Teamwork makes things tick at Perry’s Akron, N.Y., plant.
by James Dudlicek
“From two gallons on the kitchen stove to 12 million gallons today,” Brian Perry declares, summing up nearly 90 years of manufacturing at Perry’s Ice Cream Co. Inc.
Perry, executive vice president and vice chairman, recalls his great-grandfather — company founder H. Morton Perry — as an innovator.
“He was the kind of guy who, if there was new equipment out, he wanted it,” Perry says.
In all that time, the company has stayed true to its roots, moving within the village of Akron, N.Y., from a modest facility in a residential area on Pearl Street to its current headquarters and plant at One Ice Cream Plaza.
Perry’s has stayed true to tradition as well, eschewing HTST for vat pasteurization to maintain a unique flavor for its own branded products. Yet its plant is anything but old fashioned, employing innovative equipment — some of it built or modified by the company itself — and team-management techniques to remain a strong independent player in the face of industry-wide consolidation.
Basics of Production
Perry’s receives nearly all its ingredients in fluid form — milk and cream, of course, along with condensed skim and buttermilk, flavorings, sweeteners and novelty coatings. Only whey powder is received in dry form for storage capacity reasons.
The plant takes in 6,000 gallons of  milk every day, four to five loads of cream each week, sugar four times a week, corn sweetener three times a week, and condensed buttermilk and skim milk each once weekly. The first of several new touchscreen panels, installed a little over a year ago, is located in receiving to begin the tracking of the journey from ingredients to ice cream.
Perry’s milk comes from New York’s Upstate Farms cooperative, with lab testing done at the plant. There are eight raw storage tanks plus an outdoor silo for all liquid ingredients, with capacity totaling 54,000 gallons.
In the batching area, sugar, eggs, cocoa and stabilizers are mixed. Meanwhile, the 800-gallon batch tanks are filled from the raw tanks; batch tanks are filled every 20 minutes at a rate of about 2,300 gallons per hour, Perry says; 25 to 50 batches are produced per day, depending on demand. Nearby stand the 2,200-gallon yogurt tanks to support Perry’s own products and its Stonyfield Farm co-pack business.
The ice cream mix is then pasteurized. Perry’s has HTST capability that’s used for its private label and co-pack customers. But for any product carrying the Perry’s brand name, the mix is vat pasteurized.
“We want a cooked dairy flavor — that’s what we’re known for,” Perry says, explaining how the four 640-gallon pasteurizers heat the mix to 165 degrees for an extended period of time. “You have an airspace that allows any off flavors to boil off. Every load of milk is different — there’s a different taste. This gives you a more consistent product and allows the stabilizers to fully activate.”
The latter effect, he says, makes Perry’s products better able to survive heat shock in home and retail storage conditions.
In all, the plant makes 80 different mixes of various types, all the way up to 18 percent butterfat superpremium and including various no-sugar-added and better-for-you recipes, for stick and soft (cups, cones, sandwiches) novelties, and packaged goods. Keeping it all in place are seven 4,000-gallon pasteurized tanks, plus three 3,000-gallon silos and two 15,000-gallon silos.
A separate system was installed in 1987 for yogurt production, Perry explains. Dedicated lines run from the mix room to the yogurt tanks and flavor vats, so the plant can run yogurt on any line but still keep it separated from the others. “It’s an isolated system within a system,” Perry says, noting the plant also can run kosher and organic products.
Two fillers stand ready, one for pints and half pints, the other for 56-ounce scrounds; Perry’s recently converted to the 56-ounce size from half gallons. A polypropylene tamper-evident membrane is applied to all paper-cup containers.
Stick novelties are made on two machines, one with eight-wide molds and another that’s nine wide. “The objective was to maximize our tonnage,” Perry says, noting that 80 percent of the 3-ounce bars are made on the nine-wide machine, while 2.5-ounce and twin sticks are made on the eight-wide.
Molds are filled with ice cream, then travel through a brine tank for freezing at -35 to -40 degrees F. Sticks are inserted halfway down the line; the ice cream is rock hard by the time it’s ready to be dipped or coated, followed by wrapping and boxing.
To ensure line operators have all the mix they need on the production floor, three old flavor vats were replaced with nine 1,000-gallon pasteurized storage tanks/flavor vats equipped with refrigeration and agitation capability.
“Because there’s so much variety in mix for the different bars — pops, yogurt, fudge, sherbet — by the time you add those up over 24 hours, you need a lot of tanks but not a large volume to keep the operation running. This freed up larger tanks for other operations” Perry says.
A second pasteurized CIP system was added in 2001 to clean the pasteurized tanks, flavor vats and freezers, again without significant disruption of production. “It enabled us to not rely on the main one and clean on a more timely basis,” Perry says.
All non-stick novelties and packaged goods except square 56-ounce cartons are held in a tray blast freezer, in which the wind chill is –80 degrees F — for a minimum of 5 hours. Square 56’s spend time in a plate hardener; stick novelties are already frozen solid in their brine bath.
Finished products are warehoused for 24 hours; samples are cut, tasted and tested in the lab, then released when they pass. “This assures if we make anything out of spec, we can manage the issue internally,” Perry says.
Making it Work
The backbone of Perry’s plant operations is the QCDSM philosophy: quality, cost, delivery, safety and morale. This system utilizes work teams and involves reviewing data, identifying problems and enacting solutions, often through the implementation of a written process.
In a nutshell, the system involves managers giving team members all the information and support they need to make their own decisions in taking on the challenges of production, affirming pride of ownership in one’s designated tasks.
“QCDSM is built of many different teams throughout the plant,” Perry explains. “On the production floor, you have the soft business unit, which is cups, cones and sandwiches; they meet every day on two shifts. In the middle of the floor is the packaged operation, the bulk business unit, which does pints, quarts, halves, 5-quarts. The other unit is the stick business unit. We have a sanitation unit, too, on the second shift.”
Guiding the system are the “green room” meetings at shift changes, when teams coming on review the previous day’s performance, assessing what went right, what went wrong and what could be done differently. This takes place in the “green room,” a section of hallway trimmed in green with production data and other information posted along the walls, along with motivational messages on signs hanging overhead.
“Every team, before their shift, meets in the green room,” says Kevin Thomson, manufacturing team leader. “They review yesterday’s business in terms of quality, cost, delivery, safety and morale.”
The green room leader (a position that rotates among the team members) goes through the agenda, which usually takes about 10 minutes. “If there’s anything that didn’t perform well in any area, they talk about it and ask for ideas on how to improve,” Thomson says.
The results are documented and logged in database for future reference. Then, leaders meet two hours into their shift to see if they need support from other departments to help solve any production problems, with all information passed on for next day’s green room meeting. If a problem isn’t solved by the second meeting, it is referred to Thomson’s staff.
“This is where the business actually runs,” he says. “The result is significant improvement in all areas.”
To keep all employees informed on company issues, managers convene “town hall” meetings every other month in the auditorium to share information with team members on all aspects of the business and operations. Training sessions are held in this forum as well.
Important Improvements
Making Perry’s an enjoyable place to work includes the physical as well as the mental, with ergonomics taking a high priority.
For example, an articulated arm — a $30,000 investment — was installed in the mix room so team members no longer have to heave  bags, boxes or barrels of ingredients. “It can pick up two or three pallets in the warehouse and two or three more in the batching area,” Perry explains. “It’s a big arm that picks up bags with suction and sets them onto a stainless-steel table where they’re cut open and dumped in.”
Perry says improvements like this have gone a long way toward reducing workers’ compensation claims and allowing team members to stay on the job longer than they otherwise might if more physical exertion were required. “Over the years, we’ve had back injury workers’ comp cases resulting from heavy lifting,” he says.  “You either have turnover and workers’ comp cases, or you assist them with some lifting abilities so they can remain in that job. It’s one of the highest-skilled job classes in the plant.”
Another case was an ergonomic study conducted on the plant’s ice cream sandwich machine, which was determined to be too high for production workers to comfortably fill with wafers on a repetitive basis, notes Bob Denning, president and chief executive officer.
“Another unique thing about Perry’s is our training,” he adds. “We spend between 25 and 40 hours a year training with our team members. Last year, they went through extensive statistical process control training. It’s been amazing to see the growth in our team members’ knowledge from the training they’ve received. From 2002 to 2004, our total manufacturing waste was cut 35 percent.”
Changes in the plant’s operating system have made it easier for team members to rotate positions, increasing their flexibility in case of absence or turnover.
“Our operating system went from an expert-driven system to more of a process-driven system, set up so everyone knows their SOP’s or, with this system, DPS’s — detailed process sheets,” Perry says. “If you or I were to go out there today to make sandwiches, there’d be a DPS that we could look at, go down through the steps, run the operation. Yes, there’s skill involved, but at least another operator with general knowledge on how freezers and filling equipment works can come over, read this and run sandwiches that day. That cuts down a lot of the waste because most of the waste is generated on start-up. You get a guy who comes in who hasn’t run sandwiches in a while and gets everything right but forgets to check the boxer and the box configuration is wrong, you’ve got to shut it down and start all over again.”
Nuts and Bolts
Perry says a plant expansion isn’t expected anytime soon, since the current facility is more than able to accommodate the expected business growth in the next two years.  More production hours on the current production lines will support additional units required. Of course, the company continues to upgrade what it has to further increase production efficiencies as well as safety.
Last year, the company installed a dehumidification system in its frozen warehouse. “We found with slips, trips and falls, we had a high incidence of near misses in our facility,” Denning says. “We invested more than $100,000 in a dehumidification system. It’s not only helped safety, but morale and culture. Even stepping back further, some of the improvements we made in 2000 like the waste-treatment facility. We put in our own pure-oxygen system. We’re treating our waste in a very high-tech way.”
The aforementioned touchscreens were added to upgrade the operating system throughout the plant, from receiving through on-floor mix distribution, Perry says. “That was a major undertaking that was mostly done internally by our engineers through the majority of the plant,” he says. “In 2001, we upgraded our stick-novelty production to maximize production and make it independent from the rest of the floor in terms of mix availability, production and CIP capability.
“Over the years, our bottleneck has been stick novelties in the summertime — it spikes unbelievably, and we basically sell whatever we can make. For a normal summer on the East Coast, a lot of our distribution heads down to the city. These machines can run around the clock, independent from the rest of the floor, as an independent business.”
Perry says the successes achieved through the company’s team-based culture are a testament to the QCDSM system and the company’s relationship with the plant’s workers’ union, a local of the United Auto Workers. A joint operations-leadership team, known as JOLT, was established to improve cooperation and results through enhanced communication and understanding.
 “They talk strategically on how we can work together to make this company better so they have job security and pay increases, and we keep growing and making money,” he says. “That is one of our biggest successes in the past five years, the new relationship we’ve developed with the UAW.”
Denning says it’s a “collaborative concept” that has allowed Perry’s to build on one of its key strengths: “our flexibility, the ability to jump through that customer-demand hoop.”
This production-management structure makes it much easier to take new business from concept to plant floor to customer, Perry says. “The flexibility is there. When an opportunity comes in, I call the co-pack business team together and they know what they have to do to make it happen.”  
QCDSM Philosophy
Quality — Consistent, repeatable quality
Cost — Competitively priced
Delivery — On time, all the time
Safety — In the most safe environment possible
Morale — Achieved through the involvement of all
Plant at-a-glance
Perry’s Ice Cream
Location: Akron, N.Y.
Year built: 1982
Size: 90,000 square feet on an 8-acre site.Production capacity: 15 million gallons per year.
Production lines: 8
Storage capacity: Warehouse with 2,200 pallet spaces on site (3,000 off site).
Products made: Packaged ice cream in 1.75-quart squares and scrounds, pints, half pints, half-gallon and 16-ounce plastic, 5-quart pails and 3-gallon tubs; and novelties including sticks, sandwiches, cones and cups.