Kraft's macaroni & cheese has been on the market for more than 80 years. Even in today’s era of consumers searching for fresh food choices, the iconic, shelf-stable comfort food still packs a punch.
In fact, the much-loved product even comes in an ice cream flavor made by Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, produced in limited editions. So much for consumers saying they want to cut back on fatty foods. Everything and anything in moderation sounds much more like a reality-based eating trend. But as we hopefully enter a less restricted and less virus-ridden era, Kraft Heinz is betting that its mac and cheese product will continue to deliver the food consumers love.
Kraft Heinz’s facility in Wausau, Wis., implemented a recent 20,000-sq-ft building expansion and plant modernization project for the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese blue box product during the pandemic without affecting product quality or taste. This project received a 2021 Manufacturing Innovation Award from ProFood World.
The new production system also required building upgrades and expansions with changes to the previous process, including all new powder and liquid handling equipment and a complex clean-in-place (CIP) system. “New equipment was designed to be safe and ergonomic for plant operators,” says Brian Bernard, president of Spec Engineering, a Gray company, “increasing production rates from 7,000 lb/hr to 10,500 lb/hr.”
But as the U.S. entered 2020 and project work began, no one knew how disruptive the emerging coronavirus would be to food processors, their customers, and consumers, as well as food industry equipment providers.
Photo courtesy of Kraft HeinzThe pandemic definitely was a factor throughout the project, says Amanda Mandefro, Wausau plant manager. “Due to our health and safety protocols, we were required to handle aspects of the project remotely, rather than our normal hands-on approach,” she says. “Our facility team on the ground was excellent in communicating with project partners to help drive clarity.”
Despite pandemic and supply chain obstacles, the Wausau project was delivered on time. “The biggest challenge we had in running the old and new lines simultaneously was ensuring we maintained our unwavering commitment to product and personnel safety during the transition of the CIP systems,” says John Schmelzer, production supervisor for Kraft Heinz.
“Overcoming this challenge required clear communication between the project team, from contractors to engineers and plant leaders, to ensure everyone was clear on the process,” adds Phil Tuttle, Wausau facility sanitation manager.
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Construction technologies include 3D scanning and drones
Dean Snyder Construction (DSC) provided preliminary design, cost-estimating, engineering, general construction, and commissioning services for the Wausau facility to meet the new processing requirements, according to Dale Snyder, DSC owner, CEO, and project manager.
“DSC utilized 3D scanning technology and drones in the design process due to existing site constraints,” Snyder explains. “A new 4,240-sq-ft process addition with a 1,500-sq-ft mezzanine was built for the installation of new batch cooking process and powders handling, as well as a 450-sq-ft addition for project utilities.”
The site constraints only allowed for one 12-ft-wide access point for a majority of the work until DSC was tied into the existing structures within the processing area addition, according to Thomas Patterson, DSC field engineer. “We had to work through it by planning ahead and working inside out,” he says. “It was necessary to plan with the subcontractors daily to execute the project in a timely fashion.”
Photo courtesy of Kraft Heinz
The relocation of the sprinkler loop from underground to aboveground while maintaining the existing system until tie-in dates was also a challenge because the existing sprinkler system running underneath the new addition created potential conflicts with construction activities, which DSC addressed during the structural design process.
This was the first project where DSC used 3D scanning technology, Snyder says. “It was necessary in order to minimize piping conflict throughout highly congested areas of the plant and increase the amount of prefabrication offsite, minimizing inefficiencies from the site constraints and plant downtime,” he explains.
Project mobilization for on-site contractors started in April 2020, during the height of COVID-19 shutdowns. For work to proceed, DSC followed the Centers for Disease Control and Kraft Heinz recommendations of limiting in-person meetings, not congregating in small, enclosed areas, and constantly monitoring any changes in health for all employees of on-site contractors.
As the pandemic persisted, masks and temperature monitoring were required. “This took a substantial increase in manpower and management to ensure we were compliant and sympathetic to the safety of our field workers, plant employees, and subcontractors,” says Patterson.
Despite the challenges, DSC built and commissioned the project without affecting existing operations at the Wausau plant, had no lost-time injuries recorded, and delivered a fully functioning process line in only eight months after the April 2020 groundbreaking.
Product demand grows as pandemic continues
“As COVID-19 began to take shape in the United States and across the globe, demand for food and, more importantly, popular food with extended shelf life, left grocery store shelves bare and manufacturing lines strained. Spec Engineering remained fully operational as essential workers in this industry and forged ahead with the buildout as planned,” Bernard states.
Photo courtesy of Kraft Heinz
During lockdown, the demand for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese grew. “Given the increase in demand we have experienced, we had to rely on planned downtime in the facility to implement major updates throughout the process,” Mandefro explains.
In terms of project process changes, a majority were implemented upstream, Mandefro says. “From the onset of the project, we had to add infrastructure and utilities as a foundation. And from there, we proceeded to address the needed updates to our blending operations.”
Spec Engineering executed the multi-line expansion project that included new equipment and processes for four rooms, including dry ingredient bulk bag unloaders, a liquid cheese cook room, a drying and blending room, and a CIP sanitation system. “Following the completion of the project, the first salable product began production on January 3, 2021,” states Mandefro.
New equipment setup
Spec Engineering installed new equipment and processes in the four new rooms without disrupting the existing production line. This multi-line expansion project began with a nine-ingredient smart batching system. A set of nine bulk bag unloaders were designed with food safety and traceable ingredients in mind. Accurately metered to formulate the total dry powders content for the cook process, tote bags of the powder ingredient are hoisted into the bulk bag discharger stations. An operator platform common to all the dischargers allows operators to untie the bag bottom and allow product into the receiving transition.
An integrated dust collector was added to each discharger to control dust migration and product loss by discharging collected dust back to the receiving transition, according to Spec Engineering. Additionally, a level probe detects that product is present, enabling the station to feed to the total batch. If the level is not met, an alarm notifies operators to load a new bag onto the platform.
A slide gate valve and lump breaker on each station ensure lumps are eliminated and product to the feeder flows appropriately. A volumetric feeder with surge capacity meters powder to the small weigh hopper through gain-in-weight functionality. By weighing the small hopper and product, the system ensures high accuracy as opposed to a loss-in-weight system, where the weight from the feeder is also weighed.
Once the appropriate dose of product is in the weigh hopper, the system transfers the ingredient for a requested batch. Airlocks under each weigh hopper feed the pneumatic vacuum conveying line concurrently between the ingredients.
A desiccant air dryer has been incorporated to provide clean, dry air to the vacuum receiving line, along with a mix box transition to maintain proportional airflow to the two pneumatic conveying lines as needed. This ensures the product remains free of humidity, allowing for a smooth flow of dry material.
Once all nine ingredients are in the small weigh hopper, seven of them are transferred to the cook room filter receiver of the cooker that requested the batch. Since there is only one conveying line for these ingredients, pneumatic conveying wye diverters are used to switch between the vacuum receiver of cooker 1 or cooker 2.
Each receiver uses a scale to verify that the weight of product transferred is within tolerance of the total batch weight. When all product is transferred and an appropriate purge time has elapsed, the vacuum shuts off or switches to the other receiver, and the full receiver can dump its contents to a batch weigh hopper.
The scale hopper is necessary to stage product in preparation for a batch request and allow the vacuum receiver to resume product conveying of the final two ingredients, which are added to the respective batch cooker later in the cook process. The cooker requests the batch of seven products, which are then dumped from the weigh hopper.
This process repeats in a twin cooker and is offset by half the process time to the other cooker. Utilizing a common pneumatic conveying line and precisely timed batches provide optimal throughput while also reducing the need for additional piping, blowers, and expensive stainless-steel filter receivers.
Dry ingredients are mixed with several liquid cheese ingredients in a custom-designed cook room. To reduce the manual labor in the previous cook room, Spec Engineering designed automated and ergonomic systems. Specially sized tanks, actuated valves, and transfer pumps now select precise batches and transfer six different liquids to the respective cookers for mechanical mixing with the dry ingredients, followed by controlled steam cooking. This occurs every 2.5 minutes on the alternating twin cookers, as each cooker processes a 5-minute batch. Each batch is pumped out of the respective cooker to a surge tank, then cooled and transferred to the product silo.
From the product silo, the cooled cheese slurry enters the drying room to be spray dried and then rotary dried to achieve the proper moisture content. The dry cheese powder is then ratio mixed in a Mixsys plow mixer.
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Complex CIP system is automated
One of the project’s biggest challenges was the implementation of a new, massive, high-tech CIP system. The skid is approximately 22 ft long x 8 ft wide x 17 ft tall and replaces a 20-year-old smaller system with a new design that incorporates three 1,000-gal tanks for caustic wash, acid wash, and freshwater rinsing. This new sanitary CIP system has the capacity to clean half the plant, covering 21 different circuit points, and is flexible enough to fit in a very confined space in the dedicated CIP room.
Photo courtesy of Kraft HeinzThe new skid is equipped with two independent loops, each with a 300-gpm CIP supply pump, heat exchanger, instrumentation, and 3-in 316L sanitary tubing, enabling it to simultaneously treat two different plant circuits from the same CIP skid supply tank or from different CIP skid supply tanks.
This was coupled with splitting the 21 circuit feed points from the single CIP pump loop on the old CIP skid into a new arrangement with some of the circuits assigned to the new CIP skid’s pump 1 loop and the other circuits assigned to the new CIP skid’s pump 2 loop.
This proved to be a challenge both in the engineering design and the physical site retrofit, according to Spec Engineering. The 21 circuit feed points were previously grouped from common areas of the plant into only four branches connected to the old CIP skid. Separating the circuits between the new twin CIP pump loops often meant ungrouping existing common pipe runs to and from the CIP room, as the circuits were reorganized into four branches back to CIP skid pump 1 and a different, new set of four branches back to CIP skid pump 2.
In addition, five circuit feed points were relocated from the old cook room to the new cook room, hundreds of feet away. In fact, the work involved creating routing plans and installation of more than 2,000 ft of sanitary 3-in 316L stainless-steel tubing.
“The automation effort was also intense,” says Bernard, “as the custom CIP skid PLC/HMI controls had to be Ethernet-connected to the new PLC/HMI controls in the new cook room. Plus, the other feed circuits throughout the plant often had unique start triggers and feedback confirmations. Many new safety features were also incorporated into the mechanical design and the PLC/HMI programming.”
Rockwell Automation programmable logic controller (PLC) and human-machine interface (HMI) platforms were used per Kraft Heinz’s corporate standard. The system includes 20 distributed I/O and valve panels for the reduction of field wiring and sanitary installation. All device networks, such as variable-frequency drives (VFDs), scale controllers, flowmeters, and remote I/O, run over EtherNet/IP. In addition, the recipe control system validates the amount of metered product to ensure accuracy and repeatability.
The new CIP skid and related circuit feeds had to be installed, tested, commissioned, and passivated, all while the old CIP skid was still in operation for the former production line, says Bernard. This overlap of approximately four weeks necessitated special temporary tubing tie-points and PLC testing plans that had to be accomplished during ongoing plant production.
Photo courtesy of Kraft Heinz
Complex ingress limitations overcome
Another major challenge the Spec Engineering team had to address was ingress limitations for the new CIP skid from the receiving dock to the final installation point in the renovated CIP room. This path through the plant included several doorway restrictions and multiple corners to navigate. To best preplan this effort, Spec Engineering recorded a plant walk-through video, took site measurements, and developed a 3D model. This allowed the team to maneuver the large equipment around the permanent obstacles safely, without disrupting production. Even this step presented engineering trials because the CIP skid had to be specially designed for separation into smaller sections for over-the-road delivery and the eventual routing through the plant. The CIP skid was paired with a custom set of stairs with a personnel access platform on top and around the three tanks while at the Spec facility, before being disassembled and shipped for installation at Kraft in Wausau.
Fully embracing the Gray Safety 7 standards as part of Gray’s safety program, Spec designed the physical system, planned the rigging efforts, prepared for the plant ingress, and ultimately reassembled the skid system in the renovated CIP room, delivering all required operational testing and sanitary results for compliance, as well as the numerous project-specific requirements.
Plant capacity has increased by 50%, and the new line has enhanced repeatability of recipe quality control, Bernard says. In addition, the project has decreased downtime for cleaning shutdowns, increased cleanability and hygienic design, and reduced the amount of operator interaction required.
Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 impacted the supply chain and sourcing of components, which affected the project timeline, says Bernard. “Fortunately, due to the strong collaboration with Kraft Heinz and meticulous planning, the team worked a detailed schedule of many small production shutdown times to execute the new equipment and system implementation.”
The shutdown window for the old line to be decommissioned and the new line to be started was only a few weeks. “Once the shutdown started, the team was quick to integrate all the equipment. The planning between Spec, Kraft Heinz, and the subcontractors was critical in meeting the shutdown window,” he adds.
“We’re proud of the fact that in executing this project, we were able to add inline blending without decreasing our throughputs,” states Mandefro. She is also pleased with how the project team was able to execute this project while maintaining Kraft Heinz’s high-quality product and production standards. “We adhered to our stringent health and safety standards and were able to manage our material management very efficiently,” she explains.
“All of us at Kraft Heinz are incredibly proud of the Manufacturing Innovation Award recognition we received for this important project, especially given the challenges and complexities posed by the pandemic,” says Mitch Arends, Kraft Heinz senior vice president of U.S. operations and manufacturing. “We remain committed to producing the highest-quality products and maintaining a safe environment for our team members, and this award is a great validation for our teams who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to continue feeding America during these challenging times.”