A recipe for long-term growth

In the middle of America, a salad dressing plant mixes automation and people in just the right amounts.

By Bob Vavra February 1, 2016

The aroma of more than 200 ingredients comes at you as soon as you enter the storage area at the Pinnacle Foods plant in St. Elmo, Ill. The individual spices, herbs, and oils cannot be identified as you take that first breath. They will be combined soon into one of 19 different formulas of Wish-Bone salad dressing on the new processing line at Pinnacle.

A separate area of the plant manages the allergens that also go into salad dressing production-eggs, dairy products, and the like. They must be handled differently, and kept separate from the other ingredients until it’s time for production.

It’s all about following the recipe—specific ingredients in precisely the right amounts moving through the stainless steel system to ensure quality and purity.

"It’s a complicated batching business," said Thomas Perkins, plant manager at the Pinnacle Plant in St. Elmo. He’s talking about the combination of both process and people that led Pinnacle Foods to locate the Wish-Bone production in St. Elmo after the company acquired the brands from Unilever in 2013. "We’ve significantly invested in the process. But it also depends on the organization—how we hire people, train people, the value of formal training, how we conduct daily business. We use exacting amounts." He paused for a second. "There’s a lot to be said about using exacting amounts in the salad dressing business."

A central location

St. Elmo is a blip on Interstate 70 through central Illinois. Just 1,400 people call it home, yet it has not been completely overlooked in history. An oil boom hit the area in 1938, and the number of residents and oil wells both reached nearly 2,000, earning the town the nickname "Little Tulsa of Illinois." In the 1920s, Charles Lindbergh became close friends with a St. Elmo resident, and a house was constructed there in Lindbergh’s honor in 1927 after his famous trans-Atlantic flight. After Lindbergh’s return to the U.S., he made St. Elmo one of the stops on his national promotional tour.

Today St. Elmo is a rural enclave, and the Pinnacle plant is both its largest employer and its most prominent landmark—so much so that a sign reading "Plant Entrance" is on the signpost that greets you as you exit I-70.

It is a central location, with I-70 and I-65 crisscrossing in nearby Effingham, allowing for easy distribution of the products in all directions. It also has proven to be an efficient plant for Pinnacle, which manufactured Open Pit barbecue sauce and Mrs. Butterworth and Log Cabin syrups before the Wish-Bone acquisition.

Pinnacle Foods invested a reported $50 million in the St. Elmo plant, but for Perkins and his team, the investment in people was just as crucial to the quick success the Wish-Bone line has generated in less than a year of formal operation.

"The company bought this brand because they expected to grow it, and this plant was built with the idea to grow it," Perkins said. "We have a very solid continuous improvement program. We started at 60% of capacity, and we can grow the other 40% without expansion. We have room within the facility and within the currently installed equipment."

To bring on additional staff—the plant grew from 85 workers at the time of the acquisition to more than 200 today-Perkins said he relied on a strong community base within 30 miles of the plant and a strong combination of people and process.

"This was a fantastic challenge, and we built a great team to take it on," Perkins said. "We doubled the size of the workforce by selecting good people and finding cohesive fits. We now have a staff that works hard and works hard together. We’ve got all the employees moving in the same direction.

"People know they are here for a particular purpose," he added. "There’s a pride in manufacturing."

In finding those good people, Perkins also needed them to be ready to accept the challenges of a world-class manufacturing facility. That included adherence to a Lean/Six Sigma strategy and to adopt the latest technology throughout the plant. "We need people who are ready to accept a technical responsibility," Perkins said. "Forklift drivers have computers on their forklifts. We need people who understand the value of that computer to the business."

Finding the right formula

That intersection between people and process is essential to the success of any food-processing operation. By creating a highly process-driven operation, operators and maintenance staff can keep the focus on quality, maintenance, and regulatory compliance and let the system manage the exacting process of how much distilled vinegar, sugar and red bell peppers need to be in each batch of the Italian salad dressing.

"We definitely don’t work in silos," said Perkins. "We rely upon our production scheduler. We add one flavor after another progressively, and then we add the allergens.

"Our kitchens run 24/7. Because we’re running continuously, we need to make sure our maintenance is ahead of packaging lines," Perkins said. "Our process is heavy with engineering, but our engineering team knows the value of maintenance. Start-ups and shutdowns cost money."

"Maintenance will always be required for process automation systems. When hardware fails, someone must be able to replace it. However, a great deal of maintenance labor is expended on evaluating a problem or determining a solution," said Randy Otto, vice president of ECS Solutions in Evansville, Ind., which provided the system integration services for the St. Elmo plant. "With technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), determining a problem and solution can often be automated, substantially reducing the maintenance effort and often reducing production downtime." 

They also must balance the market demands, both seasonal and sales-driven. "We don’t want to over-deliver to our sales force," Perkins said. "The value of the software is to put emphasis on engineering, so it’s not heaped on the shoulder of operators."

"Striking this balance may seem simple on the surface, but we see manufacturers every day out of balance," Otto said. "Balance only can be achieved with a thorough understanding of the manufacturer—not just the immediate requirements, but also the long-term goals—and delivering process automation to meet or exceed their long-term needs.

"This requires more than just operations," Otto added. "Collaboration across engineering, production, information technology, and even the business personnel is required to strike the right balance. An understanding of the long-term objectives of each group is necessary."

A focus on the future

Pinnacle’s plans to expand and grow the St. Elmo plant to full capacity will require constant attention to both system and personnel changes. "Conditions frequently change before the process automation can be placed in production," Otto said. "To maintain an optimal balance, the process automation must be agile. Historically, process automation has been static—just install the automation and refrain from changing it until it is worn-out or obsolete. Technology today allows us to install process automation systems that are extremely agile."

That kind of operational system frees Perkins to focus on future opportunities to improve operations and enables his staff to focus on improving productivity. "People throughout the plant collaborate with one another," Perkins said. "There doesn’t need to be an umbrella of management. We have to foster creative thought. Everybody has creative ability. Our job is to vet out all the ideas, take them to the engineers, and see if can we do this."

"Automation is removing subjectivity and creating objectivity, or as it might be said, turning art into science," said Otto. "With all of the right information, decisions become objective and process automation can be applied. When there is insufficient information, subjective decisions must be made.

"The process automation must present key information in a filtered view to the operator to enable the operator to make a quick, informed decision," he added. "We like to talk about this progression: data to information to knowledge to action."

Turning employee ideas into action is the impetus behind the Help Yourself program at the St. Elmo plant. The program recognizes those ideas that produce improvement in safety, quality, or other plant improvements. A plant committee weighs the value of the idea, and the employee receives a letter of recognition.

"Sometimes, when you’re trying to convince people to move in a different direction, you want to celebrate those people who help you get there," Perkins said. "Positive recognition produces five times more benefit than discipline, and it creates a positive work environment."

ECS Solutions is a CSIA member as of 2/22/2016

Author Bio: Bob is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering.