It’s April, and that means it’s time to announce FE’s Plant of the Year. This year, we are proud to name Kraft Heinz as the recipient for its deli meat facility, built by Gray Construction, located in Davenport, Iowa.

The plant truly is a feat in process automation, where the new operations set out to cut down the number of steps in the cooking and production of deli meats, and dramatically did so. The operations also wanted to reduce the amount of time for protein extraction, which can take up to 24 hours, and achieved this as well—it takes less than a fourth of that time.

Walking through the plant on my visit back in January, I noticed the operations are not exactly no touch, but very close to it. And every step is so well thought out that the production appears to be seamless.

It’s on plant visits like these—tours of brand-new and well-funded projects—when I have to remind myself, this is not the entire industry’s reality.

Additionally, I recently had an experience that taught me not everyone in the industry might be striving for advanced automation. About a month after my visit to Kraft Heinz, I had the pleasure of attending the grand opening of Home Chef’s new facility in Bedford Park, IL. The company is the largest privately held meal kit company in the US and has become the third-largest brand in the category.

The brand-new facility measures 103,000 sq. ft., but has very little automation on the plant floor and instead has many rolling tables located in a big, open room that can be easily changed out and reconfigured. Plus, the operations heavily rely upon its workforce to manually put together the meal kits. This has been done quite intentionally to allow Home Chef to change its 14 different menu offerings every week to meet the needs of its customers, says Founder and CEO Pat Vihtelic.

“We don’t know what the perfect production process is, and we probably won’t know anytime soon. So, having configurability and flexibility in the production floor has been really important to our success,” he says. “We’ve had some competitors in the meal kit space operating similarly on a weekly cadence who over-invested in some automation machinery, and then the market changes a little bit, consumer preference changes a little bit, and now, they’re finding it difficult to make that transition, because they over-invested in automation and machinery.”

What was strongly evident in each plant is that both Kraft Heinz and Home Chef care very much about the safety and quality of their products. But whereas one has valued automation, the other, at this point, has valued flexibility. I hope to visit both plants again in a few years to see how each evolves. 

Be sure to check out the 2018 Plant of the Year video, which will quickly walk you through the operations at Kraft Heinz, as well as give you a glimpse of its gigantic tumblers.