New organization techniques help fine-tune operations at HEB’s ice cream plant.

Some of the best manufacturing facilities follow operating guidelines to the letter. At HEB’s ice cream plant in San Antonio, it could be said they’re taking that practice literally.

The plant, operated by the Texas-based supermarket chain, has completed implementation of the 5S workplace organization system, a move managers are lauding as an important innovation for continued success.

“This plant is 100% 5S certified,” says Ken Jorgensen, HEB’s director of dairy operations. “It really helps with the quality of our finished products and makes a nicer environment to work in on a day-to-day basis.”

Now under way is the launch of TPM, or total productive maintenance, to further boost operational efficiency. “It’s starting to show results on our productivity and uptime,” Jorgensen says. “TPM is one of our big initiatives this year. Our other initiative is our training program. That has really made a significant jump in the last couple of years.”

So while the processes to make the products remain tried and true, the way HEB keeps them in motion has entered a new era. That’s an important step for a plant that’s part of an overall captive manufacturing complex responsible for stocking more than 300 grocery stores in Texas and Mexico with products bearing HEB’s own brands.

Creamy creations

The ice cream plant is just one component of HEB’s 56-acre San Antonio Regional Distribution Center, which encompasses manufacturing and distribution operations for dairy (including fluid milk and cultured products), meat, produce, baked goods, snacks and frozen foods.

A two-bay receiving area, shared by the milk and ice cream plants, takes in milk seven days a week, or as Jorgensen quips, “about 36,000 to 38,000 cows a day.” After passing basic lab tests, milk is offloaded into silos totaling 220,000 gallons of raw storage.

“The bulk of our raw milk comes from Select [cooperative member farms] in New Mexico and Texas, and we also receive milk from Dairy Farmers of America farms in Texas. Our organic milk comes from Texas,” Jorgensen says. “The raw milk Select provides us is extremely high quality, better than anywhere else I’ve run across.”

All incoming milk is tested for various types of antibiotics and other impurities. Testing data is stored in a database containing history and trending information. Technicians not on the milk plant team provide independent testing of all other incoming ingredients.

Peak ice cream production “season” at the San Antonio plant is roughly mid-February through late July. Products made include 10% butterfat ice cream in round and square containers, and the premium Creamy Creations line, which ranges from 12% to 15% depending on the inclusions. Novelties include multiple varieties of ice cream sandwiches and stick novelties, including water ices and 10% ice cream stick bars with chocolate and crispy rice coatings. The ice cream plant also makes vegetable oil-based cake icing for the adjacent bakery.

Vanilla makes up 50% of total ice cream sales, and the Creamy Creations line (designed to go head to head with other national and regional premium ice creams) offers several choices: Vanilla, Homemade Vanilla, French Vanilla, Vanilla Bean and 1905 Vanilla, which has eggs in the mix and a name honoring the year of HEB’s founding.

Electronically controlled from the mix process office (system control is based on a Wonderware platform), dairy ingredients from the raw tanks are blended with flavors and stabilizers. This combination is pasteurized and homogenized, and the finished mix is used to create a wide array of flavors and formats.

After flavoring, the mix heads to the 10 freezers serving 11 filling lines. “We’ve had new freezers and replaced older technology in the last few years across the board,” Jorgensen says. “There’s substantial improvement in mix-proof valve technology across the board. From an industry standpoint, that’s been the greatest innovation.”

A carton former fashions round containers, while preformed scrounds are blown to the fillers through pneumatic tubes.

Packaged ice cream is conveyed through a metal detector and over a checkweigher before being shrink-wrapped into bundles. Wrapped bundles spend up to six hours in the blast freezer, which takes the ice cream’s core temperature down to about –5 degrees F. Products are then sorted, palletized and shipped out to HEB supermarkets.

For ice cream novelties, a 30-degree mix is poured into 8-across molds immersed in a brine solution. Sticks are inserted into the molded bars, which are then dipped into a chocolate coating that may have rice mixed in for crispy varieties. Wrapped ice cream bars are manually packed into boxes that are shrink-wrapped and palletized to await shipment.

Samples of all finished ice cream products go to the QA lab, where they are tested for presence of coliform bacteria, as well as packaging integrity, flavoring and weight. Every morning, the lab team does a cutting of products made the previous day. “All product is on hold until the cutting before it’s released to our stores,” Jorgensen says.

Finished products are shipped out through four freezer loadout bays, out of more than 200 truck bays throughout the vast manufacturing and distribution complex.

Trained the right way

And helping it all along is 5S.

“Using the 5S system, you put things where they belong,” says Josh Meyers, quality assurance manager. “Everyone’s trained to use the right tools and equipment.”

Perhaps the most visible examples of this are the shadow boards throughout the operations areas. “Every part in this facility has its place,” Jorgensen says. “This has been a big help for 5S. Everything is labeled, not only the part but where it goes. It’s made things a whole lot easier for our partners.”

This philosophy extends to the maintenance shop and even the QA lab, where every shelf and drawer is labeled for its contents. “We’ve made great effort to make sure all our parts are numbered and labeled, so all partners know which are connected to which parts,” says Michael Barnes, ice cream plant operations leader.

Further, all piping throughout HEB’s plants sports directional labeling to clearly identify ingredient and product flow. “The partners really enjoy working in an environment that’s orderly. They’ve really taken ownership,” Jorgensen says. “The partners here have been very engaged in continuous improvement and have embraced the new standards of productivity and quality.”

Meanwhile, implementation of TPM standards is in its infancy but making inroads into the daily routine. “We’re trying to make all work instruction as detailed and as simple as possible,” explains Brad Lyssy, ice cream plant engineer.

Tool lists are provided for all plant functions and procedures are being evaluated for revision or updating. This program also makes it easier for operators to jump in to perform other functions as needed.

“As skill sets change, we can use partners for more complicated tasks,” Lyssy says. “Every partner needs to have ownership because every partner is tied to the productivity of the plant.”

Every partner is also personally involved with each other’s safety on the job. Basic safety training includes OSHA-8 standards and lockout/tagout procedures. “We have a robust safety training matrix that all partners go through,” Jorgensen says.

Meyers adds: “No matter what you do, you’re trained the same way, to simplify the teaching so they understand why they’re doing it.”

Food safety is an equal priority. The plant employs a HACCP program, and all HEB manufacturing locations are Level 3 SQF certified.

“We have our own food safety hygiene standards that we measure our suppliers against,” Josh says, noting that the plant employs auditing firm Randolph Associates for quarterly reviews “to catch things we might not catch ourselves.” Plus, he adds, the company’s dairy plants in San Antonio and Houston “compete to get the best score.”

It all adds up to a finely tuned operation that continues to seek ways to improve safety, quality and efficiency. These days, that’s a must for dairy processors looking to stay on top of their game.  

AT a glance

H.E. Butt Grocery Co.
Location: San Antonio
Year opened: 1980
Size: 40,000 square feet
Number of employees: Up to 120 (varies by season)
Products made: Packaged ice cream and frozen novelties
Total processing capacity: 15 million gallons
Pasteurization: 2,500 gallons per hour
Lines: 10 freezers feeding 11 lines that handle round and square half gallons, scrounds, 3-ounce cups, pints, quarts, stick novelties and sandwiches.
Milk storage: 220,000 gallons raw, shared with milk plant.


The following companies are among HEB’s key suppliers:
Adams Extract
AGC Engineering
Anderson Instruments
Berry Plastics
Chr. Hansen
Fresh Impressions
Norse Dairy Systems
Pecan Deluxe
Portola Packaging
Star Kay White
Tetra Pak Hoyer
Thermo Electron Corp.
Virginia Dare
WCB Ice Cream
Weber Scientific

Manufacturing Methodology

5S is a Japanese system of workplace organization encompassing five concepts:

Sort - The first step in making things cleaned up and organized.

Set in order - Organize, identify and arrange everything in a work area.

Shine - Regular cleaning and maintenance.

Standardize - Make it easy to maintain; simplify and standardize.

Sustain - Maintaining what has been accomplished.

Total productive maintenance (TPM) involves a machine operator performing most or all of the routine maintenance tasks themselves. This ensures appropriate and effective efforts are expended since the machine is the domain of one person or team.