SunOpta Takes Aseptic Processing to New Level

As a greenfield plant, SunOpta has been able to take the best of everything from its three other plants and improve them further—from efficiencies and sustainability to sanitary design and safety.

The greenfield project enabled SunOpta to optimize production, improve the flexibility of its systems, and accommodate new product lines, including 330 mL protein drinks.
The greenfield project enabled SunOpta to optimize production, improve the flexibility of its systems, and accommodate new product lines, including 330 mL protein drinks.

When SunOpta hit capacity levels at its existing manufacturing facilities, it was time to establish capabilities in a new plant. Despite the company having looked at 180 possible site locations, today it’s hard to see Midlothian, Texas, just outside of Dallas, as anything but a foregone conclusion for the company’s next aseptic manufacturing plant.

“We were super happy with our choice of Midlothian because, not only has the city been great to work with, they have really helped welcome us into the community,” says Chris Whitehair, vice president of operations. “The incentive packages we got were phenomenal. Being able to hire employees, we haven’t had any issues. Our hiring fairs have been super successful, and the caliber of folks we’ve been getting has also been very good.”

Approaching the facility in Midlothian, the town’s growth is apparent, new facilities and residential areas popping up right and left. In fact, Whitehair suspects it would be difficult to get the incentives today that they managed to secure for the site two years ago. SunOpta successfully negotiated with the City of Midlothian and Ellis County for a property tax abatement worth $7.5 million and $500,000 in operation grants contingent upon commencing operations and maintaining full-time jobs.

The plant’s specific location within the U.S. was strategic as well, creating distribution efficiency along with SunOpta’s plants in California, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. “We’ve got one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast, a third one in the North, and Texas becomes a nice diamond shape,” says Anil Neti, senior plant manager. “Which will help in reducing 15 million miles per year, which equals 59 million pounds of carbon emissions.”

The location also places the co-manufacturer close to important existing and new customers. “One of our largest customers really wanted us to have aseptic manufacturing here,” Whitehair says, referring to a large coffeehouse chain for which SunOpta makes tea. “So that’s really what propelled us to come here and build this plant two years ago.”

Although the broths, teas, and plant-based milks that will be made at the Midlothian plant are many of the same products that are made at its existing plants—and rely on much of the already-trusted Tetra Pak equipment for aseptic production—this greenfield project enabled SunOpta to optimize production, improve the flexibility of its systems, and accommodate new product lines, including 330 mL protein drinks.

SunOpta has standardized on Tetra Pak systems on all of its lines.SunOpta has standardized on Tetra Pak systems on all of its lines.SunOpta

That’s where the new customer comes in. The first phase of the buildout is targeted largely at Premier Protein single-serve nutrition drinks, with the capacity to produce about 78 million gallons of product per year. When we visited SunOpta in May, the line dedicated to the drinks had just been running for eight days. Premier Nutrition has one of its largest distribution centers in Arlington, Texas, also in the Dallas area.

The big driver pushing SunOpta to create more plant capacity in the first place, however, came largely from the plant-based milk market.

As we all remember, COVID-19 created a run on many key household supplies like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. But it also kicked off a boom for many of the more shelf-stable foods in our lives. For SunOpta, this was perhaps most felt in the oat milk market that it served. By spring of 2020, sales of oat milk had skyrocketed 477% over the previous year, according to Nielsen data. Though a particularly significant surge during lockdown, the general trend toward plant-based dairy alternatives was already taking place and is expected to continue. SkyQuest technology foresees a 10.4% rise in the market from 2022 to 2028.

“We’re expanding the current portfolio—whether it’s oat milks, broth, tea, increasing the revenue there—but adding a new 330 mL Premium Nutrition to the bottom line,” Neti says. “That’s a whole new add to SunOpta, which is an incremental revenue to what we’re doing today.” That’s business that SunOpta would not have gotten without moving to this key Texas location.

Innovating through a tight timeline

A key consideration in choosing SunOpta as a Manufacturing Innovation Award winner came in relation to its innovative solutions to some pretty hairy supply chain obstacles while staying on a tight timeline. Though staying on schedule—and on budget—is important for any project, SunOpta had a particular need to get this manufacturing plant up and running quickly. To secure the business of its new customer, the co-manufacturer had to be ramped to full production within 18 months of design concept

   Read about another 2023 Manufacturing Innovation Award winner: MyForest Foods and its vertical mycelium farm.

SunOpta had kicked off its search for a site in September 2020, whittling its choices down to six finalists and then ultimately choosing the Midlothian site. By April 2021, the development team had chosen its design concept and presented its business case to SunOpta’s board. Construction began in September 2021.

“And then 16 months later, we actually made first production, which was pretty remarkable,” Whitehair comments.

Having salable product by end of 2022 was no easy feat, and it required fast and creative thinking from the team at SunOpta and long-trusted partners Dennis Group (for design and engineering) and Tetra Pak (for aseptic production systems). Already quite familiar with the kinds of equipment delays that had become all too prevalent since the start of the pandemic, the team made a point of planning ahead.

“One of the things we did smart was we ordered long-lead items like steel and electrical components—anything that we thought was going to be a problem getting delivered coming out of COVID and the supply chain challenges—we got on it and ordered it,” Whitehair says. “That helped a lot.”

They could never have made the 16-month project delivery date without pre-ordering some bigger items in particular, Whitehair says. “We ran into challenges on deliveries every week,” he adds. “There wasn’t a week that went by—from the time we broke ground until the end—that there wasn’t something that we had to work through to get delivered on time.”

The main switchgear for the plant was one of those items, but that pre-planning wasn’t enough—timelines for electrical equipment just continued to grow, and the switchgear’s delivery date was pushed back time and time again. If they were going to have the plant operational by the end of 2022, they would have to pivot and come up with an alternative plan. Finally, they were able to find refurbished switchgear to use instead. Because the bottom conduits wouldn’t line up with what had been planned initially, the team had to quickly—within the span of a week—design and construct a platform for the refurbished switchgear to sit on in order to line up ports.

It’s a good thing SunOpta stopped relying on the original switchgear order to arrive. During our visit in May 2023, they were still using the refurbished equipment. The switchgear had recently arrived but was sitting to the side with missing components. “When this showed up, the parts were all missing,” Whitehair says. “Literally, 76% of the parts that were supposed to be in these were missing.”

Commissioning was also accelerated to keep the project on schedule. One solution was to ship the motor control centers while they were only partially constructed and to field install the remainder of the components.

Since power was limited throughout construction, utility systems had to be powered up strategically. Power to equipment was required for I/O checkout and initial function tests. The team would create punch lists and then power the equipment down, moving to the next equipment while completing the punch lists, and finally returning to complete I/O checkout upon completion of the punch list. This process was repeated for all the utilities to drive schedule and allow utility systems to be available to Tetra Pak systems for their checkout and functional tests.

On the construction side, delays resulted in the building shell dry-in date being several months later than expected. To keep the project on schedule, all parties committed to doing whatever they could to compensate for the delays, including extended hours, seven days a week. Whitehair says 300+ contractors were on site daily throughout the project.

Neti gives credit to the entire team for the creative solutions along the way. “It is such a great team that thought outside the box,” he says. “Whether it is the gas, whether it is the power, whether it is the wastewater, you name it—every single one has been a challenge on this project. However, the team did a phenomenal job.”

There were a lot of people looking at answers to questions from every angle and coming up with new solutions to problems. “With SunOpta’s project management, the leadership—all the way from top down—helped in enabling us to be on track,” Neti adds.

Best in class from the ground up

Although the 285,000-sq-ft facility in Midlothian runs many of the same products as its predecessors, it has some advantages. With the new ground-up project, SunOpta was able to assess best practices at its other facilities and make improvements that might not have been possible previously. It also gave SunOpta the opportunity to add new product lines, with the flexibility to expand into new formats in the future.

“We spent months in the design phase on how we were going to lay out this plant,” Whitehair says, mentioning extensive work with Tetra Pak and Dennis Group through several large projects over the past three years. “All of the things that we wanted to improve on got built into Midlothian—whether it’s sanitary design, whether it’s sustainability practices, whether it’s safety of our employees. Everything really got built into the design.”

SunOpta has used Tetra Pak equipment at its other facilities, but a greenfield space enabled the company to make improvements, many in worker comfort and safety. “Along with our sister facilities, feedback was taken from all their floor operators: What would you like to see if we built a new plant? That was incorporated into this design—whether it’s the restroom, whether it’s the mother’s room, whether it’s bigger spaces in the processing area, filling area,” Neti explains. “We’re going towards not just building and running product, but is it employee-friendly? Is there enough room and a comfortable room to make things. Those are all part of the design.”

Depending on the product, packaging formats include slim liters, edge liters, and 330 mL single-serve beverages.Depending on the product, packaging formats include slim liters, edge liters, and 330 mL single-serve beverages.SunOpta

Upgraded employee amenity areas included a larger locker room footprint to avoid crowding during shift changes, as well as an expansive break room with comfortable seating and a quiet area for phone calls or relaxing, as well as access to a prayer room and mother’s room.

The batching rooms were built larger to allow easier transfer of raw materials via drums or pallets. Equipment layouts provided more space so that operators are positioned further away from steam or chemical residue. Cooling drops were added above the operator stations in high-temperature areas. Additional space was also designed behind the fillers so that multiple operators could remove laminate off pallets without interfering with each other.

SunOpta also improved the location of its control rooms. The new plant has three separate control rooms—one for mix, one for processing, and one for filling. “They’re very close so the employees can go into the control room, do their work, and then only operate the equipment when they need to, and they can come back to the control room,” Neti says.

“We tried to make it as user-friendly as we could just by laying out the plan properly. We even have small satellite labs, even for our truck bay, where we receive materials. They have a lab out there, so they don’t have to walk 200 yards to another lab to test the products before we accept them,” Whitehair adds. “The flow of the plant—from ingredients coming in on the east side, finished goods going out on the west side, and all the mixing, processing, and filling that goes on in between—it’s just a very natural flow of the plant from east to west. For this facility, we were able to do that because we were starting with a blank sheet of paper.”

The Texas facility has a two-lane bay where various liquid product bases are received, sampled, tested, and then transferred to refrigerated silos with agitators. Liquid sweetener is also received and transferred to a heated jacketed silo with an agitator. Exterior air into the tank passes through HEPA filters and a UV disinfection chamber to avoid contaminants or bacteria from being introduced.

These silos feed two Tetra Pak high-speed aseptic production lines that are flexible enough to produce more than 100 SKUs for SunOpta’s diverse customer base. Batch systems are completely automated for bulk ingredients, while minor ingredients are added manually. Once batched, the product is thermally processed with direct or indirect steam. Depending on the product, the packaging formats include slim liters, edge liters, and 330 mL single-serve beverages. Robotic palletizing is used before product is transferred to the finished goods warehouse, which typically holds five weeks of inventory.

Hygienic finishes are used throughout the production space, particularly in high-care areas, including a walk-on ceiling, insulated metal panel (IMP) walls, stainless-steel finishes, and sloped drainage. Mix-proof valves enable SunOpta to take any system down for sanitation or service, while other systems remain online.

“We leveraged the Dennis Group, who are very familiar with food sanitation construction, and we leveraged the best practices that they could bring to this design—on floors, walls, ceilings, even how to design a drain properly,” Whitehair says, listing a slew of good sanitation practices related to segregation, pest control, washdown capabilities, and more.

A lot of investment went into the SunOpta clean-in-place system, Neti notes, including an increased level of automation for several of the tasks. “It’s an automated system to clean the tanks, the lines with the right temperature, right duration, right concentricity, right chemicals in there—a lot of it is automated, so it’s less chance for a mistake to happen.”

Control, communication, traceability

SunOpta has standardized on Tetra Pak equipment on all of its lines at all of its plants, using Tetra Pak controls, and Tetra Pak technicians helping to maintain the lines and train employees on their use. The location of the new plant has also been helpful when it comes to working with Tetra Pak, which has a state-of-the-art factory also in the Dallas metro area, in Denton, Texas.

The production systems use Tetra Pak’s Plant Master control system, so Dennis Group integrated each utility with the proprietary system. Utilities communicate with the Tetra Pak programmable logic controllers (PLCs) so that the system calls for tower water only when needed, which is more energy-efficient. Utilities also have monitoring to alert when there is an issue.

Most of the equipment at the plant is PLC-driven, with the drives, PLCs and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system all communicating with each other, Neti notes.

SunOpta’s Texas facility is using Redzone software extensively to manage several aspects of information and communication within operations. “It takes some of this information, compiles it, and ensures, for example, what speed are we running a certain line? How many packs did we run? What’s our OEE? What’s our downtime look like? What do our micro-stops looks like? That’s one piece of it,” Neti explains. “The second piece of it is the communication. We don’t necessarily have to go from an operator to a lead to a supervisor to a plant manager to know what’s going on. With the controls automation and the Redzone program that we have, it’s more like Facebook and Instagram combined. An operator can go in and type something in—it’s a high five or it’s a recommendation or it’s a concern. And then they all look at it at the same time, and there’s a picture there, which speaks 1,000 words, that they can follow up on.”

Operator training is an important piece of the Redzone software as well, Whitehair says, commenting about the ability to include short videos in the system, as well as manuals, all of which can be customized to an individual and their comfort level with various types of learning.

“The tool really engages your employees—the daily direction setting, the communication, getting them to feel comfortable because you’ve got these places to go to if you forget something. You can go and watch a short video even on your workstation or on your handheld tablet,” Whitehair says. “It’s just like them using their phone almost because these younger folks, they have the ability to just go to a screen and see something very quickly, and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know how to troubleshoot that case packer because the cord is not folding exactly the way it’s supposed to, and here’s what I’m supposed to do about correcting that.’”

Another piece of the software is maintenance, and also quality control. “All of our quality testing, all of that record keeping, will be done within Redzone,” Whitehair says. “It makes the KPIs, the training, the maintenance, and the quality a one-stop shop and makes us a virtual shop floor. We built that into the design in the beginning, but we’re already rolling that out in our other plants.

The plant’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) is connected to an Oracle system, enabling tracking from farm to fork (or glass). “They’re all traced all the way from the time that we got the raw material and lot numbers, the SKUs, to which piece of equipment it’s going, whether it’s going into a certain tank, certain mixer, certain processor, certain filler line—all the way it’s traced and tracked,” Neti says. “For whatever reason, if things don’t go as well as they should, we would want to know what lot it was, how much did we make, which equipment it was made on. It helps significantly with troubleshooting and during the process.”

Though this traceability has in part to do with regulations around the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), SunOpta aims to push beyond just compliance. “We also continue to try to raise the bar. Our customers are helping us to continue to raise the bar around food safety,” Whitehair says. “We’ll take best practices from an auditor—whether a customer audit or SQF audit or something we learn through the industry—and try to apply it in our plants. With aseptic, you have very little room for error.”

Sustainability designed throughout

SunOpta estimates that its new strategic location in Texas will save the company 15 million freight miles annually and save 59 million pounds of carbon emissions. The plant itself is designed to reduce carbon emissions, conserve water, use power efficiently, and make use of recycled materials.

SunOpta purchased two cooling water skids from Tetra Pak so they could reuse water for cooling instead of disposing of it. When running at full capacity, the water reuse equipment will save close to 20 million gallons per year.

Utility systems throughout the plant were designed to be energy-efficient. A reverse osmosis (RO) system that was installed for ingredient water is also used to supply feedwater to the steam boilers. Using purified RO water for the boilers rather than a soft water system reduces blowdown of chemically treated hot water by about 900,000 gallons annually. The steam boilers have blowers equipped with variable-frequency drives (VFDs), which results in a higher turn down ratio by better matching the load for each individual batch. Both of the two steam boilers have an economizer to recover heat.

A reverse osmosis system installed for ingredient water is also used to supply feedwater to the steam boilers, reducing blowdown of chemically treated hot water.A reverse osmosis system installed for ingredient water is also used to supply feedwater to the steam boilers, reducing blowdown of chemically treated hot water.SunOpta

An ammonia-refrigerated cold glycol system was selected for both air handling and process cooling. Using a central ammonia refrigeration plant for building cooling is more energy-efficient than using individual freon-based air handling units. During periods of cooler ambient temperatures, the control system turns off the condenser water circulation pumps and modulates fan speed to save energy based on external conditions such as humidity and temperature. Larger condenser equipment was installed for the ammonia refrigeration system to lower the system head pressure. The speed of the compressors can be varied so the system matches process load for improved efficiency. A fully redundant ammonia compressor was also installed to avoid process downtime.

Wastewater treatment on site

With all the new homes and businesses being built in the area, it was important for SunOpta to make sure that the facility had the electrical load, gas, and other utilities available for operation. Wastewater capabilities in the area couldn’t handle what the new facility would produce, so SunOpta spent about $6.5 million dollars on a wastewater treatment plant of its own. “If we hadn’t spent upfront to invest in our own wastewater treatment plant, we would not be running today,” Whitehair says.

Wastewater capabilities in the area couldn’t handle what the new facility would produce, so SunOpta’s employees are operating the site’s own wastewater treatment plant.Wastewater capabilities in the area couldn’t handle what the new facility would produce, so SunOpta’s employees are operating the site’s own wastewater treatment plant.SunOptaThe local water authority, a private entity called Trinity River Authority, had a wastewater treatment capacity of 3 million to 4 million gal/day (MGD) of domestic-strength wastewater at 150 mg/L biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). Since SunOpta’s effluent at 5,000 mg/L BOD was almost equal to the total capacity of the municipality, a full membrane bioreactor (MBR) system was required. The biological system treats down to discharge quality water, or less than 8 mg BOD per liter. The system, which has the capacity to handle 240,000 gallons per day, will allow SunOpta to use reclaimed water for various purposes in the plant.

SunOpta also has an option to obtain a surface discharge permit in the future, completely removing any reliance on the limited capacity of the public wastewater system. The system has dissolved air flotation (DAF) for pre-treatment and uses a centrifuge for dewatering, which reduces the sludge to 22% solids. This method reduces hauling costs by about 85%. Bio solids are stored in bins, which further defrays hauling costs by reducing the number of trips.

“The investment made is also part of the social responsibility from a sustainability standpoint. The water we discharge today is as good as the water we have coming in, or better at times,” Neti says. “That takes a lot of money to invest to do that. Not everybody does that. But it fits into our SunOpta sustainability model to make sure we take care of the community, employees, customers, at the same time as the environment”

Built for expansion

SunOpta purchased the 32-acre site in Midlothian with a view toward future expansion. The facility is currently running two lines but can easily double capacity without any building or utility expansions. As part of a longer-term plan, the site is suitable for another 150,000 sq ft of building expansion, and site work—including the placement of fire lanes and the wastewater building—were all designed around that.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year or two we would see us start to build out the expansion and phase two of the building and add another 150,000 sq ft,” Whitehair says. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

Chris Whitehair (left) and Anil Neti credit a wide range of employees and contractors for the creative solutions that kept the Midlothian project on schedule.Chris Whitehair (left) and Anil Neti credit a wide range of employees and contractors for the creative solutions that kept the Midlothian project on schedule.Aaron Hand

At the same time that the new plant gets the advantages of a clean slate, it also has the advantages of corporate resources from existing SunOpta facilities. Whitehair points to the company’s large pilot lab at its headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minn., for example. “A lot of the front-end work can be done there, but we’re also taking the learnings from the other plants,” he says. “SunOpta can learn four times faster because we have four plants operating instead of just one. We’re constantly sharing best practices and learnings, either from our corporate pilot lab or the four other plants. I think that’s really helped us accelerate our improvements.”

The Midlothian plant has had buy-in at every level of the corporate organization. “Early on, when we told our entire company that we were going to spend $125 million on this plant, it was going to be every one of our jobs to make sure that this startup is successful. Having been here a lot for the last couple of years, you truly see it every day—whether it’s the people we can send to a plant to get trained, or the people who have come here to help provide support during startup or training,” Whitehair says. “It’s fun to watch that collaboration and sense of ownership that you get from every level in the company.”

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