Oklahoma City-based Lopez Foods, the nation’s largest Hispanic-owned meat processing company and a longtime supplier of meat products to McDonald’s, has earned a reputation for producing a portfolio of gold standard products. Offerings include beef and pork products in addition to a variety of fully cooked beef, pork, chicken and turkey products marketed under its own Quick’N Eat brand name, and for many private labels in the retail industry plus a variety of other restaurant chains.

These products are processed at two production facilities. Built in 1991, its 200,000-sq.-ft. Oklahoma City flagship facility employs 500 people and produces frozen beef patties; partially and fully cooked pork sausage patties; fully cooked, fresh, refrigerated Canadian bacon; plus it operates an unformed fresh, refrigerated ground-beef line. Approximately 285 associates at its 85,000-sq.-ft. Campos Foods plant in Caryville, Tenn., produce fully cooked products including frozen hamburger patties, pork, beef and turkey sausage patties, meatloaf, Salisbury steak, rib patties and bone-in chicken. In addition, Dorada Foods, a “sister” company to Lopez, has its own plant in Ponca City, Okla., starting operations in 2011. Dorada Foods is a joint venture that includes most of the Lopez Foods ownership group and Tyson Foods. Approximately 225 employees at this facility produce value-added chicken products.

While touring the technology-rich Oklahoma City facility, CEO Ed Sanchez relays that the plant is 23 years old. Automated technology can never totally replace the human touch, he says. “You have to find the right balance between automation and hand-crafting,” he adds. “We have a responsibility to ourselves and our customers to employ new technology any time we can automate a process where it yields better food safety, better employee safety and better product quality.”

New automation used at this facility includes computerized blending; Dominator grinder technology; forming technology; robotic palletizing; vertical form/fill/seal packaging equipment; and bag-into-box autoloaders for sausage products, just to mention a few improvements.

“Developed by our in-house IT department, our information systems program collects data and tracks product flow, allowing us to ensure real-time traceability – whether product is in process or is finished and shipped to our customers,” says John Patrick Lopez, vice president of operations and son of company founder, John C. Lopez. “We have learned our system is more advanced than many national suppliers when it comes to retrieving data and information in real-time. Some of our customers are considering using this system internally for their own businesses.”

Housed within the Oklahoma City plant is a beef department with eight beef patty lines; a pork department with six sausage patty lines, featuring both partially cooked and fully cooked pork production areas; and a sliced Canadian bacon department.

‘Feed the Former’

Lopez Foods strives to forge long-term partnerships with new customers as opposed to one-time transactions. “We extend that philosophy to our suppliers, as well,” Sanchez says. “We’d rather our relationship go beyond that one transaction and become long-term at all of our plants.”

To his last point, Weiler Food Processing Systems and Formax – both parts of Mokena, Ill.-based Provisur Technologies – remain longtime partners with Lopez Foods. “Our relationship has existed over many years,” Sanchez reflects. “Their service levels are great. Also, they don’t just sit with a process and equipment and not change it. They have made many improvements over the years.”

Last April, Lopez Foods’ flagship plant installed Provisur’s Feed the Former (FTF) automated conveying system – an automated method for feeding formers, stuffers, etc. – for its eight beef-patty forming lines. Other FTF installations exist at other companies and this system can be developed utilizing conveyors or pumps.

FTF feeds eight beef patty forming machines in the plant. A series of computerized conveyors travel from the two final mixer/grinders, where product is ground into its final form for the eight formers. Lopez Foods’ FTF system includes three incline belt conveyors, one shuttle-belt conveyor, two divert-belt conveyors and an automated control system (integrated with the existing automated blending control system.)

Prior to implementing the automated system, workers loaded ground meat into carts, pushed them to the forming machines and loaded the carts into the forming-machine hoppers.

“We are always looking for ways to improve efficiencies within that department,” Lopez says. “We call it the Beef Department 95 percent of the year, but there are specific days when we use it for pork products only.”

“We were initially concerned about the consistency of the raw pork material and how well it would transfer on the FTF so we did a lot of testing with pork and it proved successful there, too,“ says Jim Edwards, assistant vice president of engineering.

Surpassing expectations

Implementing the automated technology in this part of the plant not only eliminated the need for four workers in the process, but also decreased wasted product plus it improved sanitation. Unexpected benefits included efficiency improvement and substantial capacity gain; less water and chemical usage during cleaning; fewer worker injuries; improved traffic flow/less congestion; less product handling; and less wear on the forming machines by not overloading.

“Our old process involved filling approximately 350 lbs. of meat per wheeled tub,” Lopez says. “Tubs had to be washed…there is now process optimization in using less water and chemicals by not having to clean the tubs. We didn’t lay anyone off as a result of acquiring Feed the Former; we repositioned two people per shift.”

Under the old system, meat was loaded into carts from the grinder and wheeled to a column dumper to load the patty formers. “Human nature dictates you’re going to overfill the tubs and spill meat onto the floor and it becomes slippery,” Edwards says, which sometimes led to workers being injured. “There are costs associated with these accidents.”

In the 12 months prior to the FTF installation, the beef department recorded 10 instances where a worker slipped, tripped or fell around the grinding operation and the tub dumpers. In the nine months since FTF was installed, the same areas recorded just one such incident, Edwards says.

Previous meat spillage resulted in yield losses. “Looking at the numbers three months prior to the installation and comparing that to the last six months of 2013, our edible lbs. losses were down 7 percent,” Edwards adds. “And FTF is made with a sanitary design,” which ensured no additional sanitation staff was needed to clean FTF.

Regarding throughput capabilities of the FTF system, Lopez says the eight forming machines now run at a higher capacity than ever before – even when leaving the stroke speeds the same. Before, people on the floor were overfilling the forming machines causing stress in getting the meat down into the mold plates.

“There was too much meat in the hopper so the former couldn’t get the meat because there was so much weight,” Lopez says. “The resulting partially formed patties were unacceptable.”

With the current system, “We have gained efficiency because every patty is perfect almost every time,” Lopez says. “The process flow is great. We have been able to increase our stroke speeds without our packers realizing they’re packing more product than they did before. We’re making gold standard product every time. These were unexpected benefits.”

Initially, the FTF system was justified on labor optimization and the inedible percent totals. “FTF has met both of those goals we set when we started the project,” Edwards says.

Looking at the three months before the installation and the last six months of 2013, the run hours are down 12.5 percent. This means instead of running eight hours per shift, the beef-patty operation can now handle the same amount of product in seven hours.

Productivity in this part of the operation has never been higher. “Our lbs.-per-day are up 20 percent so you’re running one less hour, but producing 10 percent more product – and at times even up to 20 percent more product,” Edwards says.

“In our 20-plus year history, we easily set more than 10 daily production records in the last half of 2013 after the installation of FTF, not to mention our all-time high,” Lopez says.

“We have already produced the increased total lbs. projected for 2015 in 2013,” Edwards adds.

“We’re adding to our capacity without adding brick and mortar [due to the FTF system],” Lopez says. “If we wanted to see these numbers we’re seeing now [without the use of FTF], we would have had to add another one or two lines – that would mean knocking out walls, adding compressors, labor, etc. How do you put a dollar figure to that? To our customers, that’s assured supply. They just pick up a lot more capacity…it allows them to plan more efficiently.”

It takes only two people to control Lopez Foods’ FTF because it’s tied into the existing computerized blending processes. FTF integrates into the existing computer blending system; it’s not two systems, Edwards iterates. “With our PLC programmers and Provisur’s electrical engineers, they made that transition seamless. In ease of cleaning, a lot of sanitary design features are inherent in the designs Provisur has in place on their conveyors,” he adds.

“When the formers are on and the electronic eyes do not detect any meat when looking down onto the belt or not enough meat inside the hopper, it calls for product. As long as the formers are on, it’s calling for product when needed – and it never stops,” Lopez says.

It took two-and-a-half days to install the new system. “There was a lot of work done leading up to the installation,” Edwards says. “We pre-ran over seven miles of wiring and had it rolled up in our overhead area ready to drop down. Once we put the equipment in and we punched holes in the roof, it was pretty easy from there on.”

The installation project was scheduled over the four-day 2013 Easter weekend. “On the fourth day by 11 a.m., we were already testing the system. Electrical installation of the system was handled in-house,” Edwards says. Rigging and mechanical installation was handled by Provisur.

“Historically, we have always contracted out for installing such projects,” Lopez adds. “This time, and on other projects since then, we have relied on our team internally.”

Easy to clean, safer

Jennifer Thompson, Food Safety Quality Systems Superintendent, was sanitation manager during the installation. She finds the system easy to clean with a minimal amount of tools needed for access to all areas of the conveyors. “The conveyors open up nicely for access to belts; there are no pinch points to worry about [for worker safety and cleanability].”

Cleaning the FTF is much easier on people compared to the old process – there is no bending over to clean meat carts, scrubbing of carts, manually handling carts full of water and having to dump them and no scraping meat off wheels and tubs. And workers can clean the belts standing up because they are far more elevated compared to traditional belt systems.

The FTF system minimizes product handling. “Anytime you decrease material handling of the product, you decrease injuries,” says MaDonna Kenner, safety manager. “We no longer worry about potential injuries in getting the tubs to the column dumper. Before, we had shoulder and wrist injuries plus back sprains due to pushing and pulling heavy carts.”

Looking forward

As a testament to FTF’s success at Lopez Foods’ Oklahoma City plant, the company plans to install another FTF system in its pork sausage department in June.

“We are streamlining our entire pork side of the house,” Lopez confides. “One component of that is adding a Feed the Former system for our sausage.”

“It’s going to be used for our partially cooked sausage operation, which will feed four lines,” Edwards adds.

Meanwhile, managers of each department at the Oklahoma City plant continue to investigate new technologies. “Within the next three years, our goal is considering using inline fat analysis technology and more automated packaging technology,” Lopez says. “We also see potential for x-ray technology as it improves for beef and pork.”

Lopez doesn’t foresee fully automated food manufacturing plants in the future, but he thinks the level of plant automation will continue to increase. “The consumer has very high expectations. We have to be involved to meet those expectations. As for now, we’ll take baby steps as technology improves – but we’re willing to look at it and we’re willing to explore it.”