Whether they’re diced, curly or straight cut, potatoes are America’s favorite vegetable. We devour an average of 47 pounds each year.
And since 1952, Ore-Ida has appealed to our appetites with dozens of frozen-potato varieties – including that crispy crown jewel of casseroles: their trademarked Tater Tot®.
Today, Ore-Ida is a part of the Kraft Heinz Company brand. Its production operations are based in Ontario, Oregon, where Ore-Ida was founded.
The facility produces all of Ore-Ida’s frozen potato products, about 800 million pounds every year.
The Ore-Ida facility’s high output – driven by demand for its nearly 200 SKUs – requires continuous production up to 310 days per year.
But in recent years, a lack of available support for the facility’s aging control system infrastructure has limited the organization’s future growth.
Rather than merely replace its obsolete control systems, Kraft Heinz decided to modernize the architecture and incorporate new technologies to help optimize production capacity and reduce quality variability in the facility.
Production at the Ore-Ida facility begins at the loading docks, where trucks unload farm-fresh potatoes.
The potatoes go through several process stages, including separating, cutting, peeling and sorting to remove defects. From there, the still-raw potatoes are blanched, dried, fried, cooled and frozen.
The finished products are distributed across scales where they are weighed before being packaged.
Finally, the packaged products are stuffed into cases, which are delivered via a track system to a third-party logistics provider for palletizing and shipping.
Until recently, these processes were all individually controlled on the facility’s largest line, with minimal coordination or integration between them.
As a result, process disruptions at one point would reverberate across the line. Issues in the peeling process, for example, would starve downstream processes.
And issues in packaging would back up production and result in excess product being diverted into a holding crib.
“When fries sit in the crib for too long, they can break up – resulting in low-quality fries that we’d remove from our production line,” said Danny Branson, process engineer for the Ore-Ida facility.
“We always want to maximize production, but our main priority is providing high-quality fries and Tater Tots to our customers. Keeping production moving and fries out of the crib helps us do that.”
Concerns about diverting products into the crib, combined with a lack of insights into overall line capacity, often made workers hesitant to increase production.
“Increasing the production rate came with a lot of fear because there was a chance it would result in over-produced product that was sent to the crib,” Branson said.
“As a result, any potential changes involved a lot of back-and-forth chatter. It could take hours just to decide to raise the production rate by 1,000 pounds an hour.”
Yet for all the difficulties the facility faced in optimizing production capacity, a bigger challenge loomed.
The aging control systems were no longer supported by their original manufacturer, which put production at risk for downtime while also nearly eliminating opportunities for production improvements.
“We were in a state of obsolescence,” Branson said. “We had an old control architecture that could no longer be supported.
Many of the I/O boards on the controllers had to be repaired by third-party vendors. In some cases, we were down to our last temperature sensor card or analog input cards.
There were simply no replacements available. So we were at a point where we had to do something.”
Kraft Heinz needed to replace the aging control architecture at the Ore-Ida production facility. However, the facility’s team was challenged by management to justify the investment.
The team was already in discussions with Rockwell Automation on the controls upgrade, and the latter company suggested there may be a way to increase throughput enough for the ROI to cover the cost.
The Rockwell Automation team proposed doing a deeper production analysis to identify the greatest opportunities for optimization.
The team began with an engagement study where they gathered quality and production data to set a baseline, and identified opportunities to improve productivity by 5 percent using model predictive control (MPC).
“We have a continuous goal in production that we call ‘the golden batch,’” said Robert Pedracini, factory manager at the Ore-Ida facility.
“We wanted to optimize control of every process, from the unloading of potatoes to packaging. And we saw the Rockwell Software® Pavilion8® MPC as something that could help us achieve the golden batch.”
“This wasn’t an immediate decision for our team,” added Branson.
“With any significant business investment, we had to set specific goals for ROI, and the close engagement with the Rockwell Automation team helped us justify this first step.”
The Rockwell Automation team configured the Pavilion8 software to capture operating parameters for all processes beginning with peeling and ending with packaging.
The solution works as an intelligence layer on top of the existing automation system.
Once it collects this data, the software then predicts conditions of the process areas and line, and then makes ongoing adjustments to continuously optimize the process.
For example, the MPC software can detect a spike in defects and set more aggressive downstream control settings to achieve the desired quality targets for those defects.
It also can detect constraints in the packaging process and make corresponding adjustments to upstream processes to avoid products being diverted to the holding bin.
It even can track environmental conditions to reduce the variability that often happens in the freezing process during warmer months.
Today, the MPC solution is helping the Ore-Ida facility ride through the small line disruptions that had previously been a struggle.
While the company lacked quality benchmark data to use as a comparison, the reduction in variability was evident.
“We could see just by looking at the model trend graphs during non-MPC control compared to MPC control that variability had gone down after we implemented the Pavilion8 solution,” Branson said.
“And with the reduced variability, we saw the texture tests in our food products level off as well.”
The facility also has seen its production capacity increase.
After an initial three-month evaluation period, the actual improvement was much better than the 5 percent goal – topping over 10 percent.
This will help the company realize a return on its investment in both the MPC software and the full control-architecture upgrade in 12 to 16 months.
“The Pavilion8 solution is continuously making micro adjustments to optimize production,” Branson said.
“Operators don’t have to fiddle around with the adjusting parameters on the equipment or figure out when to change temperature settings anymore.
With the Rockwell Automation solution, our operators can now focus on value-added work, like performing quality checks and keeping equipment clean.”
One area where MPC has been especially beneficial has been in the peeling process.
Previously, disruptions in the unloading dock would not be compensated for in the peeling process, resulting in a production lag that works its way down the line.
Now, the MPC can ramp up production at the peeling step to make up for those lags and maximize throughput.
In addition, Rockwell Automation provides the facility with application support services, to remotely monitor and proactively support the Ore-Ida team as they make production changes.
“Our existing production lines were not sustainable in their original state for more than a few more years,” Branson said. “With Rockwell Automation, we were able to achieve the ROI needed to justify control system investments and better prepare for future production."
The results mentioned above are specific to Kraft Heinz Company’s use of Rockwell Automation products and services in conjunction with other products. Specific results may vary for other customers.
Pavilion8 and Rockwell Software are trademarks of Rockwell Automation Inc.
Tater Tot is a trademark of H.J. Heinz Company L.P.