Massive Butter Works
by James Dudlicek
Rebuilt after a disastrous fire, AMPI plant is better
Time to put to rest one of
dairy’s urban legends: There were no rivers of melted butter flowing
out of the butter factory in New Ulm, Minn., after it caught fire on the
evening of December 1, 2004.
“Some did get out to the road, but very
little,” says plant manager Bill Swan, noting that butter was
knee-deep in some areas of the plant. Melted butter floating atop the large
quantity of water used to put out the fire, he says, helped fuel the
A little over two years later, Associated Milk
Producers Inc.’s hometown plant is in the best shape it’s been
in since the former Five Star Dairy Cooperative churning and packaging
facility was folded into AMPI in 1969. Products made here are primarily
packaged for private labels, but some are sold under AMPI’s own State
“This is our only butter plant, which is why,
when it was down, there was such a ripple effect,” says Sheryl
Meshke, AMPI communications and government relations director.
Fortunately, it was near the end of peak butter season,
with the holiday rush nearly over, Swan notes. “AMPI was immediately
offered help from other butter manufacturers, enabling us to take care of
our customers,” he recalls. “We were getting into the slower
season anyway, so that really went pretty well.”
Meanwhile, the management teams at AMPI’s New Ulm
corporate office started to assess the damage. “We were basically
digging out the plant and trying to decide which pieces of equipment
could be salvaged by our in-house personnel — we have a very talented
maintenance group; all of our employees, really — and look for nooks
and crannies where we could start putting equipment,” Swan says.
“Our first production lines to come on were our continentals. We
started production on December 23  with two continental
Work continued into the new year. “We
disassembled the machines, cleaned them and refurbished all the damaged
parts. Then we moved them from where they were in the butter production
plant up to our milk plant that was unaffected by the fire; we put machines
in right underneath the office here,” Swan recounts. “As time
went on, more butter packaging machines were salvaged and put into
operation. We actually had seven production lines running in the milk
plant inside the first six weeks.”
In January 2005, AMPI announced its decision to rebuild
the butter plant. On
one side of the plant’s firewall, the building was completely
destroyed. “On the other side, there was smoke damage but it could be
rehabilitated. So, while we had a group of employees working up here on
continental and butter cup production, we had another group that was down
on the other side of the firewall refurbishing, cleaning,
remodeling,” he says. “We ended up having five of our bigger
production lines set up in a [refurbished] room down in the butter plant to
satisfy our customers. At that point, we were at around 80 percent of our
pre-fire capacity. We began production in the butter plant around March 20
and basically ramped up through the summer of 2005.”
Thorough cleanup was crucial, he notes; since butter
very easily absorbs odors, a near-sterile environment was necessary.
Construction began right in the center of the complex.
“We basically demolished everything down to the foundation and
rebuilt that section of the plant from scratch,” Swan says. By
December 2005, a year after the fire, warehousing and shipping operations
were finally moved back into the plant after spending a year at an off-site
“On December 15 we brought our shipping crews
back; we had our coolers and refrigeration systems operational. Then we
started servicing customers directly from here,” Swan says. “In
late January of ’06 we started churning from cream again, and
basically spent the first quarter of 2006 moving equipment from its
temporary locations to their final homes in the new building.”
From the Ashes
Often a disaster can open up new possibilities for
improvements. The New Ulm plant already had many cutting-edge technologies
before the fire, so things that worked well were duplicated. “We
looked at everything,” Swan says. “Things that didn’t
work, we went another route.”
Most of the enhancements were put into the
plant’s infrastructure. Immediately noticeable is that the main
processing room was rebuilt as a single room, instead of the many smaller
rooms that comprised the pre-fire plant. This configuration greatly
enhances production flow and communication on the shop floor.
“If you were here a year ago, you could see
Center Street,” Swan says. “This was just a flat
The room is essentially maintenance free in its
construction. All surfaces are made of stainless steel, glazed block or
tile, with virtually no painted surfaces. “Even the sprinkler heads
are non-corrosive,” Swan says, noting that all areas of the plant
have fire sprinklers installed.
The ammonia refrigeration building became an enclosed
room completely inaccessible from the plant’s interior. It has a
state-of-the-art ammonia plant with internal and external computer
controls. The compressed air plant is enclosed in its own room. The new
variable-load compressors are more energy efficient than the old units;
their waste heat is used to heat the main processing plant.
“Anywhere there’s not something directly
related to production, those rooms are segregated,” Swan explains.
“If any event were to take place in those rooms, only one small area
would be affected.”
The CIP systems and the processing rooms are computer
controlled from numerous terminals in the plant. The overhead piping is
welded as one piece so there are no gaskets to wear out or replace. The CIP
system also is capable of cleaning several circuits at once. Processing
lines are hot-water jacketed to ease the removal of butter before beginning
the sanitation process.
All waste butter is recovered for further processing
instead of becoming part of the plant wastewater. “It lowers our
wastewater bill and we have a product that’s salvageable,” Swan
The electrical wiring in the plant allowed all pumps
and valves to be networked under computer process control so the various
systems work together. Further, the plant has a digital security system
that enhances customer confidence and allows easy troubleshooting of
And, of course, there’s some new packaging
equipment that operates faster and gives a better overall product
appearance, including a new 1-pound solids machine. Meanwhile, the quarters
and solids line was stripped down and rebuilt on site; rebuilding of the
butter cup machines was outsourced. A new automatic case packer has helped
double pre-fire capacity of whipped buckets.
Robotic palletizing, in use before the fire, is
expected to return this summer, Swan says.
Full production of some 200 SKUs per month was reached
in the rebuilt plant last August. “One of the biggest challenges
we’ve had is running at full production and doing all the maintenance
at the same time,” Swan says.
The two original coolers destroyed by the fire have
been replaced by a single facility. A new flow-through rack system
“allows us to maximize the queue so we can have several different
products in a row instead of just one item,” Swan says.
Refrigeration units are now on the roof instead of in
the building, out of the way of potential damage during plant movements.
During construction, while the refrigeration system was down, the plant
used fans to pull in outside winter air to chill bulk butter. This
innovation worked so well, Swan says his team plans to use this system
As manufacturing and production charge ahead full
blast, AMPI is still waiting for an official declaration of the cause of
the fire, which is believed to have started in the plant’s air
What has Swan taken away from the experience?
“Not to underestimate the dedication of your
employees,” he says. “I can’t say enough about the people
who work at this plant. They came back to work dressed in clean clothes and
at the end of a 12-hour shift came out looking like they came out of a coal
mine. They scrubbed and cleaned for months and months to get this plant
back up on its feet.”
And while AMPI’s 13 plants basically operate
independently within the company, “AMPI as an organization
really came together to make the rebuild a success,” Swan says.
“We were able to use a lot of resources from the corporate office,
which is one of the benefits of being here in New Ulm. Basically we were
able to pull all the extra resources that you don’t normally carry in
a plant and have them handy, and they pitched in and did a great
Ultimately it was all focused on the customers.
“We certainly bent over backwards to make sure they were
served,” Swan says. “They all recognized that and told us,
‘When you guys are ready and back on your feet, let us know and
we’ll be back.’ That speaks very well for the service we
provide our customers.”
AMPI PLANT AT A GLANCE
Location: New Ulm, Minn.
Year opened: 1965
Size: 100,000 square feet.
Products made: Butter cups
(whipped and non-whipped), continental
chips, 1/2- and 1-pound
quarter-stick packages, four-pack
club quarters, 1-pound solids, varieties
of soft chips, whipped 8-
ounce and 5-pound plastic tubs,
1-pound plastic tubs and 25-kilogram
bulk. Made from cream delivered
by AMPI member producers.
Capacity: 100 million pounds
Processing: Three churns, two
Packaging: 18 lines.
Storage: 50,000 gallons raw milk;
200,000 gallons cream; cooler,
26,000 square feet.
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