Adaptability is as much an element in sustained operations as energy efficiency, water management and other objectives in corporate social responsibility programs, and the ability to adapt to market changes is as much a part of Hormel Foods Corp.’s Dubuque, IA facility as its sustainable manufacturing credentials.

Officially known as Progressive Processing LLC, the 342,000-sq.-ft. plant was conceived in headier economic times as “the culmination of our commitment to sustainable operations,” writes Jeffrey Ettinger, CEO, president and chairman in the company’s 2010 Corporate Responsibility Report. Financial storm clouds had formed by the time ground was broken in July 2008. When production started, the housing bubble had burst, Wall Street was reeling, and retrenchment in food purchasing patterns was occurring. At the plant’s grand opening, Ettinger noted initial plans for two production lines for microwavable shelf-stable entrées already had been scrapped. 

Adaption to changing conditions was a given from the first day of design work in 2007, and the facility transitioned to a meat canning line that came on line in fall 2010. Although Dubuque is the first Hormel greenfield project in more than 25 years, the 120-year-old company knows something about shifting demands and new opportunities in food production.

Given a blank slate, planners were able to build to the highest energy-efficiency and resource-use standards. That inspired a quest for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. The company’s manufacturing network is struggling to attain goals of 10 percent cuts in energy use, though a similar reduction in water consumption is on track. In Dubuque, there were more ambitious goals of 25 percent reductions in both energy and water use per pound of finished goods, compared to similar production lines. Those goals were surpassed in the first year of operation.

“From both a customer relations and business perspective, we were looking at being as sustainable and energy efficient as possible with the project,” explains Mike Devine, vice president-operations for Austin, MN-based Hormel’s grocery products division. LEED certification was not originally considered, but as the project planning evolved, “the LEED structure best fit what we wanted to accomplish,” he says. Six months after production began, the facility joined a short list of LEED Gold food plants.

Eleven sites in six states were considered for the expansion project, including some existing plants. In the end, “we decided a greenfield would give us the most flexibility to do the things we wanted to do in energy use and efficiency,” says Devine. After a floor plan was devised, “I took it to all our shelf-stable plants and said, ‘Tell me what you would want that isn’t in there.’” Based on the feedback, the layout was tweaked to optimize flow.

Premium efficiency motors, reflective roofing materials, high-efficiency lighting and other tried-and-true technologies help drive down electric and gas consumption, but corporate engineers looked for opportunities to innovate, as well. Arguably the most novel advance is a thermal recovery system that captures waste heat from equipment and product cooling in a closed loop water system. Incoming cold water cools air and ammonia compressors, dryers and other equipment, warming it to 125°F to 140°F. The now-hot water is either used immediately or stored in a 200,000-gallon reservoir. Reuses include sanitary washdowns and space heating. Similarly, after each batch, water from retorts is circulated through a heat exchanger, which recovers thermal energy for reuse.

Waste heat from the plant’s three two-stage, oil-free rotary screw compressors is reused two ways. Besides feeding hot water into the piping loop, hot air from the compressors is used to wring out water from the compressed air before it is used. Using water to cool the compressors also delivers greater operational control, according to John Ruprecht, director-sales at Atlas Copco. As a result, the machines run at higher efficiency, are more reliable and require less maintenance. Other food companies are considering installing heat harvesting systems similar to Hormel’s, but to date, Dubuque is the first and only application in the food industry.

Water reuse opportunities were a design priority, according to corporate engineer Chad Sayles, manager-mechanical & electrical engineering. For example, retort water typically goes to drain; at Progressive, some is retained for the next batch, while the rest feeds the gray water stream after its heat is reclaimed. Retort cooling water is directed to the closed loop, where thermal energy is extracted and applied to other uses.

The plant’s utilities infrastructure set new benchmarks, but other facilities in the manufacturing network are building on those advances, says Sayles. “Even though this is our sustainability model, we now have more advanced systems in locations around the country,” he adds. “We’re not going to keep copying this plant over and over.” Continuous improvement projects are ongoing at every Hormel plant, with those designated as the Best of the Best serving as inspiration for the other 38 US processing facilities.

“A little bit of everything” is on display in Dubuque in terms of lighting, Sayles continues. “If we redid it today, we would have the same mix, but we could be 20 percent more efficient.” T-5 fluorescents and metal halide fixtures illuminate much of the space, with some LED lights sprinkled in. Fixtures are equipped with sensors that adjust the intensity and number of bulbs that are energized, depending on occupancy and available light. With 212 skylights, the availability of natural light results in continuous adjustments, with each passing cloud triggering an automatic change in the number of fixtures turned on.

Linear layouts, in which raw materials enter the plant at one end and finished goods exit at the other, have been the prevalent industry design in recent decades, but today’s trend is toward a network of rooms where discreet processes are executed. Progressive Processing reflects that shift, with separate areas for blanching, ingredient preparation, cooking, filling and other processes. “By separating operations, the plant can potentially run 24/7,” with production proceeding in one area while another undergoes cleaning or maintenance, points out Mark Zelle, plant manager. “There’s so much cost associated with the equipment,” and prorating those costs over more hours of operation offers great potential in boosting overall equipment efficiency.

Since launching Compleats microwavable trays in 2004, the company had scrambled to meet double-digit annual growth, ultimately installing five lines throughout its network. Despite the depth of experience, Dubuque boasts several firsts and process innovations, beginning with an optical scanning and screening system from BEST. Screens or manual picking traditionally have been the only defense against foreign materials mixed in with peas and other produce. The vision system identifies any objects out of color or size spec and removes them.

Instead of kettles, the protein cook system relies on a thermal blender that gently and uniformly mixes ingredients with minimal pumping and greater consistency, according to Zelle. Once cooked, product moves to the adjacent fill room, where it is deposited in trays. Gravy or other ingredients can contaminate a tray’s lip, compromising seal quality and raising the possibility of package failure during retorting. A vision inspection system was engineered in-house to identify and reject those trays prior to sealing. Integration of the system, along with downstream X-ray inspection and checkweighing, was performed by Raque Foods, the fill and seal line fabricator.

Fully automated loading of individual trays into retort baskets is executed by a multi-function robotic system from Aagard. A twin of that unit unloads retorted product and collates, sleeves, case packs, palletizes and stretch wraps finished goods. All of the handling is executed in a 126 ft.-long unit, about half the footprint required for conventional machines performing the same functions. Loss of flexibility is the downside: The system packs six trays to a case, and variations are not an option. Advanced electronics also mean the plant is “very closely connected” to the machine builder, particularly for machine troubleshooting and programming changes, observes Zelle.

A Hartness accumulator between the fill and seal line and the retort-loading system provides a two-minute buffer, giving mechanics a narrow window to correct any system hiccups. Having new workers in a new plant is a plus: “It’s a startup, and the team is engaged,” Zelle says. “There’s a sense of ownership.” In-house technical skills now are advanced, he says.

More reductions
A corporate goal of 10 percent greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions over five years got off to a rocky start last year, when GHG emissions actually increased half a point. The shuttering of an older facility in Turlock, CA and relocation of its Valley Fresh can line to Dubuque should help Hormel get back on track. The change puts finished goods closer to both their markets and raw material sources for chicken and turkey.

The relocation also provided an opportunity to upgrade key equipment. Open-to-atmosphere water baths stretched the cook process for chunk chicken to more than two hours in Turlock. “The original system was pretty antiquated,” allows Sayles. New spiral ovens reduce cook time by 80 percent, lowering energy inputs despite the superior heat transfer through water vs. air. The process change eliminated the need to manually strip out cooked breast meat from casings, and the larger breast meat pieces now used are more easily diced and produce fewer fines. Besides saving energy, “the quality has been greatly enhanced,” reports Zelle. “We’ve picked up a lot of market share.”

Three can sizes are produced, the largest being 12 oz. The five-oz. cans are comparable in size to canned tuna. The low profile is a challenge for conventional labelers when cans roll into the machine. At Progressive Processing, a Krones labeler handles cans in a horizontal orientation. Zelle gives the machine high marks for can control and reduction in label application miscues. Downstream from the labeler, cans are double stacked for case packing, eliminating a cardboard tray and the attendant packaging waste and cost.

Pack-out for both lines is in an area that accounts for the bulk of the facility’s square footage, a cavernous space that doubles as a short-term warehouse. Finished goods are held for three days before shipping, and mountainous stacks of pallets stretch toward the room’s 30 ft.-high roof. To increase worker comfort, aerodynamically designed ceiling fans stretching up to 24 ft. in diameter slowly rotate, moving up to 223,572 cubic feet of air a minute. Despite their size, the fans draw little more power than five 100-Watt incandescent light bulbs. They operate year-round, providing a cooling breeze in the summer and pushing down warm air in the winter.

Maintenance workers began their 92-108 hours of on-site training in personal safety, food safety and work-order protocols in September 2009, with the first operators following in November and December. Production commenced in January 2010

Sustainable outreach
All Hormel facilities compete in the Best of the Best continuous improvement competition. This year, a dozen Best of the Best initiatives were executed in Dubuque, says Zelle, with the most successful submitted for top honors consideration. Last year’s entry involved reuse of inedible waste, which is blended and shipped to a recycling partner for use as feed stock in anaerobic digestion.

Sustainability opportunities with the city and other Dubuque area organizations helped sway Hormel’s site selection decision, Zelle says. He credits the cooperation received from local officials for ensuring a smooth project and startup. “We want to be a bigger part of the community,” Devine says, and Progressive Processing is raising its profile in municipal and public welfare initiatives. To be a better corporate citizen, Devine has challenged the facility to achieve zero waste to landfill.

Worker safety is placed on a par with food safety, and Dubuque’s safety excellence award in its inaugural year is as much a point of pride as its achievements in energy efficiency, sustainability and flexibility. With a background that includes 22 years of QC experience, Zelle notes, “I’m a stickler for following procedures. I tell the staff, ‘There are no safety shortcuts, there are no procedural shortcuts. Don’t think you’re doing us any favors by cutting corners.’

“I was brought here to develop a culture,” he adds. “That culture sticks around a long time after the plant manager is gone.” Good manufacturing practices, food safety programs, superior environmental and energy-efficiency execution and “an open door policy” are the legacy he hopes to leave.

Adaptability is another goal. The plant is experimenting with flex scheduling of four maintenance teams, with each working four 12-hour shifts followed by four days off. The approach poses some project continuity challenges, but early results are encouraging. Similarly, operators involved in processes that run semi-continuously might be asked to work shifts when other areas of the facility are dark.

Flexibility is served with the building design. Refrigerated storage is sufficient for current raw material inventories, but glycol-heated underground freeze protection was engineered to provide flexibility for frozen-goods storage. “The way the business environment and consumer preferences change, you have to be flexible,” muses Devine. “We want to be able to run cans, run jars, run pouches, even run a refrigerated process. It’s hard to find a product like Spam that’s been around for 70 years in basically the same can.”

Brands like Spam and Dinty Moore are Hormel treasures. The Dubuque facility approaches that status, serving as a springboard for updates throughout the network and as a learning lab for company engineers, 125 of whom recently toured the facility for up-close exposure to systems and ideas that might be transplanted to their own facilities. Construction occurred in the teeth of the economy’s freefall, and other projects had to be placed on hold. “I tell the other plants, ‘I’m driving the car, but you paid for it,’” says Zelle.

With an infrastructure designed to support a doubling of the current space, it’s a car built for the long haul.

For more information:
John Ruprecht, Atlas Copco Compressors Inc., 704-504-6931

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