To some, the name Utz is synonymous with potato chips. But serious snack food fans know better. As they can tell you, the Hanover, Pa.-based company also makes pretzels, cheese curls, cheese balls, popcorn, tortilla chips, and party mix—essentially everything needed for an afternoon of watching football but the TV.
Since its founding in 1921, Utz Quality Foods has grown to become one of the largest privately held snack companies in the United States, serving markets along the East Coast from Maine into the Carolinas. It distributes its products through a network of regional DCs—both company-owned and leased facilities—extending across 15 states. In addition to the regional DCs, Utz operates what it calls its "World Distribution Center," a facility located adjacent to one of the company's four manufacturing plants in Hanover. From there, orders are shipped daily to the distribution network using Utz's private fleet and outside trucking firms, says Jeff Fuhrman, the company's vice president of engineering. A separate warehouse for bulk distribution serves its big box and warehouse club customers.
Given the high volume of products it ships out to major companies, Utz was becoming increasingly concerned about ensuring the integrity of every bag of snacks. "Food safety became an issue for us," says Fuhrman. In particular, Utz wanted to find a way to assure that as products passed through manufacturing to the consumer, they were free of foreign contamination.
When it came to specifying its requirements for the system, the company set the bar pretty high. Essentially, what it wanted was an ultra-reliable method of inspecting high volumes of product without creating unnecessary delays. Eventually, it found the solution it sought. Working in collaboration with Hytrol Conveyor Co. and its material handling systems integrator Wepco Inc., the company came up with an innovative blend of X-ray technology and automated material handling equipment that has both enhanced the safety of its products and boosted the operation's productivity.
The centerpiece of the new system, which went into operation at Utz's Kindig Lane manufacturing and central distribution facility this summer, is a conveyor system that whisks finished cartons from packaging through an X-ray device and on to an automated sorter prior to palletizing and shipping.
Under the new process, machines do most of the heavy lifting, freeing workers for lighter duties and problem-solving tasks. After the cartons are packed in production, workers manually apply bar-code labels to each carton with the appropriate product and expiration code information. The cartons are placed onto one of eight Hytrol E24 conveyor lines, where they accumulate prior to being loaded onto one of eight vertical lifts. The vertical lifts (supplied by United Sortation Solutions) elevate the cartons so they can be merged onto a main conveyor line, which in turn carries them around a 90-degree curve onto a mezzanine and on to the X-ray detector.
While the cartons are moving through the system, information on their contents is being fed to the X-ray device. "Prior to passing through the X-ray detector, the bar code of each carton is scanned and the product SKU information is sent to the X-ray system," Fuhrman explains. "What we're looking for are foreign objects, missing product, seasoning conglomerates, and incorrect weights."
If any of those conditions are detected, the system rejects the case into a contaminated lane, an over/underweight lane, or a failed bar-code read lane. "The system captures an image of each carton, making it easy for employees to identify which package in the carton has a problem," Fuhrman adds.
When the X-ray system rejects a carton, it sends an alert to the DC managers. Employees then address any cartons that were rejected, removing the problem package or investigating the cause of a failed bar-code read. The corrected cartons are then reintroduced into the system at a point prior to the X-ray detector.
Cartons that pass through the X-ray system without issues descend on a spiral conveyor past a bar-code reader and onto a Hytrol two-sided narrow belt sorter. The sorter diverts cartons to one of 14 gravity sort lanes as determined by the bar code. At the end of these gravity lanes, workers palletize the cartons by hand. Cartons the scanner failed to read are diverted to a designated gravity sort lane. When a lane is full, cartons recirculate through the sorter until they can be accommodated.
Big plans for the future
As for how it's all working out to date, Fuhrman has high praise for the new system. In addition to achieving the primary goal of food safety, he says, it has yielded a number of other benefits.
For one thing, it has streamlined operations, providing Utz with a significant boost in productivity. For another, it has enabled the company to make more productive use of space in the DC. On top of that, it has improved product quality, Fuhrman adds. The X-ray helps detect what he calls "conglomerates," such as seasonings or products that have clumped together.
When asked what's next, Fuhrman says the company will add automated case packing and palletizing equipment to the system in the near future. In addition, he says, there are plans to install six additional vertical lifts. "We've set up the infrastructure for a totally automated system," he says.
But perhaps the best measure of the system's success is the company's decision to expand it beyond the Kindig Lane facility. Fuhrman reports that Utz will soon install similar systems at its other manufacturing plants to ensure that no foreign objects of any kind find their way into its products. "Our food safety goal is to X-ray every product," he says. "This has been a huge help."