Case-packing is one of the aspects of Advance Brands’ packaging operation that demands versatility to satisfy multiple demands from trade customers. (Photo credit: The Lasting Image Photography)

When it comes to packaging its fully cooked items, Advance Brands LLC doesn’t do anything half-baked.

The Edmond, Okla.-based processor has a full lineup of cooked poultry, beef and pork product, featuring country-fried steaks (a signature item), chicken and steak fingers, hamburgers and other patties, chicken nuggets, popcorn chicken, beef and chicken fajitas, meatballs and more. In the fully cooked beef category, Advance Brand’s numbers rose 30% by late summer of 2009, and the company expects more growth.

Meat hasn’t been an industry segment known for packaging automation, especially in operations with a wide range of products. But over the years, automation has been a priority at Advance Brands. The plant in Orange City, Iowa, prides itself on lean manufacturing, says Jesse Esparza, plant operations manager.

“We are a lean manufacturer here,” Esparza says. “We cut our inventory to less than two weeks, so everything that we produce, for the most part, is for orders. We adapt real well to different items, different packaging styles, different types of bags, because we don’t carry a high inventory.”

The plant is divided into an old and a new building, the latter built in 2005. The old building has two fry lines and a char line, each with its own packaging equipment, although the equipment can switch among lines as needed for a given shift. This equipment includes B3 and B5 baggers from Triangle Package Machinery Co., a Ross tray sealer from Reiser with modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) capacity, and an Ossid tray wrapper, also with MAP function.

Products on these lines include meatballs, burgers, beef and chicken fajitas, beef and turkey fingers, chicken fries, popcorn chicken strips and charred chicken patties. The trays can run up to 50 a minute for SKUs under 24 ounces, and the baggers, 65 a minute for sizes under one pound (above that, about 50).

The new building houses two processing lines for retail products (plus one for soup ingredients). One of them, known as the Mega-line, can process up to 16,000 pounds per hour of chicken nuggets or strips, or 12,000 pounds of popcorn chicken. This line feeds three packaging lines, two with combo weigh scales from Yamato Corporation and B6 baggers from Triangle, and one with a Ross tray packer with MAP capacity. The second retail line, called Versa-Therm, is dedicated to chilies, tacos and beef tips and gravy. These are pouched and sealed on a bagger from Cryovac Food Packaging, which runs sizes from 24 ounces to 5 pounds.

The end-of-line operations add to the plant’s versatility. Products in primary packages go through an automatic picking process that is programmed to pick up and case-pack varying numbers of trays or bags. After the case is taped by a case sealer from Wexxar, it gets a print-and-apply label, generated by equipment from Zebra Technologies Int’l. A palletizing system from AMF Automation Technologies reads the bar code on this label and guides it into one of four lanes, from which a robot from Kuka Robotics palletizes it according to individual customers’ orders.

 -Pan Demetrakakes, editor

Editor’s note: Our thanks to Andrew Hanacek, chief editor, National Provisioner, for his help with this story.

To access our other 2010 Plants of the Year, click here.