When Fritz Livelsberger joined Utz as a plant manager in 1991, he didn’t know how well a particular shift of production ran until two or three days later.

“Now, we can click on a computer and know how efficient we are to that exact minute,” said Mr. Livelsberger, former vice president of manufacturing and unofficial historian who recently retired from the Hanover, Pa.-based company this year. “Our operators take a lot of pride in what they do, and it didn’t take long for the teams to buy into CI (continuous improvement). There was a lot training from the beginning, but everyone quickly saw the big picture and the benefits.”

Tucker Lawrence, the company’s executive vice president and chief supply chain officer, noted that Utz embarked on its current continuous improvement program a dozen years ago and hasn’t looked back.

“At one point 12 years ago, there was one person in the entire company dedicated to continuous improvement,” he recalled. “Now we have a team of 10 people that are solely focused on it.”

Overall, he said, continuous improvement contains three integrated pillars. First, it’s about the people and the process, specifically training longtime tenured employees on lean manufacturing and the principles of Six Sigma. The next pillar involves equipment performance and reliability from a reactive maintenance approach to a preventative one. The final part ties in quality and food safety to the total production maintenance approach and Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification.

“We’re creating consistency from one batch to another, one production line to another and one plant to another,” Mr. Lawrence said. “You’re never done with continuous improvement, and there’s always opportunity out there.”

Today, the public company has about 3,300 associates, many of whom work in 15 plants located in Pennsylvania, Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington.

Each week, those plants produce more than 5.5 million lbs of potato chips, pretzels, cheese snacks, tortilla chips, party mixes, pork rinds, veggie snacks and more.

These items are sold nationally under a battalion of “power” brands that include Utz, On The Border chips and dips, Good Health, Boulder Canyon, Hawaiian Brand and Zapp’s, to name a few.

Specifically, the plants rely on Redzone, a manufacturing execution system (MES) that provides real-time performance data by measuring key performance indicators such as downtime, production rates, flavor consistency and other factors to enhance efficiency and identify the root cause of operational issues.

 “You can only go so far with continuous improvement without an MES system that captures these things,” Mr. Lawrence said. “We can electronically record everything from test results, lot numbers, batch numbers, seasoning types and film we’re using, and it ties that data into both product consistency and food safety.”

He said the next continuous improvement step will be implementing its reliability model that measures equipment performance metrics to help determine why a certain machine has so many work orders or needs additional replacement parts.

Mr. Livelsberger pointed out snack manufacturing has come a long way in just a short time.

“Before, it was difficult to be precise with things like meeting target bag weights,” he said. “Now we’re within a gram in most packaging operations. That’s how much more accurate and efficient the equipment is today than when I started with the company.”

Recently, Mr. Lawrence said, the company has invested in robotics to automate variety pack production and is even exploring how to incorporate artificial intelligence into its operations.

“You don’t want technology to do the exact same thing every day. You want it to do something different,” Mr. Lawrence said. “I think the advent of innovation and technology is advancing at a very rapid pace and will help us more in the near future.”

From a manufacturing perspective, Mr. Livelsberger said plant management often yearns for the good old days, but they realize times have changed.

“You’re constantly evolving the system to make it better,” he said.

This article is an excerpt from the October 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Utz Brands, click here.