Kroger’s largest ice cream and milk facility reaches full stride with continuous improvement programs.

Four Federal fillers allow the plant to service both Indianapolis and Chicago markets with fresh milk.

The labeling of equipment, utilities and even fixtures within a processing plant is a crucial part of communicating the importance of employee safety. It’s one way to facilitate behaviors that lead to outstanding performance in terms of safety, efficiency and quality.

At Crossroad Farms Dairy in Indianapolis, IN, part of the Kroger Dairy Group, the labeled messages reach employees and visitors before they even reach the front door. A railing on the steps outside the plant is labeled, encouraging anyone going up or down to get a grip and watch their step.

The plant, one of the largest among the 19 production facilities in Kroger Dairy’s portfolio, includes 18 lines that produce ice cream, novelties, milk and other beverages. The 230,000-sq.-ft. plant, serves major markets including the Indianapolis and Chicago areas with milk, and the entire nation with some of its ice cream products.

It is also an exemplary facility in regard to safety, productivity and product quality.

At one time, the plant had a higher-than-average rate of injury accidents, but for several years, it has been one of Kroger’s safest. “It’s the most diverse plant we have in terms of product lines in the dairy group,” says Art Shank, the group’s operations and technical services manager. “Safety, quality and reliability are a big part of the culture here at Crossroad Farms, as they are at all of Kroger’s plants.”

Crossroad Farms was built 35 years ago, but there’s nothing old about it. Expansions and improvements over the years have included robotics, a high-capacity storage facility and, most recently, a new round-top cone line.

“The Indianapolis plant has for a long time been an important keystone in Kroger’s dairy operations,” says Mike Nosewicz, vice president of dairy manufacturing for Kroger’s eastern division.

While Crossroad has been an effective, efficient plant, its safety record was not always what it should have been. “This plant, for a long time, struggled with safety,” says George Clark, general manager at Crossroad Farms. “For whatever reason, it was an uphill battle for a while. But once we came on board with the continuous improvement program, we became a leader in safety.”

Today, the plant adheres to a program called SQR (safety, quality and reliability), and Kroger associates have embraced it, leading to dramatic performance improvements in all of the dairy division’s facilities and in all facets of the corporation.

Four robotic units were added to the freezing area in 2001.

On the floor

Milk is received through four drive-through receiving bays. Once routine testing is done, raw milk is loaded out from tankers and sent to one of eight silos that hold in excess of 285,000 gallons.

There are four separate HTST systems, three for milk and one for ice cream.  After milk is separated, recombined and pasteurized, it is sent to one of six pasteurized storage tanks on a mezzanine level from where it can be gravity fed to the individual production lines.

For milk, there are three 26-valve Federal fillers, and one 18-valve Federal filler for gallons and halves. The filler room was one of the first in the country designed with a HEPA-filtration positive air displacement system to help ensure a hygienic filling environment. Bottles are blow-molded on site.

For ice cream, the plant employs two half-gallon rectangular fillers. For ice pop novelties, there are three Vitaline 12-wide in-line machines. 

There are two lines from Norse Dairy Systems for standard sandwiches. A sixth novelty line is used primarily for round Interbake sandwiches, made with either premium round wafers or chocolate chip cookies, and vanilla or cookies and cream ice cream. The sandwich filler on the Interbake line can be rolled out so the line can also be used for push-up style pop-up novelties. 

The round sandwiches line can run more than 100 pieces a minute. The individual units undergo a five-minute cycle in a nitrogen hardening tunnel that hard-freezes the sandwiches before they are packaged. The sandwiches are then packaged in six-wide clear clamshell packs that separate each piece. It is closed with a single-piece wraparound adhesive label that includes the brand and product information.

The cone line was installed in 2004 in a separate room from other novelties operation. It uses a Hoyer freezer and an NDS filling system.  Ice cream is fed from the freezers in a continuous flow to the filler. The system runs on a PLC with a VDT control panel that is a few steps from the operator. Sleeves of 48 cones are fed into the filler by the operator. The system handles nearly everything from there, until the wrapped cones head downstream.

The sleeves are configured with eight cones across and six deep as they enter the machine. Pneumatic controls move the filling heads into position and simultaneously coat the first rows of cones with chocolate coating. Ice cream is then deposited into the coated cones at the second position.

The cones travel about 50 feet through the blast tunnel and are then inverted and brought back through the tunnel. Along the way, they are blasted with subfreezing air by a series of ammonia-chilled freezer coils. The entire trip takes about 20 minutes from the time the cones enter until they leave the tunnel.

Still inverted, the cones exit the tunnel a few inches below the point where they entered. They are dipped in either chocolate or nut coating before being ejected into the wrapper.

The wrapper draws film material from roll stock to wrap and seal each cone. Once they are sealed, the cones travel along a conveying system that bundles them for cartons of six or eight. They are inspected and oriented by hand before they are packed by an automated cartoner.

All frozen products are sent to four robotic units in a palletizing room in the cooler area. Robotics was added in 2001, taking employees out of a difficult and hazardous environment.

The cooler was expanded in 2003 and includes deep lane roll-in rack systems. The expansion resulted in an additional 6,500-sq.-ft. of cooler space and 32,300-sq.-ft. of freezer space.

A nitrogen tunnel freezer flash-freezes novelties including Big Wheel round sandwiches.

Team philosophy

Improvements have made Crossroad Farms a model plant, thanks to the teamwork philosophy Kroger has employed for decades and the SQR and continuous improvement programs that have been implemented recently.

On a day-to-day basis, employees at every level work in cross-functional home teams and task-specific teams to track performance, identify obstacles and implement solutions.

Robert Jackson takes the lead role on the ice cream home team at Crossroad. “Our home team meets once a week, and the goal is to provide a place where we can have discussions that are open and honest,” he says. “We ask people to be brutally honest.”

 Jackson describes the same kind of system that’s iterated by top-level executives and facilities managers. First, problems, situations or opportunities are identified and evaluated. Next, an individual or group is assigned responsibility for follow-through. Then, scorecards keep track of progress, and timelines are set for meeting particular goals to address the situation or opportunity. The system empowers employees to improve conditions and performance relative to the three-tiered imperative of safety, quality and reliability.

Darrell Childress works on a team that’s focused on the behavioral accident prevention process (BAPP). “We do observations of one another, to see if safe behavior is taking place,” he explains. “Every employee, from our general manager down, has to do two observations a month.  It’s really become an important part of our culture,” Childress says. “The focus is just to change those behaviors that aren’t safe.”

There are 10 points of focus for reducing dangerous behaviors, including:

  • Eyes on the path

  • Line of fire

  • Lifting and pivoting

  • Work environment, and

  • Tool and equipment condition.

    Crossroad Farms remains a vital and important plant to the Kroger Dairy Group, and all indicators point to its continued importance in the future. As its name implies, it is ideally situated near the major transportation corridors that serve much of the country.

    Kroger goes organic with new ESL line

    A newly installed ESL line at a former ice cream facility at the Jackson Dairy in Hutchinson, KS is helping the Kroger facility introduce its own lines of organic milk and organic soy milk.

    “We know that organics is important to the Kroger Company,” says Tim Kelbel, vice president of dairy manufacturing West, “and we wanted to be able to supply the company through the dairy group and have some critical mass and the benefits of extended shelf life.” 

    The new line is centered on an Evergreen VTM 100 machine that is used primarily for half-gallons. It employs a UHT processing system and produces up to 120 cartons a minute. “It’s a very nice system that really follows the industry standards,” Kelbel says.

    The products are sold under two of Kroger’s house brands, Naturally Preferred Organic and Private Select Organic. “As a company, we are really trying to be more innovative in the area of product development,” Kelbel adds. “Organics is a growth area for us, and we always focus on our customers’ wants and needs.” 

    The company expects the demand for these products to grow, so the new operation has space for an additional line.