Welcome to our annual Plants of the Year coverage. We’ve chosen five of the most interesting food and beverage plants in the U.S. from a packaging standpoint. They provide examples of how company decision-makers, whether owners or executives entrusted with packaging strategy, saw a good move and took decisive action.

Our coverage includes:

• Ruiz Foods, a Mexican frozen food company that made the transition to standup pouches.

• Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which reorganized its supply chain and instituted regional hubs, including a new one near Los Angeles.

• Byrne Dairy, which decided to use PET bottles for extended shelf-life milk.

•  Sadler’s Smokehouse, a supplier of ready-to-eat smoked meats that uses high pressure processing to extend shelf life.

• Culinary Art’s Specialties, a supplier of frozen baked goods that went from manual to automatic packaging as part of a drive to triple the size of its operations.

These are disparate companies in every important aspect, including size, products, markets and resources. But their stories, as recounted here, have a key element in common: The initiative required to take the leap and invest in the equipment, floor space, worker training, new materials and any other elements required to bring the new plan to fruition.

We hope these companies’ stories can serve as inspiration to their industry peers. As America struggles out of the recession, these are the kinds of initiatives that help consumer packaged goods companies stay connected to their consumer base.

-Pan Demetrakakes, editor

The Victorville, Calif., plant is one of five regional hubs for Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

DR PEPPER SNAPPLE GROUP: New hub is just what Dr Pepper ordered

Versatility enables plant and warehouse in California to handle a wide range of products, materials and sizes.

When Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS) decided a couple of years ago to revamp its supply chain, one of the key links landed in Victorville, Calif.

Victorville, about 65 miles outside Los Angeles, is the site of a 57-acre facility that filled its first bottles in early 2010. It was built as one of five regional hubs across the U.S. that DPS developed to fill in distribution voids; among the five of them, DPS achieves 80% coverage of the U.S. population, according to Derry Hobson, executive vice president of supply chain.

The Victorville plant is capable of producing about 40 million cases per year on its current five bottling lines, in a huge variety of products, packages and sizes. Beverages bottled at Victorville include Snapple, Hawaiian Punch, Mott’s, Clamato, Schweppes, ReaLeamon and Nantucket Nectars. Containers include glass, plastic and cans, with sizes ranging from 8 ounces to gallons.

Versatility is the key to handling this kind of variety, and it was a primary consideration for equipment purchases, says Eric Gold, DPS’s vice president of engineering.

“The packaging lines are built with changeovers in mind,” Gold says. “The equipment was purchased with a lot of the changeover enhancement built into them, or options purchased with them, to make changeovers faster and more efficient, so that when we do changeovers, we get right to the size and production output we’re looking for.”

The five lines vary in how long they run, ranging from one shift five days a week to 24/7 operation, depending on products and seasonal demand:

• Line 1 hot-fills glass bottles with Snapple, Nantucket Nectars and other products, with fillers fromU.S. Bottlers,cappers fromSilgan White Capand labelers fromKrones Inc.Sizes are 16, 17.5 and 20 ounces, and speeds reach 650 bottles a minute.

• Line 2 fills polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles with both hot and ambient-temperature beverages. Products include Clamato, Snapple, Mott’s and Mr and Mrs T alcohol mixers. It handles bottles from 8 to 32 ounces. The filler is from Krones and the cappers fromArol USA.

• Line 3 is also hot- and ambient-fill, for similar products as line 2 but larger sizes: 64 ounces and gallons. It fills Hawaiian Punch at ambient temperatures and Clamato and Mott’s with hot filling. The filler is from Krones, the capper from Arol.

• Line 4 is a can line that can handle hot, ambient and carbonated products. The line, which runs at 1,400 cans per minute, fills 8-, 12- and 16-ounce cans, with products including Mott’s, Clamato, Snapple and Schweppes. The filler is fromBevcorp.

• Line 5 is a PET line for ambient still products and carbonated drinks, including Hawaiian Punch, teas and Deja Blue bottled water. The filler, from Bevcorp, can run up to 600 1-liter bottles per minute.

Victorville uses a variety of secondary packaging, including regular corrugated cases, wraparound cases, trays and bundlers. Case-packers come from Krones, while bundlers are supplied byOystar JonesandDouglas Machine.

DPS settled on robotic palletizing for Victorville, for a couple of reasons. Versatility was one: With the variety of package sizes and pallet pack patterns, DPS needed a system with pushbutton adaptive capability. Gentle handling was another.

“Robotics gives the most gentle touch to cases so that as we lightweight containers as well as the secondary packaging, we have less damage to them, and it’s much quicker changeover,” Gold says. The robotic palletizers are fromSentry Equipment.

DPS distributes about 1,900 stock-keeping units (SKUs) from the 550,000-sq.-ft. warehouse (the processing/packaging area is 300,000 sq. ft.), including some not bottled at the plant.

“These products used to have to go to several different warehouses,” Hobson says. “Then we had to move them back and forth, and that’s not an efficient model. Now, we can put it into one location and send mixed loads back out to our customer, which is much more efficient.”

Victorville benefits from the proximity of a PET bottle blower dedicated entirely to its needs. The supplier,Plastipak Packaging, built the plant contemporaneously with the DPS facility.

“You don’t want to move to a location like that and still ship bottles or materials in from hundreds of miles away,” Hobson says. F&BP

-Pan Demetrakakes, editor, with Elizabeth Fuhrman, editor-in-chief of Beverage Industry magazine

Print-and-apply unit affixes crucial information to the bundled packs. Photo courtesy of Videojet

BYRNE DAIRY: Ultra Dairy: The future of ESL?

Byrne Dairy’s Ultra Dairy commits to a sustainable technology for extended shelf-life (ESL) products.

Since 1933, Byrne Dairy, Syracuse, N.Y., has specialized in delivering high-quality dairy products to its customers. In 2004, it opened a 40,000-square-foot ultra-pasteurization manufacturing subsidiary, Ultra Dairy, to specialize in extended shelf life (ESL) products such as milk and creamers.

Recently, the facility expanded to 110,000 square feet and took a technological leap forward by installing aSidelPredis system that comprises an integrated system for blow molding, filling and capping, guaranteeing total food safety and helping enhance both the quality and shelf life of products.

”When we looked at the future of our business, and what we needed to solve our customers’ problems, we came to the conclusion that the PET bottle was the best answer for us,” says William Byrne, chairman of the board.

Adds Eric Greiner, sales director: “One of the best advantages we see with a PET bottle is that it’s drinkable and easy to consume. We’re excited about this opportunity.”

The 300 bottle-per-minute system, which Ultra typically runs at 260 bpm, is the first of its kind in the United States. Sidel provided the entire line as a turnkey system.

“It was a great install because we can hold one vendor accountable for the entire line’s efficiency,” says Greiner.  “This eliminated a lot of unknowns, because all the equipment was prequalified. The project also involved infrastructure, training, personnel. Sidel has been an excellent partner.”

The line is one of seven ESL lines in the plant, including four ESL gable-top carton lines. The PET ESL line is capable of sizes from 8 to 80 ounces. The most popular product has been 16-ounce single-serve milk. The refrigerated products are Byrne and private-label brands with 90 to 120 days’ shelf life. “We can distribute the products from the East Coast to the West Coast,” Greiner notes.

The process starts with PET preforms fromLogoplasteentering the Sidel Predis machine. They are sterilized with a one-two punch of hydrogen peroxide mist followed by heating to 212° F. Only a small preform is sterilized in this waterless process, rather than an entire bottle as with alternative bottle sterilization techniques.

“This is a very elegant solution,” says Byrne. “We not only have an extremely high-quality package, but we have produced it in a way that minimizes water and energy use, and that’s very important to our customers.”

Preforms are transferred to the 10-cavity blow molding section and then on for 40-station rotary filling and 20-station capping. With the exception of creamers, the tamper-evident caps fromBerry Plasticseliminate a foil inner seal.

Not only do the preforms save space, the blown bottles are lighter than standard because they are immediately filled and do not have to be durable for distribution when empty, Greiner explains. Resembling shiny high-density polyethylene bottles, the glossy PET bottles’ white color provides a light barrier.

Next, the bottles pass through aHeuftX-ray inspection system to ensure they are filled with the correct product and capped properly.

Bottles convey to aHartnessDynac accumulation system. Bottles bypass the Dynac unless there is a backup downstream, such as for a sleeve label change. AnAmerican Fuji Sealshrink-sleeve labeler was started up in January. The bottle and PET sleeve are 100% recyclable together.

Bottles subsequently are conveyed to aCermexsleeve bundler that uses a corrugated tray and shrink film, and then to an Alvey palletizer fromIntelligratedandWulftecstretchwrapper.

Byrne relies on threeVideojetunits for its online coding, using laser marking on the bottle surface, ink jet coding on the sleeve label, and a print-and-apply label on the bundled packs. The Videojet 3320 laser coder provides a permanent on-bottle code for the identification of fill head, capper station and production date. A Videojet 1610 ink jet printer prints use-by date and other information on the sleeve film web. The P3400 printer-labeler provides a 2 x 4-inch label onto the shrink film. Ultra expects to add a second print-and-apply system as backup in a few months.

Greiner feels that its PET bottle ESL capability has done two things for the company: Elevated the dairy to a higher level of expertise in the manufacturing of ESL dairy products, and enabled them to offer a wider variety of ESL products.

“This technology has been very well received by national brands and our own Byrne brand customers,” says Greiner. “We’ve grown steadily with this capability, and we’re happy with the results.” F&BP

-Rick Lingle, executive editor

For Ruiz Foods to become the only producer of Mexican frozen food packaged in stand-up pouches required a plant-floor reconfiguration. Photo shows a bag sealer from All Packaging Machinery Corp.

RUIZ FOODS: Bagging success in frozen food

New, customized equipment helps company put out the first Mexican frozen food in stand-up pouches.

The world of frozen Mexican food is pretty small. Even when you’re the market leader, it turns out that sometimes there’s not off-the-shelf machinery for everything you want to do.

That’s what Ruiz Foods found when it decided to switch from bag-in-box cartons to zip-close pouches for many of its products, including its signature taquitos-hand-rolled deep-fried tortillas stuffed with a variety of meats and cheeses.

Ruiz, based in Dinuba, Calif., has annual sales estimated at $450 million. Its product lines and approximately 200 SKUs fall under two brands:  El Monterey (frozen Mexican foods) and Tornados (hand-held snacks). The El Monterey snack line includes quesadillas, mini chimis and taquitos.

Packaging for Ruiz’s El Monterey taquitos had consisted of a paperboard carton with an interior pouch. But this had its limitations, especially for a product that’s usually consumed a few pieces at a time.

“Consumers had let us know that even though we had bag-in-the-box, and the bag had a reclosable feature on it, the reclosable feature was very weak at best,” says Brian Miller, senior vice president for supply chain. “It did not seal the product up because it was more of, if you will, a dust cover type of film application.”

Miller knew from experience that stand-up pouches offered more convenience and better protection against freezer burn, while improving shelf presence and maintaining stability in the freezer. Ruiz management took the issue to focus groups and was encouraged.

“Sometimes people do not embrace change and sometimes they do. It was a gamble on our part, but we felt pretty confident that by changing that product to that bag, the response was going to be good,” Miller says.

There was a condition: Even though the new material, a polypropylene laminate, is costlier than the old, the company determined it would not raise prices to accommodate. Part of keeping costs down was making the transition as fast as possible. Ruiz managed to reconfigure its 260,000-sq.-ft. Dinuba plant to accommodate the new packaging in 90 days.

“A group of people from our key areas, whether it was from sales and marketing, production, quality assurance, R&D and such, we sat down as a team,” Miller says. “We wanted to have a rollout of this in a timely fashion, and we came up with the best strategy possible to hit that timeline.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a matter of just browsing online or at a trade show and picking out the needed equipment.

“In our industry, there’s not off-the-shelf equipment, because the Mexican frozen food industry is not that big,” Miller says. “You have to come up with an exclusivity to help protect yourself from the bigger [frozen food] players in the sense that you end up designing equipment specified to our product.”

The biggest challenge was inserting the taquitos into the pouches automatically. Combo weigh scales, usually an option with frozen food pieces, wouldn’t work with taquitos because of their elongated shape. On the plus side, El Monterey taquitos are big and uniform enough that simply providing the right count would be enough to ensure hitting the target weight.

Ruiz devised a system that combined a vibratory feeder with a system of brakes and gates, overseen by a photoelectric sensor. The feeder gently agitates the taquitos into a single file. The photoeye counts however many taquitos are due to be packaged, triggering the brake and the gate. The taquitos then drop directly into the pouch. The filled pouches move down the line and are hand-sealed on equipment fromAll Packaging Machinery Corp.(see photo). They then pass through a metal detector and a checkweigher, both fromLock Inspection Systems.

Burritos, Ruiz’s No. 1 product under the El Monterey brand, are usually flowrapped, in counts ranging from singles to 18. Like taquitos, the burritos are vibrated into single file, then shunted into a series of lanes that can move up to eight of them side-by-side. They enter a flowrapper from theFujidiv. of Formost Packaging. After weighing and metal detection, they are individually coded with an ink jet printer fromDomino Amjet.They are case-packed by equipment fromPearson Packaging Systems,and the cases are coded by printers fromMarkem-Imaje Corp.and the Marsh div. ofVideojet.The cases are then palletized and stretch-wrapped by machinery fromLantech.

The feedback from consumers for the new taquitos bag has been gratifying.

“We have gotten quite a bit of feedback through our internet information and our customer service complimenting our change in going to the stand-up pouch,” Miller says.

Now that the new package has been established, Ruiz is working on improvements to increase efficiency, Miller says.

“Part of our goal was to get [the pouch] to market as fast as we could,” he says. “In today’s world, we are looking at a longer-term phase as far as a permanent solution to help us sustain our ability to be the only frozen Mexican food in a stand-up pouch.”  F&BP

-Pan Demetrakakes, editor

Packaged cheesecakes speed along gently on CAS’s production line with a product integrity rate near 100%.

CULINARY ART'S SPECIALTIES: Automated packaging is the icing on the (cheese)cake

Automated packaging at Culinary Art’s Specialties increases rates to 45 frozen cheesecakes per minute.

Culinary Art’s Specialties (CAS) Inc., a manufacturer of frozen cheesecakes, tripled the size of its operations by building a 53,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Cheektowaga, N.Y., outside of Buffalo. In doing so, it upgraded a manual packaging line to an automated system that could handle 45 frozen cheesecakes per minute. The facility has the capacity to produce and ship 150,000 pounds of the dessert each week-30,000 cheesecakes daily.

“When we planned the move to our new building, we redesigned the entire production process,” says Art Keller, vice president of operations. “We started from scratch and designed a facility to manufacture the world’s best cheesecakes with a very high level of throughput efficiency without sacrificing product quality.”

It was critical to move the delicate frozen desserts undamaged through the packaging cycle with placement precision while toppings and plastic domes are applied and the cakes are shrink wrapped, individually boxed, labeled and case-packed. To achieve this, CAS uses a unique conveying solution fromShuttleworth Inc.It virtually eliminates cheesecake damage, a problem the company was experiencing with its prior manual packaging.

Equipped with smart conveyor technology from Shuttleworth, the automated packaging line processes 2,700 frozen cheesecakes per hour with a product integrity rate of 99.9%. It handles cakes 6 inches in diameter and smaller.

 “Our prior packaging lines were largely manual,” explains Keller. “One of the challenges we needed to solve with the design of the automated system was, how do we now move our cheesecakes through the packaging line before they are shrink wrapped without having them touch anything, as this would mar the product. We looked at a number of conveyor systems, but they permitted too much contact with the cheesecakes. It was a huge issue for us.”

From freezer to wrapper

After blast freezing, the cake is inverted to release it from the pan and placed atop a paperboard ring. A topping is added and a plastic dome is applied. The product registration into the shrink wrapper required that the cakes be separated, spaced and centered on the conveyor.

Shrink Packaging Systemshandled the procurement and integration of the Shanklin HS1 shrink wrapper fromSealed Air Corp.Shuttleworth engineered the conveyor to prepare the cheesecakes for induction into the automatic horizontal continuous-motion side sealer, rated at a maximum 100 cycles per minute. The spacing had to be highly precise, a tolerance of no more than 0.5 inch.

Shuttleworth engineered two different solutions. First, it designed a sequential series of different height rollers that center the cakes on the conveyor. Second, the conveyors offer Slip-Torque technology that minimizes damage by creating extremely low back-pressure accumulation.

The conveyor is food-grade, all-stainless steel construction designed for heavy duty washdown.

After shrink wrapping, the cheesecakes are cartoned using a semi-automatic carton erector fromEconocorp.The conveyor then rotates the cartons and indexes them past a printer that applies a date code.

“Shuttleworth designed this part of the conveyor with tightly spaced rollers so we get a perfectly smooth motion as the boxes go by the printhead,” continues Keller. “The resulting code is very legible. With our prior system, we were having difficulty with blurring of the printed codes because of vibration as the cartons were passing.”

The conveyor integrates an adjustable post that tilts the box slightly to allow the printer to imprint at the desired box position (which varies depending on the product). The conveyor then routes the cartons to aWepackitcase packer, where again, the low back-pressure of Slip-Torque accumulation is used to stage the cartons ahead of the case packer.

Along the way the cake’s weight is verified by aMettler-Toledocheckweigher.

The new conveying capability has enabled Culinary Art’s to automate and streamline its entire packaging line. The company has been able to transfer and improve upon the product integrity of the manual processes with its automated system.

“The packaging line automation has significantly reduced our product defects to less than one-tenth of 1%, while increasing our throughput,” Keller explains. “This significantly surpasses what we could do on a manual level. With the success of this line we are now building out a second automated packaging line.”

That will be welcome-Keller says that the main line operates at least six days weekly, 18 hours a day. The upgraded second line, which will be a virtual duplicate of the first line, will be more flexible, to handle a range of cake sizes up to 10 inches in diameter. It’s expected to be in place by the end of 2011. F&BP

-Rick Lingle, executive editor, with Jim McMahon, president, Zebra Communications

Workers hand-pack product at Sadler’s before it enters a high-pressure pasteurizer.

SADLER'S: Texas smokehouse deals with pressure

High pressure pasteurization enables Sadler’s to extend shelf life and expand product offerings and distribution.

Marc Gaddis, head of R&D for Sadler’s Smokehouse, is adamant about the difference between barbecued and pit-smoked meat.

“When you say barbecue, you flash to the guy on the corner, especially if you’re from the South or you have a favorite barbecue establishment," he says. "Sadler’s does that same process, but on a grand scale, with real pit smokers.”

That’s the level Sadler’s Smokehouse operates on. The company, based in Henderson, Texas, is a regional meat processor that distributes cooked meat entrées and dinners throughout the Southwest. The business was family-owned until 2007, when it was bought by a venture-capital group. (Three generations of the Sadler family, including company founder Harold Sadler, stayed on as management.)

Its refrigerated, ready-to-eat products are based on a variety of pit-smoked meats. Sadler’s started out producing mostly beef brisket; since the 2007 acquisition, it has expanded into pork, turkey, chicken and Hispanic products. Recent additions include Dinner for Two, the first Sadler offering to include a non-meat side such as mac and cheese or baked beans, and a Slow Roasted line, which also includes a side with meat and gravy.

A few years ago, Sadler’s established high pressure pasteurization (HPP) as a way to extend shelf life and increase product safety.

“What HPP gives us is the ability to make that product in the classic style,” Gaddis says.

Safety issues are always critical for any cooked, ready-to-eat food, especially food with relatively high water activity, like meat. The fact that Sadler’s is literally a hands–on operation, with workers packing the product into tubs–it’s “an artistic product that’s made in the classic, old tradition of barbecue,” Gaddis says-raises the stakes in that regard.

HPP, which now accounts for most of Sadler’s production, has been commercialized for well over a decade, but its acceptance in the meat industry has been relatively slow. The process involves putting flexible packaging under enormous pressure in a water tank. The high-pressure water literally squeezes microorganisms inside the packaging to death, performing the same function as retorting or other microbe-killing steps without the product alterations that come with heat.

For entrées, workers hand-pack meat into thermoformed pockets set into a conveyor, which form the top of the finished package. For multi-component products like Dinner for Two, the machine forms the tray on line from an extruded foam film.  The system was furnished byMultivac Inc.

 “A vacuum is pulled, the film is melted to malleable, and then the vacuum is removed and the film drapes around the product,” Gaddis says. “So it conforms to the product rather than smashing the product and creates a product with a thin film. That kind of packaging, because it has no headspace in it, works beautifully for HPP.”

The sealed packages then enter the chamber of a high-pressure pasteurizer fromAvure Technologies.The heart of the pasteurizer is a containment vessel that holds roughly 700 pounds of product, depending on the size and shape of the packaging. The pasteurizer surrounds the packages in the containment vessel with water and, once sealed, ratchets up the pressure to 87,000 pounds per square inch-“many times more pressure than the deepest part of the ocean,” as Gaddis notes. (Dwell time is proprietary.) What emerges is a cooked, ready-to-eat entrée or dinner that has an added level of safety and extra shelf life-a total of 120 days, in the case of Dinner for Two.

“[HPP] really is a game-changer for our company,” says Greg Klein, Sadler’s executive vice president of marketing. “Dealing with meat, our shelf-lives have literally been doubled. As we try to expand from here to the East and West coasts, it’s just been huge.”

HPP is what enabled the development of new Sadler’s products like Dinner for Two, Gaddis says.

“Few teams are able to look at innovative technology and say, ‘Now I need to leverage it against new products and continued competitive advantage.’ We do that,” he says. “HPP is a great thing from a food-safety standpoint, but it also opens up a whole realm of what is possible on the development side, because we apply that technology in creating new products through food safety and in a safe manner.”  F&BP

-Pan Demetrakakes, editor, with Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief of National Provisioner magazine