Last year’s GFSI certification capped a barrage of investments that gives DCI Cheese Co. precise command over the varied and voluminous output of its Green Bay converting plant.

In October 2010, DCI Cheese Co.’s Green Bay, Wis., converting facility reached a staggering 1 million hours without a lost-time accident. For the 275-employee plant, that meant about two years of safe operation - quite an achievement in any manufacturing industry. For DCI, though, it comes as little surprise.

Since the company acquired the plant in 2006 (when it purchased Green Bay Cheese Co.), management has spared little expense pursuing a three-point plan to expand capacity, boost operating efficiency and overhaul product and personnel safety procedures. The last five years have seen a rapid-fire succession of upgrades in a quest to implement exacting standards that leave nothing to chance.

“We believe that our plant needs to operate as a best-in-class facility, and we prioritize our projects with that goal in mind,” says Chris Sandretti, general manager.

Some of the most notable changes are:

• 2007 - Increased the size of the plant from 80,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet, increased the number of production lines from five to 13 and expanded warehouse storage by 50,000 square feet.
• 2008 - Upgraded the warehouse management system (WMS), adding radio frequency (RF) capability.
• 2009 - Installed a fully integrated demand forecasting and replenishment planning software package that allows the company to tightly manage inventory and production scheduling. “We’ve seen significant gains from that tool,” says Sandretti.
• 2010 - Upgraded the enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and integrated it with the company’s other operating divisions.

Perhaps the biggest achievement came last July, when the facility earned Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) certification. “GFSI took us to a whole different level of control and was a pretty significant investment,” says Sandretti.

GFSI is a non-profit benchmarking organization that seeks to continuously improve food production and manufacturing systems to ensure the integrity of the global supply chain. Its standards are stricter than federal, state and international standards.

“Every line was affected. It entailed major construction, including erecting new walls. We had to completely separate portions of production and create ‘high-care areas’ with controlled atmospheres,” says Sandretti.

The process also meant remapping workflows, including how people and product moved through the plant and strengthening sanitation procedures to minimize cross contamination.

DCI accomplished the tasks and earned the GFSI rating in less than a year - an impressive feat under any circumstances but stunning when you consider that it was accomplished only on weekends. It was a “high-wire act” of planning, says Sandretti.

In addition, the GFSI changes required more than physical alterations. They demanded review, re-evaluation and codification of all procedures to wring out any inconsistencies. To achieve the GFSI rating necessitated “a tremendous amount of training for management and floor personnel,” says Christine Helminger, quality assurance manager.

Such work is already paying off. DCI picked up a major customer who couldn’t find a GFSI supplier elsewhere.

“GFSI really provides the difference between us and any other cheese converter,” says Helminger.

And the differential could grow. Every year, GFSI sets the bar a bit higher, looking to further tighten requirements and bolster documentation. DCI has another audit coming this May.

The more the merrier

One reason for the need for control has to do with the plant’s diverse output.

“We have the ability to slice, chunk, cube, shred and smoke cheese in retail, deli and foodservice sizes (anything from 0.75-ounce snack packs to 5-pound bags of shredded product) and have a growing ‘kitting’ area for cheese trays,” says Sandretti.

The plant turns out up to 130 million pounds of cheese a year and packages and distributes most of DCI’s major brands, including Black Diamond, Kings Choice, Salemville, Nikos, County Line, Great Midwest and Party Express as well as private-label products for several customers. With such a breadth of products, pinpoint control over raw materials, scheduling, manufacturing and warehousing is critical.

Cheese shipments in all varieties and forms (from 6-pound loaves to 640-pound blocks) from 20-30 manufacturing sites are delivered in a constant stream and are immediately placed in a raw materials cooler. Product is picked from the cold-storage area depending on orders and taken to staging areas at the start of one of 14 converting lines or DCI’s smoking room.

“We have a unique capability to add natural wood flavors such as hickory or mesquite to enhance a product’s flavor profile and distinguish it in the marketplace,” says Sandretti.

Flavor is based on wood type, duration (the longer the time in the smoker, the stronger the smoke flavor) and temperature.

“We work with the customer to develop the characteristics they want,” Sandretti says. “We try to be as collaborative as we can be.”

It’s a multistep process, starting with the customer’s taste profile. DCI runs test samples, sends them to the customer for feedback and makes adjustments based on their comments. The process could take two or three passes before hitting on just the right characteristics.

During a Dairy Foods visit, DCI was smoking 9-pound slabs of mozzarella and 3-pound bars of cheddar. The products gain brownish tones after about 20 minutes. A 3-hour smoking provides a nice golden hue with a noticeable smoked flavor. After smoking, the cheese is wheeled on racks into curing rooms and then to the converting area.

Cheeses that are not detoured into smoking have their exterior packaging removed in the staging area. Product then moves by conveyor via a pass-through into separate conversion rooms, where floor personnel direct them into the proper line for blocks, slices, shreds or cubes.

After running through the shredder or slicer, conveyors move product to form/fill/seal units, shrink wrappers or cup packagers.

Shrinkwrapped cheeses are gas flushed with a carbon-dioxide-nitrogen mixture that varies depending in part on the look a customer desires in the finished product. Because the product absorbs CO2 more than nitrogen, a higher carbon dioxide ratio would be used for customers looking for a tight airless look. Higher CO2 is also used to prevent condensation typically caused by temperature issues within the supply chain. All product runs past a weigher, metal detector, date coder and an auto labeler.

Computer assistance in the warehouse

Product emerges from the conversion rooms packaged and ready for the 8,000-pallet warehouse, capable of holding 12 million pounds. The WMS controls both warehouse placement and picking. It directs the picker to the position (even specifying the most efficient path) using “first expiring, first out” principles. Warehouse personnel can pull full pallets or single cases, and the system even tracks random weight by package, allowing the customer to order by pound instead of unit.

“Our WMS increased efficiency and allowed us to make the leap from a make-to-order operation to distribution center operation,” says Sandretti.

The WMS is only one portion of DCI’s computerized control system, albeit a key cog in the structure.

“The entire company is managed on a single system, where production is integrated with demand planning software and the warehouse,” says Sandretti. “Previously, the three activities were separated.”

Linking them provided a huge efficiency upgrade, reducing order turnaround and allowing managers to know where all production is at all times. Plus, it provides complete traceability of products and components throughout the process.

DCI continues to look for strong-payback investments today. In the first quarter of this year, the company is spending $1 million on a new slicing line to boost throughput, reviewing options for end-of-line automation, planning a warehouse upgrade and continuing to invest in quality and food safety initiatives.

“We are working extremely hard on automation to increase efficiency,” says Sandretti. “We are extremely flexible, strive to work with customers and are willing to do whatever out-of-the-box concept the customer requests to bring unique items to market. We want to be able to provide everything. We are truly a one-stop shop for customers.”  

Paul Rogers is a Madison, Wis.-based writer who specializes in the dairy and food industries. He wrote about United Dairymen of Arizona in the November 2010 issue.


DCI Cheese Co.
Location: Green Bay, Wis.
Size: 150,000 square feet
History: In 2007, DCI Cheese increased the size of the plant from 80,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet, increased the number of production lines from five to 13 and expanded warehouse storage by 50,000 square feet. It upgraded the warehouse management system in 2008, and in 2009, installed a fully integrated demand forecasting and replenishment planning software package. Last year, the company upgraded the enterprise resource planning software and integrated it with the company’s other operating divisions.
Number of employees: 275
Safety record: 1 million hours without a lost-time accident
Operations performed: Fourteen converting lines that slice, chunk, cube, shred and smoke cheese in retail, deli and foodservice sizes, plus kitting of cheese trays. The annual output is 130 million pounds.
Warehouse: The 8,000-pallet warehouse is capable of holding 12 million pounds.