Production Perfection

by James Dudlicek

Dairy Field takes a look at some of the industry’s most innovative plants.

Efficiency, productivity, safety and quality — all are aspects of a topnotch dairy processing operation. Today’s top companies know this, and they devote significant time and resources to improve upon these elements that are crucial to success.
While marketing and advertising are important to the viability of a product, without effective and innovative production capabilities, a product has little chance of long-term survival in the marketplace.
That’s why processors continue, year in and year out, to insist on excellence at the plant level to support their merchandising goals. Whether it’s using the latest production technology, installing the most high-tech storage and retrieval systems, developing cutting-edge processes or expanding facilities to meet demand, processors are making their plants as innovative as technology and resources will allow.
Dairy Field has visited plants that have included these and other facets in their operations to increase their productivity and, hence, buttress their products’ position on the market.
The following is a look at some of the more innovative plants we’ve seen, in four major processing categories.
It takes an organized team effort to process 70 million gallons of milk every year at a single plant, and that’s exactly what the H.E. Butt Grocery Co. has at its San Antonio milk plant.
Part of H-E-B’s 56-acre San Antonio Regional Distribution Center — encompassing manufacturing and distribution operations for dairy, produce, snacks and frozen foods — the plant takes in as many as 30 truckloads of milk daily and turns it into products sold at the company’s 300 supermarkets in Texas, Louisiana and Mexico. The milk plant produces two lines of milk — the vitamin D- and E-fortified H-E-B premium line and the value-priced Hill Country Fare brand, both in gallons and half gallons.
“We can get the milk from the cow to the customer in two days, typically,” says Bob McCullough, group vice president of manufacturing. “So what we process today, we’ll ship tomorrow morning or tomorrow night at the latest. That’s a real advantage to us from a freshness standpoint. We deliver to our stores seven days a week — every store.”
Opened in July 1976, the plant started as a five-day operation with seven-day receiving. Within its first year, production reached the 15-million-gallon range. “Now it’s a seven-day, 24-hour-a-day operation,” says McCullough.
Open 365 days a year, the plant will at least receive milk on Christmas and New Year’s Day. “Most times we’ll need to process at least a little bit [on those holidays] because we turn our warehouse so frequently,” says McCullough. “Farmers have done a very, very poor job training the cows to not give milk on Christmas or New Year’s, so since they give it, we take it.”
That milk comes to the San Antonio plant from farms in Texas and New Mexico within the Select Dairies co-op, comprising large dairies of 2,000 to 3,200 head of cattle. “Because of the size of the dairies, they have daily pickup. That gives us a level of freshness on raw milk that’s a true advantage to us,” says McCullough. “The focus on freshness gives us a real advantage over our competition.”
Raw milk arriving at the San Antonio plant goes into a standardized high-temperature/short-time (HTST) pasteurization system. “As milk is fed into the pasteurization system, it’s also separated and then recombined at whatever fat level you set it for,” McCullough explains. “So if we want to run 2 percent milk, we can set the standardization system for that, and milk will be pasteurized, separated and then reblended so we have a stream of 2 percent milk and a stream of fat coming off of that. It’s a very sophisticated system.”
The plant’s two-bay receiving area accepts 28 to 30 6,000-gallon truckloads of raw milk each day. The daily take is stored in four silos capable of holding 170,000 gallons.
From receiving, the raw milk passes through the quality control lab, where all incoming milk is tested for five types of antibiotics and other impurities. All testing data is stored in a database containing history and trending information. Three technicians not on the milk plant team provide independent testing of all other incoming ingredients, like vitamin fortifications and flavors. A cooler, which attempts to replicate home refrigerator storage conditions, holds samples of all finished products. At 45 to 50 degrees F, fluid milk is held until two to four days beyond the expiration date. Products are then sampled for quality control; batch samples are retained to check in case of customer complaints of milk spoilage.
Raw milk destined for store-bound bottles is fed into one of two HTST pasteurizing systems, where it is pasteurized at 165 degrees for 22 seconds, explains Chris Gundrum, milk plant leader. The fluid milk pasteurizer handles 8,000 gallons per hour, 20 hours a day, he says. A second HTST system, which handles 3,600 gallons per hour in batches of 1,500 to 2,000 gallons, is used primarily for cultured products and orange juice. It processes 16,000 gallons of cultured products and 6,000 gallons of orange juice daily. The entire pasteurizing area is the responsibility of a single operator.
Meanwhile, the blow-molding room churns out gallon and half-gallon plastic bottles that move on either directly to fillers or into storage for inventory. The plant started manufacturing its own bottles with the arrival of two blow-molding machines in 1980; a third was added in April 2002.
Bottles are fed to the labeler, where containers are labeled front and back. The San Antonio plant produces all milk sold at H-E-B’s Mexico stores, so some runs are done with Spanish labels (or bilingual for Hill Country Fare products). The labeler handles 10,000 bottles per cycle, then shuts down for addition of more product or restarting. The newer machines have touch-screen operation and photo-eye technology for added safety, notes Gundrum.
Labeled bottles then move to the filling area; 145 gallon bottles per minute are filled with one of eight SKUs of gallon milk on each of three filling machines. Two of the fillers handle milk and juice, while the third is used exclusively for bottled water. Bottles then move on to the checkweigher, which kicks underweight containers out of the production line. Bottles of milk are packed into cases, stacked onto pallets and sorted on racks with a unique automated crane system.
The computer-controlled system stacks cases onto pallets, takes a photo to determine the bottles’ cap color, counts the number of caps and identifies the product type. Gundrum says the company is upgrading its software to tie this step into the inventory system; currently the plant conducts a physical inventory twice daily.
The San Antonio plant employs an innovative crane and rack palletizing system that sorts loaded pallets in racks three high and 10 deep. The bright-yellow unmanned crane, controlled by a computer workstation, deposits pallets in the rack and automatically records the movements on the computer. “The product we’re doing now will be in our stores this afternoon or, the latest, tomorrow morning,” says Gundrum.
McCullough explains how the system identifies products. “It’s got a camera that can identify the cap color, compare it with a known library of colors, decide what product it is and maintain a perpetual inventory for us,” he says. “Our forklift operators will identify the products as they take it away; the crane identifies it, puts it in a rack, and we have a very accurate perpetual inventory.”
This automated system has given H-E-B yet another edge on its competition by speeding up the process of getting fresh product from plant to store, says McCullough. “We had forklift drivers, typically three per shift, out there taking milk away from the palletizers and putting it into a static rack system. We put in flow-through racks, 10 deep; they guarantee us FIFO [first in, first out],” he says. “Using the crane, we’re eliminating the forklift drivers, and finally, using the camera system and the sequel server that we have, we’re able to generate that real-time inventory. So it gives us clear milk identity going in. We can inventory the racks any time using real-time inventory just by pulling it up on the screen, and we can really control the inventory and the accuracy of our production requirements in a much stronger manner than we could prior to the introduction of this system.”
Future plans call for edging up capacities a bit for milk and cultured dairy production. “If we look at bottle-making capacity, receiving capacity, processing and filling capacity, the plant is fairly well-balanced, with the right amount of takeaway or queue at each step of the process,” says McCullough. “A significant expansion of the capacity of this plant would affect every process and not something that’s economically justifiable. We have a lot of capacity at our Houston milk plant, and we use that as a way of keeping this plant in balance.” — James Dudlicek
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