Fabulous Food Plants

Fabulous Food Plant: Breakfast, Courtesy of Malt-O-Meal

December 1, 2010
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Malt-O-Meal doubled the number of built-this-century US cereal plants when it started production last year in Asheboro, NC, site of its second new facility in six years.

Automation of grain delivery to a battery of cookers on the floor below is one of the production improvements incorporated into the Asheboro plant’s design.


Shredded wheat is conveyed into a 280-ft. long oven at Malt-O-Meal’s Asheboro, NC facility. Looking on are employees Billy Coggins and Karen Callicutt. Source: All interior plant photos by Paul Church.

Though it’s 91 years of age, Malt-O-Meal Co. is a relative youngster in cold cereal production, a century-old business with high capital barriers to entry. The major brands were well established when the Minneapolis-based firm made its second foray into ready-to-eat cereal production in the 1970s, a time when the mega-plant characterized much of food manufacturing.

Given its youth, it’s understandable that Malt-O-Meal would break from the mega-plant tradition to take a more regional approach. Malt-O-Meal’s main operation in Northfield, MN sprawls over 1 million sq. ft. Rather than adding more lines in Minnesota to meet growing demand, the company has brought online the only new cereal plants built in North America in the 21st century. In 2003, a facility in Tremonton, UT began meeting the West Coast’s breakfast needs. Last year, production commenced in Asheboro, NC, giving Malt-O-Meal the East Coast production capacity it had long coveted. The 390,000-sq.-ft. (and already growing) plant incorporates the latest technology and food safety strategies in cereal manufacture, supported on a foundation of state-of-the-art automation.

Like its competitors, Malt-O-Meal’s roots are in the grain milling business. Though the Kellogg brothers invented the grain flaking process in the late 19th century, hot cereals like oatmeal and farina were the dominant breakfast options when miller John Campbell invented Malt-O-Meal in 1919. By the time CheeriOats were introduced in 1941, most of today’s top-selling cold cereals were on retail shelves. Campbell’s Corn Flakes competed in the ready-to-eat segment in the 1940s but was withdrawn. By the time Malt-O-Meal staked a permanent place in cold cereal, it was an entrenched business marked by slow growth. For the 52 weeks ending October 3, 2010, Americans purchased 2,186,751,000 boxes and bags of cold cereal, nudging only 0.2 percent over 2006’s volume, according to scanner data from market researcher SymphonyIRI Group. But while the big-name brands cope with flat sales, Malt-O-Meal’s lineup of shredded, puffed, flaked, sheeted and extruded cereals exhibit continued growth.

Instead of the heavy promotional programs of the big brands, Malt-O-Meal is building share with a value proposition and packaging that skews toward bags instead of bag-in-box. Malt-O-Meal’s strategy is to be the low-cost producer of both national brand and private-label ready-to-eat and hot cereal products. 

Based on data from Hoover’s Inc. and public statements by the privately held firm, Malt-O-Meal’s sales increased seven-fold in the 20 years preceding the financial sector meltdown of 2008. The subsequent economic stress has only made value-priced cereal more attractive. To sustain growth, the organization needs a dynamic production infrastructure, and the Asheboro facility helps deliver it, adding two high-volume lines to an existing network of 18.

Markets west of the Mississippi River were Malt-O-Meal’s early stronghold, making Utah a logical starting point for the first non-Minnesota production. National distribution was still a goal in the early 1990s, with the population-rich eastern seaboard a compelling target. Soon after the Utah plant was up and running, a search for a suitable East Coast site began. When Unilever announced its intention to shutter a dry-soup plant in Asheboro, the Tar Heel state became the search’s focus. The soup facility was inadequate for cereal production, but a nearby rail spur, the availability of an adjacent parcel for future expansion and other factors resulted in the purchase of the plant in December 2006. New production and packaging rooms were built, along with a utility building, grain storage bins and a rail-car unloading facility. The existing office, maintenance shop and receiving warehouse were incorporated into construction plans, shaving $5 million from project costs and enabling Project Manager Shane Guimbellot to guide the project to completion under its $140 million budget.

Focus on safety

From the onset of this project, Malt-O-Meal was committed to building and operating the safest cereal plant in the industry. Enhanced food hygiene and sanitation were incorporated in both the design and operation of the facility.

Food safety is a continuous-improvement priority at Malt-O-Meal, with science-based validation driving changes. Extensive environmental monitoring swabs of both contact and noncontact surfaces are taken each month in Asheboro to validate the effectiveness of cleaning and sanitation programs. New cleaning and sanitizing methods are continuously developed and verified by quantitative testing.

A basic principle to control microbes is to deprive them of moisture. This is a major thrust in Asheboro’s War on Water initiative. “Our frontline, dedicated professionals are asking how can we eliminate the use of water and if dry cleaning is an option,” says Plant Manager Dale Ducommun. “Validation with thousands of data points puts science behind changes.” A visual reminder to limit water use is provided by the removable vinyl covers positioned over drains in processing areas.

Matt-O-Meal employee Angel Garner pulls a sample of wheat flakes for quality testing. Canopies and covers over conveyors are in place wherever product is exposed to atmosphere on production lines.

Isolation of areas and multiple circles of defense play out in the approaches to sanitation, pest control and personnel hygiene. In preparation for future growth at the site, a $5 million upgrade to the employee entrance is underway, an improvement incorporating best practices in food safety.

Roof-mounted chillers condition the plant’s air, removing the moisture needed to foster mold, mildew and microbial growth. Humidity is a particular concern in the Southeast, and the HVAC system was designed to eliminate moisture-related issues. Conditioned air moves through processing areas in fabric ducts that can be cleaned or replaced, eliminating the sanitary challenges of metal ductwork. HVAC and bulk unloading workers have their own employee amenities, protecting the food producing areas. A new utilities building for compressed air, hot water and boilers will isolate those support services, as well.

The explosive potential of grain has been front and center for millers since the 19th century. Asheboro incorporates current practices in mitigating the risk by isolating dust collectors on the building’s perimeter, separated from processing areas by a 20-ft. wide service corridor. The machinery is engineered to direct explosive force toward the exterior walls, where explosion panels provide protection. Insects and rodents are an issue with grain storage. Asphalt, pea gravel and wide-open spaces surround the facility, which sits on a 35-acre site. An adjacent wooded parcel was cleared and leveled, with 105,000 cubic yards of earth excavated to create a flat elevation. An approximately 1,200-ft. long retaining wall, dubbed the Great Wall of Asheboro, wraps around the north and east sides of the property, climbing to a height of 35 ft. and marking the high point of the original terrain.

Matt-O-Meal employee Chad Craven prepares a cereal sample for moisture analysis in the operator control room for line #1. The room’s HMIs give operators a clear view of any potential problems on the line, which stretches across two floors and extends thousands of feet.

Design of the grounds and the building itself provide multiple rings of protection against pests while also muffling the sounds of production. “We want to be a good neighbor and a good steward,” explains Guimbellot. The meticulousness of the planning is illustrated by the months spent experimenting with different types of pea gravel to surround the building. The gravel’s density is light enough to collapse on any burrowing rodents.

The same attention to detail is reflected in the fit and finish of the interior. Pipe sleeves are fitted into wall and floor openings to allow pipe movement without creating harborage space. Stainless steel piping from drains connects with polypropylene piping with a double-walled joint, eliminating any cast iron connectors. The company’s first walkable ceiling to house utility piping and Malt-O-Meal’s first use of urethane flooring to withstand temperature shocks make scheduled sanitation more manageable.

A modular approach allows rapid changeover from boxed cereal to bags by simply rolling a different conveyor line (upper left) into place.

Building materials that are standard in dairy and refrigerated foods enhance food safety in Asheboro. Insulated metal panels cover ceilings in processing rooms to seal off open spaces where dust might accumulate. Light fixtures are recessed. Stainless steel piping transports liquid ingredients and in-process materials. Another unusual feature: a CIP system to sanitize high-moisture work in process.

“For lines that handle moist product, it’s critical to our HACCP plan to prevent any build-up and make sure the lines can be effectively cleaned,” says Gary Bollinger, director of engineering. CIP is a rarity in dry-product production, and he credits The Dennis Group’s assistance in system design. The Springfield, MA firm was the first design/build company to work with Malt-O-Meal.

“Protecting the food stream is critical to Malt-O-Meal,” observes Mike Damiano, a process engineer who served as project manager of a score of The Dennis Group engineers and technicians involved in the construction and commissioning. “We selected materials of construction to improve hygiene and cleanability and conducted audits on major pieces of equipment to improve sanitary design.”

Engineering Director Gary Bollinger (left), Plant Manager Dale Ducommun and Project Manager Shane Guimbellot review a blueprint of a possible line layout. The facility opened with two production lines, with a master plan allowing for several more.

Advanced process control

Partnerships with equipment providers were cultivated, though the evolving standards of sanitary design can provoke pushback from OEMs. Not too many years ago, hollow stainless steel tubes were the preferred structural component. Now, manufacturers are specifying angled steel. “Aesthetically, the tube looks more sanitary,” allows Bollinger, “but microbiologically, the inverted angle is superior in certain applications.” He cites Smalley Manufacturing Co. for its willingness to redesign conveyors to meet evolving sanitary guidelines.

“The sanitary issues in cereal are a moving target,” observes Mark Gallagher, sales manager at Knoxville, TN-based Smalley. “It’s basically custom manufacturing from the design meeting on.” Cleanability and accessability requirements developed for dairy and meat and poultry conveyors were incorporated, and Smalley fabricated fixed or removable covers for conveyors transporting product through open-to-atmosphere zones.

The Dennis Group’s Asheboro commission included serving as equipment purchasing agent. RFPs stipulated that machinery, including gas ovens and other thermal units, be delivered without electronic controls. The benefit is uniform coding and controls that allow staff engineers and maintenance technicians to diagnose and repair machinery throughout the manufacturing network, regardless of plant location. Malt-O-Meal relies on Wunderlich-Malec Engineering to program machine controls, HMIs and manufacturing systems. The Minneapolis systems integrator wrote much of the estimated 80,000 lines of code used in Asheboro. The programming staff peaked at more than 20 engineers.

Nicknamed the Great Wall of Asheboro, a quarter-mile long brick retaining wall marks the grading done on the site, stretching to a height of 35 ft. at its apex. Rail cars are emptied in the bulk unloading building (center), with grain pneumatically moved in the overhead lines to the plant. Source: Kevin T. Higgins.

Malt-O-Meal’s machine-controls standard is Allen-Bradley, but both Tremonton and Asheboro utilize GE Fanuc’s Cimplicity at the supervisory level. More than 30 HMI nodes are positioned throughout the plant. The operations staff is accurately described as lean. “They’re relying on their operators to go upstream and downstream and have an awareness of the whole line,” says Dan Gilbert, manager of Wunderlich’s industrial controls division. Visibility to performance metrics drove HMI selection. The nodes are integrated with MES data collection and reporting systems. Three communications networks integrate plant systems: Ethernet, DeviceNet and ControlNet.

“A fully integrated, plant-wide HMI and automation system, from commodities receiving to the utilities and HVAC and packaging lines, is leading edge,” notes Gilbert. The second phase of the controls architecture is expected to bolster the tracking and tracing functionality of the system. To help support the effort, Wunderlich opened a Greensboro, NC office staffed by one of the key engineers on the Asheboro project.

Batch cooking is completely automated, eliminating operator inputs to cooker loading for the first time at Malt-O-Meal. Two hoppers, one for wheat and the other for corn, shuttle along a second-floor rail and deposit loads that are just a few bowls shy of a ton to a bank of cookers on the first floor. Liquid ingredients also are automatically measured and delivered to the cookers. “Automation not only provides more consistency, it’s safer for the operator,” points out Bollinger.

Corridors isolate utility lines from production and provide ample room for equipment and people to move throughout the facility. Source: Kevin T. Higgins.

Sustainable practices

Worker safety and equipment reliability, like food safety, are areas where Malt-O-Meal backs rhetoric with capital spending. In the liquid-ingredient unloading areas, for instance, safety harnesses are rigged to 20-ft. high platforms to protect operators while opening hatches on tankers. Lighting in work areas is at 80 footcandles.

Machine safety was a big part of Wunderlich’s mission. “There’s an emphasis on doing risk assessment at the machine level and designing means to minimize that risk,” either through machine guards or safety circuits, Gilbert explains. Safety analysis guided machine motor groupings, with the plug-and-play advantages of Rockwell’s IntelliCenter motor control centers helping to simplify the wiring of safety circuits through DeviceNet.

Premium efficiency motors are standard throughout the facility, with stainless steel versions used in sensitive areas. VFDs are deployed copiously, though energy savings is a secondary benefit: The primary motivation is improved process control.

Heavy-duty machinery is another priority. “Buying high-quality equipment is important to our success,” says Bollinger. “We take the long view that our best return on investment comes from using high-quality, robust equipment that delivers the lowest total lifecycle cost.” Preference also is given to vendors who “have the engineering ability to move food sanitation forward with us,” adds Ducommun.

Scrap product and dry solids are isolated and sold for use in animal feed. Sugar raises the BOD levels of liquid waste streams, though Malt-O-Meal has found a market for this. If a consistent Brix level can be maintained, municipal treatment plants stand ready to purchase the plant’s liquid waste. Those kinds of initiatives resonate with retailers armed with sustainability scorecards, though Malt-O-Meal’s biggest in-store sustainability claim is its packaging: Cereal bags reduce post-consumption waste by 75 percent compared to conventionally packaged product. The bags shout their sustainable advantage on shelves, though the professional staff approaches production sustainability with characteristic Midwestern reserve, viewing energy efficiency and waste diversion as simply good manufacturing practices.

Less than a year elapsed before a third line was added at Asheboro to introduce innovation to an old category, instant oatmeal. The line includes complex blending and mixing of unique ingredients and a new packaging format for instant oatmeal. 

Contingent on sales growth, Asheboro could expand to include several more production lines. Utilities and support services are in place to support the growth. In the meantime, management is concentrating on continuous upgrades to production, support services and safety.

To offer shoppers value-priced cereal, Malt-O-Meal must be a low-cost producer. However, it is committed to maintaining that status by investing in the best available systems, be they automation or safety oriented. Its manufacturing leadership is procedurally oriented and maintains excellent documentation standards, and executive management supports them with capital investments for long-term sustainability. The firm remains privately held and owned by descendants of the John Campbell family. Malt-O-Meal got where it is with professional management and manufacturing practices along with the long-term vision and commitment by its owners, and the Asheboro plant is evidence it is staying the course

For more information:
Mike Damiano, The Dennis Group, 413-787-1785
Mark Gallagher, Smalley Manufacturing Co., 865-966-5866
Dan Gilbert, Wunderlich-Malec Engineering, 952-933-3222, dan.gilbert@wmeng.com

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