supplying those customers prompted Shearer’s to establish the new plant at Massillon. Managers call it their Millennium Plant because not only is it located on Millennium Road but also they created it to take the company into the 21st century — the new millennium. (See “Shearer Determination” in Baking & Snack of September 2010, Page 48.)

The Millennium Plant fits Shear-er’s manufacturing priorities perfectly. “We always want production to be ahead of sales,” said Melissa Shearer, the company’s former vice-president of communications.

Steve Surmay, Shearer’s senior vice-president of manufacturing, quantified that reason by saying, “As a general rule, we try to get to 85% capacity and then think about adding more.”

Continuing into Phase II
Shearer’s delayed less than a year between Phase I and Phase II at the Millennium Plant. Managed as a fast-track project, Phase I took just nine months, but Phase II required 10. “We had to work around production,” explained Ken Brower, the Millennium Plant’s director of operations. They also installed a second high-volume tortilla line in Phase I.

“Phase II addressed additional capacity, this time for potato chips,” Mr. Surmay said. “We started at 15 million lb in 2010 when Millennium was commissioned with one tortilla line. Now, with the second tortilla chip line, the six hand kettles and one continuous chip line, we’re at 120 million lb of capacity.”

At that rate, Massillon’s output equals that of the company’s larger Brewster facility. There’s still enough floor space under roof at the new plant to add one more continuous chip line and two batch lines.

Efficiency defines the plant’s layout. The building consists of a series of large rooms, with 30-ft-high ceilings, set together to move raw materials from the outermost ends through processing. Corn moves west to east as it transforms into tortilla chips; potatoes go east to west as they become potato chips. Finished products meet in a single central packaging room.

Having pioneered use of ever-bigger batch fryers, Shearer’s managers decided to install the largest such systems available. And they knew a continuous chip fryer would be part of Phase II. The only question was how big to make it. As Mr. Brower related, “Mr. Shearer said, ‘Pick the biggest number because we always fill it up.’ That’s how the Millennium Plant came to install a monster of a line, capable of producing 4,200 lb of finished potato chips per hour. It’s an amazing sight, and it’s running seven days a week now.”

As at other Shearer’s sites including Millennium’s Phase I, Mr. Shearer and Mr. Surmay decided all design, engineering and layout aspects. They relied on the company’s well-established relationships with a group of core equipment vendors to execute an ambitious set of plans.

Potato chips aplenty
Shearer’s hangs its hat on potato chips. The company started with kettle-cooked potato chips, and it continues to build on that foundation with the opening of Phase II at Massillon.

Potato chip production begins with potato receiving. “In just 24 to 36 hours, potatoes go from field to finished bag,” Mr. Brower said. From early April to late October, potatoes come in fresh from the farm. During the rest of the year, the company relies on storage potatoes, sourced from brokers.

Drivers back potato-filled trailers onto a Heat and Control Truck Dumper tilting dock. As the dock platform tips up to a maximum of 45°, the loose-loaded potatoes tumble down onto Heat and Control GentleFlo conveyors that fill temporary storage bins in the potato room. The large bins release their supplies into a GentleFlo washing flume for transport to the peeling system, which also cuts in half any oversized potatoes. Minus their skins, the potatoes travel through an optical sorter that kicks out any green ones because they would make bitter-tasting chips.

Only one person staffs the highly automated potato room, and Mr. Brower wasn’t joking when he said, “The operator is here mostly to make sure the automation works properly.”

Because potato cleaning, peeling and sorting are wet processes, plant layout confines them to this single room. Isolation doors roll down from overhead to separate these operations from the fryer room.

Batch and continuous
The chip kitchen houses six batch fryers, a continuous potato chip line and a heated centrifuge for making reduced-fat kettle-cooked chips.

The company refers to its batch fryers as “hand kettles,” but they are all completely automated. The Heat and Control MTKF MasterTherm 30-ft-long batch fryers output loads of up to 500 lb per hour, while batches at other company locations range from 200 to 240 lb.

Indirect thermal fluid boilers supply heat to these “new tech” batch fryers, allowing quick heat recovery and increased production rates. The choice of thermal fluid supports the company’s sustainability practices.

An oil mist eliminator removes oil droplets from the exhaust system. A full-length hood covers the kettle to retain heat and create a steam blanket over the hot oil to purge oxygen, thus prolonging oil life.

Time and temperature determine every aspect of kettle cooking. The supply system sends a batch of potatoes to the weigh hopper at the front of each hand kettle. But potatoes have to wait until the fryer’s oil temperature reaches the proper set point. Then, the hopper drops the potatoes into twin Urschel high-speed centrifugal slicers, which deposit the cut pieces into the fryer.

Thermodynamics take over, and the high-moisture potato slices cool the hot oil. When the oil’s temperature drops to a pre-set limit, the thermal tubes automatically add heat to the system. In the meantime, the fryer’s Chip-Stirr automatic stirring apparatus moves to and fro through the kettle, its paddles gently agitating potato slices to prevent chip clusters and soft centers. Programmed time and temperature settings come into play again when controls signal the fryer to release its load. The paddle assembly skims chips out of the oil and onto the short discharge conveyor. Chips proceed to an inspection station and then to the accumulator.

Regular potato chips are made by a Heat and Control Model PC 42 continuous potato chip system. This 43-ft-long fryer continuously circulates its cooking oil between the fryer, filter and heat exchanger. Its multizone design permits custom temperature profiles to achieve specific product characteristics. Fryer metering paddles and a submerger conveyor control cook times for consistent, uniform product.

A Key Technology’s IsoFlow weighbelt conveyor delivers 16,000 lb per hour of peeled potatoes to a Heat and Control GentleWash flume system that takes them to the line’s four Urschel high-speed centrifugal slicers. A second flume moves the sliced potatoes to the fryer and rinses their surfaces of excess starch. Slices drop directly into the input end of the fryer.

Cutting down on fat
Shearer’s produces an even healthier version of kettle-cooked chips by passing freshly fried products through a Heat and Control heated centrifugal fat-reduction system.

The process differs somewhat from regular kettle-cooked chips. Centrifugal force combines with forced-air heat to spin the oil out and take moisture down to the company’s target levels. Reduced-fat kettle-cooked chips contain 25% less fat than regular styles and 40% less than conventional continuously fried potato chips.

“The reduced-fat product has great flavor, more potato-like than baked chips,” Mr. Surmay observed. “And the seasoning companies are making seasonings that adhere better to these products than previously.”

Potato chip lines operate 24 hours a day. The batch and continuous fryers employ clean-in-place (CIP) sanitation. A continuous fines removal system in the batch fryers uses conveyors that travel along the bottom of the kettles. In the continuous fryer, oil circulates constantly through the fines filter.

Packaging in the middle
Flighted conveyors take kettle-cooked and continuously fried chips to separate TNA accumulating systems. The conveyors rise as they move the warm chips from the chip kitchen through wall ports leading to the distribution platform in the packaging room.

Phase II allows Shearer’s to offer more flavors than ever, and packaging room design carefully keeps seasonings in check. Movable partitions screen each scale from the next one down the line. Plastic curtains surround the feed systems to further isolate flavor and seasoning varieties.

Higher capacity complicates the changeover challenge, which particularly affects snack food seasoning and packaging operations. At this plant, changeovers on such operations are done on the run, with a change in product style automatically signaled from the chip kitchen to the packaging room and operators via the company’s management information portal (MIP).

Serial No. 1 machines
The company collaborated with Heat and Control on the MTKF MasterTherm Kettle Fryers. “We installed the first three of this series in November 2010 at Brewster,” Mr. Surmay said. “We took that design and built six more for the Millennium Plant.”

Still, plenty of innovation awaits Shearer’s. “The technology we don’t yet have in this plant would be automatic case-packing and case-sorting systems, but we’re set up to do this in the future,” Mr. Surmay observed. The company is currently working with BluePrint Automation on such systems.

Just as essential as the high-volume processing lines is the highly responsive MIP that Shearer’s developed internally. The company’s information technology group used Invensys’ Wonderware software to program the human-machine interface terminals that run MIP and SCADA applications. Data flows from the PLCs that operate the machines in the plant to the terminals throughout the production floor and managers’ offices.

“From these terminals, managers and operators can read tank levels, machine settings, wastewater generation, cases packed, poundage output and many other variables,” Mr. Surmay said. “Information comes through in real time, rather than by yesterday’s sheet of paper passing hand to hand. Our MIP allows enormous agility to meet

customer needs.”

Quality matters
Shearer’s MIP system supports the company’s longtime quality philosophy. Mr. Brower explained, “Any associate has the right to stop the line if the product is not to their satisfaction.”

Routine tests, performed by line operators and QA technicians, keep product attributes in line. Operators test and record the product’s color, flavor, aroma, texture and appearance every other hour. In the intervening hour, they test process conditions. Operators post this information on boards out on the production floor.

Separately, the QA lab tests oils for FFAs and products for allergen presence as well as salt and seasoning coverage. This group also tests package integrity and residual oxygen levels in bags. The technicians enter this information into the InfinityQS quality management system to enable real-time statistical process control. Sampling for these tests takes place on 45- to 60-minute cycles.

The Millennium Plant operates at Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level 3, a factor that drives consistency throughout the company and fosters confidence among customers. “This program makes us a better functioning company in many ways,” Mr. Surmay said. “And when changes in the Food Safety Modernization Act kick in, we shouldn’t find them to be a major obstacle. We’ll be able to achieve the higher levels required.”

In the LEEDing position
Shearer’s planned, designed and carried out the Millennium Plant to make it the first US Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum-certified snack food facility in the nation. “And it’s still the only one,” Mr. Surmay noted.

To bring on Phase II, Shearer’s expanded the heat recovery systems and lighting controls. It now harvests 18 million BTUs annually from two pieces of equipment. Tortilla and potato chip operations use separate systems. Mr. Brower explained, “A lot of what we did in Phase I, we did in II. We’re recovering even more heat off the continuous potato chip line than the original system on the tortilla line.” A third heat recovery system was fitted to the glycol loop on the roof. It supplies 80% of the heat for the structure.

Whether batch or continuous, frying generates a lot of steam as the hot oil drives out moisture from the potato slices. They lose three-quarters of their weight, most of it water, as they turn into potato chips.

Heat from the Phase I system on the tortilla oven preheats water for cooking the corn to be made into tortilla chips. The heat recovered from the Phase II system on the continuous potato chip fryer preheats water to 80 to 85°F to optimize the anaerobic digester of the wastewater treatment system.

Wastewater treatment at Mas-sillon currently offers 1.6 million gal of capacity, but the company is adding another 1.6 million gal, for a total of 3.2 million gal, and broke ground on the enlarged system in October. “Right now, we flare off the methane byproduct,” Mr. Brower explained. “But with the expansion, we will get sufficient methane to generate enough energy for the entire wastewater treatment facility.”

Two essential components of companywide sustainability efforts are to cut water and gas consumption by 3 to 4% annually. “We’ve been able to achieve this in all our sites,” Mr. Surmay said. “We will always have those goals.”

Water recycles in the facility’s potato delivery flumes, and all water from the continuous potato chip line’s starch washing flume is sent to a starch recovery system before reuse. Starch recovery includes a dryer, with the results sold to an outside party. Chip waste is sold for feed.

Rainwater harvesting at the Millennium Plant gathers and reuses up to 17,000 gal per month.

Each plant supplies a weekly report on sustainability efforts. “Conservation is on everybody’s radar,” Ms. Shearer said. “Everyone in the company knows where we stand and how important conservation is to us and our business.”

Still to come
Is Phase III in Shearer’s plans for the Millennium Plant? Of course!

“The next thing will be to bring warehousing on-site,” Mr. Surmay said. At present, all finished products move to a 365,000-sq-ft ware-

house at Navarre, OH, a few miles away. The company found a 600,000-sq-ft building shuttered by a large food wholesaler. Shearer’s started by taking up 100,000 sq ft and has continued to expand.

Experience gained at the Mil-lennium Plant is enriching operations at other facilities. Shearer’s has rolled out heat recovery technology to other sites, as well as skylights, sidewall windows and proximity-switch-controlled interior lighting.

“Actually, we did a huge expansion at Hermiston, OR, at the same time we worked on Phase II,” Ms. Shearer said.

Mr. Surmay added, “We believe we are ahead of the curve on energy conservation.” Actually, the company is ahead of the curve on a lot more aspects of its business and is strongly positioned to take itself into a successful future.