In the Plant: The right mix for success

Energy and maintenance excellence deliver uptime at the Chelsea Milling plant.

By Bob Vavra, Content Manager February 15, 2012

Jiffy Mix is a quietly iconic American brand. Jiffy’s basic blue boxes, and the basic recipes inside, have gone largely unchanged since Mabel White Holmes helped expand the family-owned Chelsea Milling Co. in Chelsea, Mich., in the 1930s by introducing mixes for cakes, pies, and the company’s signature corn muffins.

But if Chelsea Milling’s tradition is rooted in history and a sense of the nostalgic, its production process and attention to manufacturing cost containment is clearly on the cutting edge. Located about 50 miles west of Detroit, Chelsea Milling Co. has implemented new techniques to maintain its high productivity levels while reducing maintenance and energy costs throughout the sprawling plant that straddles the railroad tracks in downtown Chelsea. 

Expansion of the Chelsea plant and headquarters a few years ago created an opportunity for the company to examine energy management in all its forms. From light sensors that minimize energy use in the plant to creative uses of sunlight, geothermal, and reflective materials, the plant is keeping an eye on costs without sacrificing any productivity.

That’s especially true for Chelsea’s latest project. The plant is in the midst of a lighting revolution, replacing T-12 fluorescent bulbs with high-efficiency T-5 bulbs and ballasts. With bulb replacement in 20% of the plant completed, the difference is clear to see. The brighter white light stands in sharp contrast to the amber tint of the remaining sodium vapor lights in the plant.

The emphasis on aesthetics as well as capital is an important part of Chelsea’s approach to such projects. “We see ROI as a bonus rather than a precondition. When we saw a healthy ROI of 25%, it was pretty much a no-brainer,” said Jack Kennedy, vice president and general manager of Chelsea Milling. “But we would do it because of the impact on the employees. We certainly want to be green and energy efficient.”

That attitude is reflected in the company’s expansion efforts a few years ago. In constructing new executive offices and a conference center for tours, the company took a deeper look at its energy footprint.

Among the projects undertaken:

  • Blue is not just the company’s signature color. By tinting windows blue, it’s able to reduce energy loss.
  • Stairwells are lit entirely with ambient light during the day, with light fixtures used only on overcast days and at night.
  • Ten geothermal wells on the property are used for heating and cooling of the new building addition at a much lower energy cost.
  • The roofing material is a reflective white that reflects 88% of the sunlight and keeps the attic at a more constant temperature.
  • HVAC fan motors have variable frequency drives connected to CO2 sensors in the building. The sensors detect the occupancy load, and that regulates the amount of electricity used in cooling or heating a given area.

“We’ve installed variable frequency drives, we’ve moved to high-efficiency motors,” said Kennedy. “Every time we turn a corner and we need to replace something, we ask if we can make it more efficient.”

“We’re not afraid of technology,” he added. “We want it to be appropriate for what we do.”

Finding solutions

Increasingly, manufacturers and suppliers are forging closer relationships to help find solutions to these kinds of technology issues. In this case, Grainger worked with its clients at Chelsea Milling both to identify the opportunity for more energy-efficient lighting and to put the products in place to solve the problem.

“Manufacturers are all about taking costs out of their business. As a supply partner, we need to provide innovative solutions to help them maintain safe, efficient, and sustainable facilities,” said Rob Laughlin, vice president of commercial sales at Grainger. “We help plant managers better manage their inventory, minimize workplace injuries, and run their operations in the most sustainable way possible in areas such as energy consumption.”

Energy efficiency has become a huge area of interest, and plant managers are finding that their suppliers may already have some of the solutions.

“Some of them are just starting to think about energy as a critical cost-saving opportunity while others are further ahead,” Laughlin said. “The majority of our customers are looking for supply partners to provide turnkey solutions to help reduce costs; not only in energy management, but in all areas of their plant.

 “Many of our customers recognize the significant opportunity to save money through an effective energy management program,” Laughlin said. “The cost of energy continues to rise and the management of more effective energy solutions to temper these costs will be an important part of our customers’ future business.

“Add to this an increasing focus on components of the  Energy Policy Act, and there is enormous potential to effectively reduce energy-related costs in their budgets. This will remain a focus across all manufacturers for the foreseeable future,” he added.

The right maintenance mixes

More than 1.5 million little blue boxes whiz through the Chelsea plant each day. Maintaining the maze of process lines for each of the 23 products keeps three shifts of workers busy.

“We measure success by uptime. Our goal is to attain the plan put before us based on what the sales guys say they need,” said Doug Weitting, maintenance department leader for Chelsea Milling. “We’ve achieved 100% plan attainment the last three years at least. Operations didn’t disappoint.”

 Keeping aging assembly lines operating at full capacity requires not just a sound maintenance program, but the skills of machinists to deliver new parts for old systems.

They were able to do that with a strong preventive maintenance program that puts an emphasis on identifying potential problems and by involving employees in a wide array of plant improvement projects.

“We had 30 projects hit the floor (in January),” said Weitting. “Leadership groups and leaders across all shifts team members are chosen to manage the process from start to finish. People who are using the process on a daily basis have the most buy-in.”

With conveyor lines approaching 60 years old, the scarcity of parts keeps a tool department busy, and makes it a vital part of the maintenance success. “We have three shifts of tool makers. They aren’t making parts anymore, so we make them ourselves,” said Weitting. “The designs and the forms may be 60 years old, but we’ve added PLC and servo motors.”

Keeping the maintenance team up to speed on changes is another major goal for the company. “Two years ago we hired a machinist who had taught at the local community college. Part of his thing is teaching new techniques to our existing machinists,” Kennedy said. “We want to make our technical skill age as young as possible. We added a new line that was a computer-controlled auger filler. We wanted people to learn to maintain and operate the new technology.”

All of this emphasis on cost management comes at a time where Jiffy is among the most recognized brands in a space that continues to evolve. “The retail market has been flat to declining. Even so, we’ve increased share in the corn muffin market. Nine of 10 corn muffin mixes sold in the U.S. are Jiffy,” said Kennedy. “One of our key business strategies is to look beyond retail. We’ve now got 15 products in food services and institutional markets. We see a growth opportunity there. Instead of pursuing share of market, we want to pursue share of stomach.”

Vavra is the content manager of Plant Engineering magazine.