No, it's not Rasta Sponge Bob: It's Mr. Noodle, symbol of Nong Shim ramyun noodles. The statue greets visitors during public tours in the welcome center.

Manufacturing is as much about people as machinery, and when both groups represent different cultures and languages, harmonious production can be a challenge. In the short history of Nong Shim Foods Inc., multi-cultural machines and humans are beginning to mesh.

Nong Shim Foods is the Rancho Cucamonga, CA, division of Nong Shim Co. Ltd., a $1.6 billion food manufacturer based in Seoul, South Korea. The company dominates the Korean food categories in which it competes: it has 31 percent of savory snacks, almost double the share of No. 2 Pepsico Inc., according to Datamonitor. Instant noodles are Nong Shim's main business, and in that segment, it is preeminent, commanding 72 percent of the market.

Instant noodles are a Japanese invention. Much of post-war US aid arrived in the form of wheat, an unfamiliar foodstuff in Asian culture. Nissin Food's Momofuku Ando invented the oil-infusion process that created chicken ramen from wheat flour in 1958 and, with the help of modified starch, instant cup noodles years later. The noodles were shelf stable, easily reconstituted and provided an inexpensive source of nutrition, virtues that made them a hit throughout Asia.

Cash-strapped college students helped create a market for ramen noodles in North America, and waves of Asian émigrés make the US the largest consumer of these products outside Asia. California is home to 4.8 million Asian Americans, including more than a million Koreans, according to Harrison Nam, president of Nong Shim Foods. In 2003, management began the process of transplanting its people and machinery to southern California to bring the freshest possible ramen noodles to North American customers.

The first hurdle in offshore manufacturing was finding a construction partner. McClear (now part of Austin AECOM) built the Barilla pasta plant in Ames, IA, and that led to talks with Nong Shim officials about its 268,000-sq.-ft. project. Design-build is a foreign concept in Korea, and explaining it proved difficult. An even bigger hurdle was translating technical issues between Korean and American engineers.

Easing the challenge was Dai S. Kim, a mechanical engineer with expertise in process engineering. Now director of global engineering services at Austin, Kim was McClier's senior process engineer when ground was broken on the Rancho Cucamonga project in May 2004. "Nong Shim hired a lot of translators, but they could not communicate technical information," he points out. The fluency of Kim and a senior electrical engineer overcame coordination issues that went beyond converting metric to Imperial measurements.

Water is conditioned and mixed with flavorings in stainless steel tanks before being combined with flour to create the noodle line's dough. Source: Austin AECOM.

Most of the processing and packaging equipment in the plant was designed by the company's in-house engineering firm, which specified the machinery in Nong Shim's nine Korean and three Chinese plants since 1997. In California, those units had to be integrated with a flour-handling system engineered by Shick USA, shrink-wrap machines from Douglas and X-ray units from Smiths Heimann.

More than 100 control panels attest to the plant's level of automation. Machine PLCs represent a League of Nations of sorts in plant-floor controls. Siemens devices control the noodle line, but peripheral equipment is controlled by Rockwell, Omron, Mitsubishi and other makes. The diversity means extra inventory cost, points out Engineering Manager David Homan, whose team of eight mechanics maintain the processing and packaging areas. He hopes to bring some uniformity to the controls environment, once the groundwork is laid for CMMS and other automation. A more challenging issue during ramp up is logistics: while counterparts in Seoul can provide guidance during the maintenance team's learning period, a 13-hour time difference makes real-time communication difficult.

Nong Shim Engineering designed a commercially available X-ray inspection system, but management opted for Smiths Heimann in California. "They chose us primarily for our checkweighing ability," says Daniel Arsenault, Smiths' West Coast manager. The X-ray units also validate the presence of a foil packet with soup base in many of the products, besides performing the fundamental function of foreign-material screening.

QA Manager Abel Escalante says the computed package weight with the six X-ray machines is within 2 percent-not as precise as the load cells that weigh individual packages upstream, but a good verification step. Package weight monitoring is not simply a product giveaway or underweight issue: it is part of quality control. Excess weight can be an indication of unacceptably high moisture content, which could lead to premature product degradation, Escalante points out. "We do physical inspections, but we also record all the weights, all the time." It is part of a statistical process control program that already is paying dividends in reduced product waste and oil pick-up.

As with the flour system at the head of the line, the X-rays are equipped with modems for remote diagnostics.

The Nong Shim product family with shin ramyun (spicy noodles) front and center. Eleven of the company's most popular soups are manufactured at the new Rancho Cucamonga facility. Source: Nong Shim Foods Inc.

Hello, neighbors

Security concerns are threatening to turn the food-plant tour into an American memory. Korean management opted for a policy of openness. In the coming months, two regularly scheduled weekly tours will begin, putting plant practices and procedures on public display.

An elaborate welcome center outfitted with many of the facility's 40 big-screen plasma TV monitors will tell the Nong Shim (Korean for farmer's heart) story. Visitors will progress to a changing room where workers keep a pair of plant-only shoes, pass through an air shower to remove any loose dirt and dust from their clothing, then reach a hand washing and sanitizing room before entering a corridor dissecting the processing areas.

Glass panels along the 446-ft. corridor provide a view to the noodle and packaging line on one side and the ground level of the three-story soup tower on the other. Two-hour fire rated glass panels provide an unobstructed view of the process and employee hygiene. "Sanitary standards are close to pharma grade," says Charles Oltman, vice president of Austin's southern California operations in Orange, CA, an assertion illustrated by the combination hat and hairnet worn by gowned line operators.

A water mixing system and material mixing room border the front of the corridor. Carbon filtered, hardness- and temperature-controlled municipal water is mixed with vitamins, salt and other flavorings in stainless steel tanks to create a broth that is delivered via an 800-joint plumbing system to create a flavored dough in the mixing room. Two of the plant's three noodle lines generate bowl noodles, which are thinner and have a different mouthfeel than noodles in film envelopes. Dough feeds into a kneader, then through a series of compound rollers and continuous rollers to achieve the desired noodle thickness.

"I've been around all types of food production, but the science behind noodles is the most complex I've seen," marvels Operations Manager Kevin Davar, hired as the first American at Nong Shim Foods in December 2004. The process is continuous, with all processing variables monitored and recorded in two control rooms. "If you speed up one part of the system, everything else speeds up," he adds. In the event of a disruption, line operators can shut down the mixing room from the floor.

Before entering the plant's production area, employees and visitors must pass through an air shower, where purified air removes any dust or contaminants on their clothing before they can proceed to a hand washing and sanitizing area.

After being stretched, strands of noodles with about 43 percent moisture are conveyed through a steam tunnel, where they are cooked before entering a steam-fired palm-oil fryer. Steam power is used instead of gas for more precise temperature control. The oil drives off moisture in the noodles, effectively drying them. Though some oil pickup occurs, the addition of antioxidants and adjustments to the oil recipe have enabled the company to gradually push packages' "best by" date to eight months from the original five, says Terry Lee, senior R&D scientist. Still, long-term storage can result in rancidity. To deliver a fresher product to North American consumers, ownership felt US manufacture of its most popular products was critical.

The plant's soup tower is an even bolder statement about the company's commitment to freshness. Soup base for all the Asian plants is produced in a single plant, using a continuous vacuum drying (CVD) process developed for liquid ingredients. A modified CVD process was designed for Rancho Cucamonga. Fresh garlic, onion and ginseng are cleaned, crushed and combined with soy sauce, milk and other liquids in an evaporator for up to five hours, then transferred to a vacuum dryer for a similar length of time. Low pressure allows the unit to remove moisture at reduced temperature, leaving more of the ingredients' flavor intact. "Dissolved gases released under vacuum produce a bubbly and crusty appearance in the fully dried state," says Davar. The solid mass then is ground to a fine powder in a two-step pulverizing process. Depending on the recipe, as many as 60 dry and formerly liquid ingredients are in the soup base for each product.

Line workers perform more of a quality assurance and sanitation than operational role on Nong Shim's automated production lines. Headgear is similar to what is found in a pharmaceutical plant. Source: Nong Shim Foods Inc.

Freshness and superior control of the finished product argued in favor of transplanting CVD to California, adds Davar. "If a modification to the color, pH or anything else needs to be made to have a base with the quality and pungency we're looking for, we can do it." Similar attention is lavished on vegetable mixes that are deposited directly into bowls or packed in cellophane packets in noodle envelopes. Contents are either air-dried or freeze-dried. "You feel the crunch of the green onions," says Davar. "The dehydration process hasn't destroyed them."

If the vegetable mix is absent, consumers still can make soup. Soup base, on the other hand, is essential. An array of eight proximity sensors verify the foil packet's presence immediately after it is deposited into the package, signaling downstream machines to divert any packages without a packet for rework.

The high degree of noodle-line automation means operators fulfill a QA function, gauging the thickness of the noodles and monitoring performance along the line. They also perform sanitation duties at the beginning and end of each shift, eliminating the need for a separate sanitation crew.

A series of compound and continuous rollers thin kneaded dough for noodle production. Source: Austin AECOM.

Korean-American work ethic

Epic rainfall threatened to derail the construction phase of the project. High winds and 29 inches of rain resulted in six weeks of lost time. One storm occurred after a 25-ft. deep excavation for the plant's bioreactor wastewater treatment system, requiring a difficult re-excavation before concrete could be poured. Pre-grading and compacting of the site prior to the awarding of the general contract helped keep the schedule on track, says Austin's Oltman.

"Koreans have a six-day work week and are dedicated to their employers, and the Nong Shim people did a great job making you feel the obligations of the team," he says. "We had subcontractors breaking into the site on Sundays to work."

The Koreans also were assembling a facility staff that reflects the American melting pot. Davar was born in Iran. Infrastructure Engineering Manager Ben Pangilinan emigrated to the US in 1973 from the Philippines, where his first tongue was a Tagalog-based dialect. His engineering counterpart, Homan, is a Hoosier, educated in electrical engineering at Purdue University.

Most of the operators are Hispanic, and the Korean management approach initially struck workers as brusque. Cultural assimilation requires give and take, and it is the Koreans who have altered their habits, patiently explaining the reasons for practices and directives. The payoff has been turnover related to worker relocation rather than job dissatisfaction.

Continuous improvement and worker suggestions are part of the ethos in the Korean plants. "Even simple suggestions are recognized and rewarded, and the corridors are covered with the suggestions and accomplishments of employees," says Davar. "Once our staff has enough experience to offer valuable suggestions, we hope to start similar programs here." In the meantime, workers are being quietly rewarded for their input.

In 1971, the Japanese developed instant cup noodles, a product that sold at a hefty premium but soon dominated the market. Korean manufacturers tried to duplicate that success, but ramen in Styrofoam cups was a bust. Cognizant of cultural differences in eating habits, Nong Shim's product developers put instant noodles in puncture-resistant bowls made from specially developed synthetic resin and resembling the traditional Korean sabal. Persistent promotion made the convenience package an eventual hit, and a big push at Seoul's 1988 Summer Olympics helped build export sales.

With the Rancho Cucamonga project, Nong Shim has invested approximately $75 million in the belief that American food culture will respond to value-added ingredients in a commodity category. Although products are priced under $1, they come at a premium compared to some competing ramen. By investing in advanced processes and scrupulous hygienic practices, Nong Shim is betting that the future lies in fresh noodles and flavorful ingredients.

For more information:
Charles Oltman, Austin AECOM, 714-835-8923,
Stacey Bratcher, Shick USA,
Daniel Arsenault, Smiths Heimann, 562-377-0255

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