Plant of the Year

New Plant of the Year: American Italian Pasta Company

April 16, 2003
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AIPC’s plant in suburban Phoenix challenges popular conceptions of how to construct a world-class food processing facility.

The brownfield project under AIPC’s direction, enables fewer than 50 people to produce 109 million pounds on two lines.
Photo: www.donstevenson.com.


PC terminals in the plant’s control room provide fingertip monitoring of processing conditions on the long-goods line (background) and other areas of the production floor.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

Durum wheat is a crop associated with the northern Plains. When milled, the endosperm yields semolina, the basis of pasta.

Durum wheat also grows in the desert, and much of the semolina from this year’s crop in the Valley of the Sun will be milled and pneumatically delivered to the Tolleson, Ariz., facility of American Italian Pasta Company (AIPC), Food Engineering’s 2003 New Plant of the Year.

Just as desert durum requires a rethinking of old assumptions, AIPC’s plant in suburban Phoenix challenges popular conceptions of how to construct a world-class food processing facility. Tolleson is the fifth plant built by the 15-year-old maker of dry pasta and noodles, and it is consistent with the company’s focus on high volume, automated production. But Tolleson is not a cookie-cutter design—line outputs of 8,000 lbs. an hour are huge, though they pale in comparison to lines in some of the company’s other plants—and the project pushes the envelope on fast-track construction.

Site selection, project planning, equipment specification and project execution all were handled internally. AIPC’s engineering staff served as general contractor for the $47 million project. (Younglove Construction Co., Sioux City, Iowa, built the 80,500 sq. ft. addition to the plant.) Quick completion was a priority. Even at 5% APR, a capital project of this scope costs almost $196,000 a month in financing alone. In a bold move to speed project completion, mechanics assembled two dryers weighing a combined 35 tons in adjacent warehouse space while the production area was being built, then lifted them into place with the aid of eight 10,000-lb. forklifts.

Though a brownfield project, the 285,500 facility has the fit and finish of a brand-spanking new plant. The original structure was built in 1978 by Borden Foods, which produced pasta there until 1998. More than 300 people generated 93 million pounds of finished goods then on nine lines. Under AIPC’s direction, fewer than 50 people will produce 109 million pounds on two lines.

Driving the project were four AIPC engineers: Eric Johnson, vice president of engineering; Doug Delamore, engineering manager; Todd Lewis, project engineer; and Pat Cox, packaging project manager. Also part of the Tolleson team was Don Ziegler, the former Borden plant engineer. Johnson, a mechanical engineer, is the senior member of the team but the junior one in terms of AIPC tenure at 11 years. Four of the company’s plants have been built since he joined AIPC.

Eric Johnson, vice president of engineering at American Italian Pasta Co., and his engineering team served as general contractors for the company’s Tolleson, Ariz., plant construction project.

Go West, young firm

The dry pasta market has changed dramatically in recent years (see related story). The dominant players of a decade ago are gone, and Barilla, the world’s largest producer, established a U.S. beachhead in Ames, Iowa, a few years ago (Food Engineering, April 1999). Three companies now account for more than 70 percent of retail sales. They are increasing efficiency and driving down costs, and none has proven more adept than AIPC.

When Kohlberg Kravis Roberts dismembered Borden Foods, AIPC purchased seven of its regional brands, most with a West Coast profile. Increased West Coast sales translated to increased shipping costs. By siting a facility in California or the Southwest, AIPC management projected it could lower long-term costs more than $10 million a year.

The former Borden facility was one of several options considered. “The fact this had been a pasta plant had nothing to do with our interest,” says Johnson. “A brownfield site is probably twice as challenging as a greenfield project, but the overriding consideration was the mill next door.”

The adjacent Bay States Mill, built in 1982, was partially shuttered when Borden ceased production. The presence of the mill and the ready availability of desert durum swayed the decision to purchase the 23-acre site.

The old equipment was unsuitable for automated production. The production area also was too small to accommodate the new lines that would be needed. Construction began April 15, 2002, on an addition that would serve as the new production area. The former production floor became the warehouse, while a section of the old warehouse space was converted to a packaging department. Finished goods were produced 185 days from the date construction began.

Press operator Andy Huston gets a short-goods die ready for a line changeover. Each of the brass units weighs 800 pounds.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

Multiple additions had created a floor plan that was awkward at best. AIPC relied on supplier Reimelt to engineer a bulk-handling system that could overcome the piecemeal layout and deliver semolina to the presses. Chilled water units now occupy the area where storage silos used to stand, and 10 new silos were erected on the opposite side of the building. They are connected by a 700 ft. long, 6 in. diameter pneumatic tube that delivers 38,000 lbs. of semolina an hour. The silos feed a new 85 ft. tall semolina tower.

Automated pasta lines approximate the size of freight trains. AIPC’s short-goods line arrived in Tolleson from Italy in 11 40-ft. long containers (the 220 ft. long-goods line, which included a silo, required 15 containers). The engineering team had managed to cut line-installation time in half during a dozen similar projects in recent years, but greater efficiencies were sought. One opportunity involved the predryer and dryer, which take about eight weeks to assemble. Rather than wait for the addition to be completed, workers began assembling the short-goods’ components on metal beams in the old production area while construction continued.

“We didn’t tell the manufacturer we were going to do this; if it had been their responsibility, I doubt they would have tried it,” says Johnson. “When you’re your own general contractor and you’re confident about what you’re doing, you can take this kind of risk. The reward was saving months in start-up.”

Operator Jamie Ybarra checks an RSView monitor at the checkweigher and metal detector on the packaging line.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

Lift that barge

Fully assembled, the short-goods line extends 132 feet and measures 12 ft. wide and 18 ft. high. Forklifts hoisted the components and their steel skids and eased them through a former exterior entrance that had been enlarged for the occasion. Conduit below the slab in the new production room and header pipes above already were in place, leaving the crew little wiggle room when positioning the units. They came within one-quarter inch of target.

A different challenge awaited in packaging. Conveyors had to enter the area at a point higher than the ceiling joists. The solution was to raise a 50 X 200 ft. section of roof a total of 76 inches. Three weeks of planning and preparation preceded the operation, which took less than an hour.

An I-beam spanned the room, holding up the roof joists when the 16 support columns were cut. A 20-ton jack at each column held up the roof while steel inserts were welded to the tops of the columns. Precast wall panels were positioned on top of the walls on three sides. Metal panels were used to bridge the vertical space between the old rooftop and the new, higher roof.

Bar joists were used in the original building’s ceiling, a structural approach AIPC rejects because of sanitation concerns. Engineers remedied the problem with a drop ceiling that incorporates Teflon coated, pharmaceutical grade tiles.

The ceiling tiles came at a premium cost, but their selection was consistent with a corporate commitment to hygienic production. AIPC implemented HACCP in 1994. The food-safety message is driven home to employees at every opportunity. Critical control points are used liberally; the short-goods line alone has nine. “With automation, you don’t have a lot of people on the line. Multiple CCPs are needed to narrow down a potential problem and help address it,” Johnson explains.

Engineering manager Doug Delamore monitors performance on a Triangle vertical form/fill/seal unit on the short-goods packaging line.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

“Things like open-grid ceilings where dust can accumulate are a definite no-no,” he adds. Sanitary design did not stop in the addition, where rounded beams on the 35 ft. high ceilings eliminate ledges where dust and dirt can accumulate. The goal in Tolleson always was to achieve superior ratings from the American Institute of Baking (AIB), just as the other AIPC plants achieve.

The vertical form/fill/seal machines used for short goods are similar to snack food units, so sourcing top-notch domestic suppliers wasn’t a challenge on that line. Long goods are a different beast, and the type of packaging material used is market driven. Consumers on the West Coast prefer their linguine in film, while traditionalists in the Northeast opt for boxed long goods. Boxed goods can be packaged at speeds up to 300 units per minute. Film wrappers perform at 100 units a minute, but material costs are much less. AIPC ultimately went with horizontal wrappers from Italian supplier Alto Pack for long goods.

At other AIPC plants, cartoned goods are conveyed to a separate warehouse for palletizing, and the physical distance is an advantage. Conventional palletizers requiring little floor space are used in those facilities, but the Tolleson plant is landlocked. There wasn’t room for the 100 feet of accumulation conveyors needed. The solution was a robotic system.

Short-goods pasta tumbles onto a vibratory conveyor en route to packaging. The accumulation conveyor (left) holds about six hours worth of production.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

Working with Alvey Systems, engineers settled on three jointed-arm robots. “They tend to be a little bit quicker than robotic gantries, and the cost is lower if you’re going to require a head on every line,” according to Alvey’s Pat O’Connor, who oversaw the installation. The palletizers feed a Lantech stretch wrapper that can handle 83 pallets an hour. Wrapped pallets are then automatically conveyed to the warehouse.

Quality assurance technician Leanne Wells (second from left) conducts a taste comparison of the plant’s finished goods. Employees regularly participate in sensory tests.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

Specialized skill training

Three mechanics were dispatched for two weeks of factory training to understand the robots and learn to troubleshoot. Off-site training is the exception at AIPC; more typically, suppliers send technicians to the plants to brief operators on their equipment, then make follow-up visits as needed. Workshops by AIB instructors on HACCP and food plant sanitation are also a training staple.

AIPC has forged a particularly close relationship with Fava spA, the northern Italian firm that fabricates its pasta lines. Three weeks before a line starts, a drying-curve technician is on site to make necessary adjustments and help familiarize operators with this critical dimension as part of the commissioning process.

AIPC is Fava’s biggest customer, and the partnership that has evolved is mutually beneficial. Dealing with one supplier permits consolidation of parts and service, but the real payoff is the customized features and quicker line setups achieved.

For example, the aluminum slats that convey short goods through the dryers have to be pop-riveted into place at the proper pitch.

Long-goods pasta is trimmed and indexed at the end of the line. Trimmed pasta is routed to a regrind room for future use in production; the rest is conveyed to packaging.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

This traditionally was done inside the dryer in an awkward, tedious process. Working with Fava, AIPC engineers devised a jig that allows mechanics to assemble the conveyor in 15 ft. sections that are then pulled inside the dryer. “We can install all 11 levels of the conveyor in four days, compared to three weeks for workers assembling it inside the dryer,” says Johnson. “By working with the same suppliers on each project, we’re able to look at the biggest obstacles to getting things done and figure out ways around them.”

Worker skill levels go up as staffing numbers go down, and AIPC’s flat organizational chart puts a premium on operator expertise and initiative. To help imbue Arizona staffers with AIPC’s culture, workers were recruited from the Columbia, S.C., and Excelsior Springs, Mo., plants. Certified trainers from throughout the organization also came to Arizona to train new recruits. “We get significant bang for the buck by leveraging that resource,” says Lewis. When fully operational, four 12-hour shifts will run the plant 24/7, and veterans from other AIPC facilities will be seeded in all shifts to help guide the new employees.

Despite the highly automated processing equipment, press operators are essential elements. “The good ones are all over the line, checking and monitoring,” says Delamore. “This company lets you do your job, and those who go beyond the requirements move ahead.”

Semolina is delivered pneumatically to the presses and mixed with municipal water that has undergone two reverse-osmosis treatments to remove all chlorine and trace minerals. After a resting on a stabilization belt to hydrate, dough is fed into twin extruders measuring 8 feet in length and 7.5 to 8.26 inches in diameter. Vacuum is applied to remove any air, and the dough is extruded through a die at 121 bars, about 2,000 psi. Short goods tumble onto conveyors; long goods are draped over horizontal bars, 23 inches of pasta on each side.

Massive amounts of hot, humid air is delivered to the pre-dryers and dryers from a pair of 600 HP Cleaver Brooks boilers that generate 25 million BTUs. Electric fans inside the dryers circulate the moist air for proper drying. Moisture is reduced to 12 percent over five to eight hours, and wet and dry bulbs in the dryers help control the process to within 0.5 percent humidity and 0.5? C. A cooling unit brings the final temperature down to 30? C.

In theory, operators can view the entire process on monitors in the nearby control room. In reality, they are on the floor, pulling samples and verifying results.

Rather than limit the number of critical control points, American Italian Pasta incorporates multiple CCPs in production and packaging lines, and makes sure all employees understand their significance. HACCP was implemented nine years ago and includes details such as plastic conveyor infeeds to metal detectors before final packaging.

Photo: www.donstevenson.com.

Motivated associates

Operators are management’s eyes and ears, and process improvements and cost-saving suggestions percolate up from them. The most promising ideas are implemented, with AIPC stock certificates going to the workers who suggest them. Once a year, a trip to Italy is awarded. This year’s winner was a packaging employee who conceived a system for dot-gluing cartons instead of sealing them with a strip of glue.

Suggestions by business partners can save significantly more. “We’ve worked with Bill Bradley (Younglove Construction) for 15 years. Instead of going over the same issues on each project, we’re able to focus on what worked on the last one, what went wrong and what can be improved,” says Johnson.

Close relationships with a handful of long-time suppliers are especially important, given engineering’s role as general contractor. The team applied for all building permits and variances, hired 30 different contractors and made sure they were paid, managed the specifications for all piping, purchased the equipment and reconciled English and metric measurements.

During the six-month Tolleson project, construction jobs were underway at AIPC’s three other U.S. plants. The engineers managed those projects by phone and with rotating plant visits. Saturdays were spent in Excelsior Springs, where another new line was going in. On Sunday, they rested, then began the cycle again.

The payoff is a facility unlike any other in the AIPC lineup. The plant was designed with an eye toward tripling its current capacity. That’s not a long-term objective: the second short-goods line is scheduled to arrive this year. The production room can accommodate a fourth line, after which the warehouse will be converted. The mill next door already is scrambling to keep pace. Silos to store one million bushels of grain are under construction, but additional storage will be needed.

Happily, there is no shortage of desert durum. Reservoirs built to capture snowmelt in the mountains ringing the valley are brimming with water. Phoenix’s suburban sprawl has covered former farm fields with homes, and their occupants consume less water than the crops that used to grow there. Despite the valley’s seven inches of annual rainfall, there’s a surplus of the water needed to grow the raw material the plant consumes.

As with any food plant, production is dictated by the ability to sell the finished goods. AIPC’s sales and marketing department have demonstrated an ability to achieve double-digit growth in recent years. Fortunately for them, they have a highly efficient plant in the desert to help fill those orders.

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