Fabulous Food Plants

Fabulous Food Plants: The Vermont Three-Step

December 1, 2006
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Marcel Gravel, Cabot’s manufacturing plant manager, peers inside one of the 38,000-lb. enclosed cottage cheese vats. The plant pioneered commercial application of the new technology.
 

 

Neighboring New Hampshire may be the Granite State, but the same rugged terrain marks Vermont, home to Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

The state’s vertical ascents top out at 4,400 feet, modest compared to western ranges but mountains nonetheless. Finding level land to build on is a challenge, and bringing men, women and materials into remote areas compounds it. Nonetheless, new construction was a necessary first step when engineers at Cabot and Food Tech Structures LLC sat down three years ago to map out a five-year growth plan. With the brick and mortar elements complete, the production team is pushing forward with automation projects at the 87-year old cheddar cheesemaker.

Cabot went from a $50 million business when it merged with Agri-Mark Inc. in 1992 to $330 million in little more than a decade. The addition of upstate New York’s McCadam cheese brand in 2002 was another turn of the screw to an uncomfortably tight warehousing problem. Aging rooms in various locations meant product was being moved multiple times before packaging. The company’s facilities in Cabot, VT, couldn’t handle throughput requirements, forcing the company to outsource some packaging work. Cultured dairy production also had hit the wall.


An operator hoists a 640-lb. block of cheddar cheese onto the cut-and-wrap line. By building a new distribution center, space was freed to create linear packaging lines with greater automation potential.
 

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“Our cottage cheese vats were 30-year-old technology, and we were out of capacity,” recalls Jim Pratt, senior vice president of operations. “We evaluated the business and said, ‘We either get out of the business or make a major investment.’” Option two was selected.

A service road hems in Cabot’s manufacturing plant on its ascent to the firm’s 100,000-sq.-ft. cut-and-wrap facility. The original plan called for expanding the cut-and-wrap building, which also served as a distribution warehouse. Impressed with the workmanship and design features of the original structure, Pratt and his colleagues contacted the architectural engineers who handled the 1987 project. Among them was project manager Richard Bott Jr., who had since joined Hanover, MA-based Food Tech.

“Vermont is a very environmentally sensitive state, and every construction project must comply with Act 250,” notes Bott. Required environmental and business-impact studies can push permitting timelines out to 12 months. The Food Tech engineers suggested an alternative: build a new distribution center (DC) 20 miles away in the capital city of Montpelier, which enjoys easy access to interstate roadways, and renovate the existing dual-use building to serve as a packaging operation. Construction on the new DC commenced in fall 2003, ran through a brutally cold winter that saw -40ºF temperatures and concluded in summer 2004.

“I had to double- and triple-handle product in the old warehouse,” says Louie Quintin, warehouse distribution manager. “We’re shipping up to 12 million pounds a month from here. I wouldn’t have to hire another person if we picked up a three million pound order.” The new location also shaved 40 miles a day off each driver’s travel. “They lost two hours on their log books and gained it back by the move here,” Quintin says.


 Maintenance Manager Randy Swartz watches as the discharge tube from Cabot’s cottage cheese vat is slowly lowered by a PLC controlled winch.

‘Not in Kansas'

As the warehouse project wound down, manufacturing expansion got underway. “Traffic on the service road to the cut-and-wrap facility couldn’t be interrupted, so everything had to be shored up before excavation work for the new cottage-cheese room could begin,” remembers Bott.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” Pratt wryly observes of the rugged terrain. Engineers had to address infrastructure issues, such as piping that carries whey up the steeply sloping hillside to holding tanks above. The new cottage-cheese clean room extends over a cheddar-making room, where production couldn’t be interrupted.

Cabot’s project coincided with research on cottage cheese automation at the University of Minnesota. With funding from Dairy Management Inc., Assistant Professor Lloyd E. Metzger had been producing cottage cheese in 1,200-lb. enclosed vats in the school’s dairy pilot plant. “Cottage cheese really was the sole cheese that remained a mostly manual process,” explains Metzger. “It was a process we felt we had to fix.”

As Cabot’s new cottage cheese clean room came on line, Scherping Systems Inc. completed fabrication of a 25,000-lb. horizontal cottage cheese vat (HCCV), a commercial scale version of the system Metzger had used. The prototype HCCV, which has since been moved to several cheesemakers’ plants where automated production is being considered, was installed side by side with Cabot’s open vats. “There were a lot of skeptics out there who said, ‘It isn’t going to work,’” recalls Marcel Gravel, manufacturing plant manager. “I challenged (maintenance manager) Randy (Swartz) to make it work.” An us-against-the-world attitude evolved. Demonstrating the practicality of automated production became a badge of honor. One vestige of the project is a sign reading, “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by those doing it,” posted in a corridor connecting the cottage cheese area to the rest of the plant.

Cottage cheese curds are extremely fragile. The prevailing wisdom held that automated wire cutters would shatter many of them and result in an unacceptably wide range of curd sizes. Additionally, the need to introduce heat for coagulation presented issues. “Thermal transfer requires mixing,” Metzger notes, “and a lot of the methods we thought would work didn’t.”

Every cheesemaker’s cottage cheese process is unique to its operation, and although the solution Metzger and Scherping’s George Schwinghammer devised worked with the prototype HCCV, it didn’t translate to the 38,000-lb. vats Cabot installed in the scale-up. “We tried it their way the first day,” says Gravel. “We didn’t try it that way the second day.”

Swartz and his team ultimately drilled a hole near the top of the vat and fitted it with a shell and tube that delivered whey siphoned from the bottom and warmed to aid coagulation. They also experimented with mixing and cutting speeds in the eight-step process. When the wire cutter begins revolving, almost 30 seconds elapse before it reaches one RPM. “It’s just barely moving the curd,” Gravel says. “We go right from fluffing the curd to cooking.”

Another Cabot wrinkle was the elevation of the twin HCCVs 10 ft. above the plant floor. Rather than pump the curds to the whey removal hopper and cooling tank, Swartz reasoned gravity would provide more gentle conveyance. Initially, the flow overwhelmed the hopper: although it takes 30 minutes to empty the HCCV, half the volume transfers in the first 10 minutes. Swartz devised a winch tied to a PLC to lower the delivery pipe one inch every two seconds. “It took about three weeks to perfect the timing,” Gravel reports. “Now it works perfectly.”

After cooling, the curds move to another tank where cream dressing is added, then to fillers, where HEPA filtered air maintains the sterility realized with the enclosed vats upstream in the five-hour process. Because mold and spoilage organisms no longer have an opportunity to infect the product, Cabot has eliminated the use of carbon dioxide during filling. The new process provides the same shelf life.


 An operator removes out-of-spec blocks of cheddar prior to packaging fixed-weight cheese.

Enabling automation

Reconstruction of the cut-and-wrap facility was the most complicated aspect of the project. It also will have the greatest impact on Cabot’s ability to modernize and automate production and distribution.

When the structure was built, 50 people packaged 10 million pounds of cheese a year. Today, 150 employees package 50 million pounds. Updating staff amenities was the first order of the day. The former high-bay warehouse area was outfitted with a mezzanine to provide a break room, lockers and office space. A new air-handling system serves the expanded cut-and-wrap area, which triples capacity. Increased demand for steam necessitated the addition of a second boiler, a high efficiency Cleaver-Brooks unit that gives the plant redundant power.

Aging rooms still exist, but most of the ground floor is devoted to cutting and wrapping operations. Six conventional packaging lines and a wax line had been housed in a honeycomb of rooms, with congestion frustrating automation efforts. Steel beams replaced masonry walls in three areas, creating an area that accommodates two additional lines. The linear layout significantly boosts efficiency: an extra 10 pounds per man-hour of output has been realized, according to Ed Pcolar, cut-and-wrap supervisor. That translates to a $350,000 a year savings and, more importantly, “allows us to do in five days what we used to do in six,” Pcolar says.

The 14-month project involved some pain and suffering. Every line had to be moved twice, as the six-phase construction project proceeded. “It was like remodeling your house, one room at a time, while you lived in it,” says Pratt. “Throwing 50 masons, electricians and other workers into a food plant was grueling. We did it in a year, and nobody got hurt.”

While efficiencies already have been realized, more are coming. The facility now can accommodate automatic case packing and palletizing equipment, and that automation will be phased in. Automatic generation of case tags and pallet tags also is being implemented. Data is relayed via radio frequency to a warehouse management system (WMS) tied to the Montpelier DC and front-office accounting.

More than 7,000 SKUs flow through the packaging operation. The potential for transposed numbers and other handwriting errors is enormous. Automatic tag generation should eliminate those problems. The new system will tie in to a WMS order-picking system from Red Prairie that will guide order fulfillment out of the Montpelier operation.

“We had no chance to do these kinds of things in the environment we had,” Pratt reflects. “Customers want accountability. With this system, we have real-time accountability and infinite traceability.” If a recall was required, full traceback to the milk used to make the product would be documented within a half hour.

Once the construction dust settled, operations managers were able to implement efficiency projects that previously were impractical. In the Vermont cheesemaker’s case, the three-step construction plan for distribution, cottage-cheese production and packaging was a necessary starting point for automation.

 


For more information:

 Richard L. Bott, Food Tech Structures LLC, 617-515-4762, rbott@foodtech.com

George Schwinghammer, Scherping Systems Inc., 800-669-4401

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