When Tyson Foods purchased Cargill’s poultry processing plant in Vienna, Georgia, in 1995, nobody could have predicted the significance the plant would play in the company’s strategy 21 years later. In the 1990s, poultry processing was very much a commodity-focused business and margins were paper thin with an emphasis on sales of whole birds. In 2015, when the company announced plans to invest $110 million to convert the facility to a tray-pack operation, it signaled a shift in how chicken is purchased and consumed in 2015 as well as in the future.
Bill Ricken, vice president of operations, oversees all of Tyson’s raw poultry operations, which currently is comprised of 11 plants and represents about 40 percent of the company’s overall poultry business. A longtime Tyson employee, he remembers well when Tyson set up shop in Vienna.
“I was here on the day we bought it,” says Ricken, who, as a DVM, was then in charge of live production and would later be promoted to assistant complex manager in Vienna prior to moving to Temperanceville, Virginia, to work as its complex manager.
In the mid-1990s, Tyson operated three plants and a live production facility in the region surrounding Vienna.
“It was a big complex,” Ricken says. “Back then it killed 1.75 million [chickens] per year.”
For years, leading up to the day the renovation began, the complex was supplied with bulk product from Tyson’s deboning facility in Buena Vista, Georgia, about 50 miles west of Vienna and its Dawson, Georgia-based plant. Ricken admits, finding the ideal product mix was a difficult-to-solve puzzle when the company purchased the plant and it continued during his five years working there. This challenge created efficiency hurdles. While the company had a contract to supply a large burger chain with poultry products from the Vienna plant before the renovation, the product mix and demand for poultry at retail and foodservice was evolving.
Meanwhile, Ricken says, “The fresh business side was in growth mode, so we saw an opportunity to convert this [plant] over to a tray-pack facility.”
That decision was carefully considered and once the commitment was made to the massive project, a flurry of activity ensued. Ground was broken in January 2015 and the first chicken was killed on June 1 at the flipped plant. Ricken calls it a “very fast-track project,” that was unprecedented for Tyson in terms of size and scope.
“The conversion required armies of engineers, vendors, electricians and millwrights,” Ricken says, with Primus carrying the ball as the general contractor. At one point, that army included more than 325 electricians working at the complex.
“We shut down the entire plant for one month, gutted it, added 100,000 sq. ft. and put it back together,” Ricken says.
During that month, when the plant was closed and undergoing an extreme makeover, Steve Wilson, complex manager and his management team were simultaneously building a new staff. Recruiting and hiring 700 new team members in a short period of time was almost as daunting as the construction project. Wilson points out that for the first three months of the project, the plant remained open for business. But at the end of March, the facility had to be shut down and then the clock was running in a race to get it back on line. He adds that as part of the shutdown, the 700 employees of the plant at the time were retained and paid full wages.
“We wanted to have them on the payroll when we fired the plant back up, but we also felt it was the right thing to do,” Wilson says.
“During our downtime we hired seven groups of 100 people,” Wilson says, and each group went through a weeklong orientation followed by Georgia’s Quick Start program, which also lasted one week and was held at Southwest Georgia Technology College.
“It helped us teach them the basics of the job, like how to pack, how to style and worked with them on basic math skills they would need to work on the processing line,” Wilson says. “Within eight weeks we had our 700 people,” drawing workers from three surrounding counties to fill positions for two shifts per day, five days per week.
Choreographing the massive transformation was daunting. Ricken says operating in such a tight window meant moving swiftly.
“We had to make some snap decisions,” he says. “We started digging dirt in January and we were running second processing in May.”
And by June 1, the plant was slaughtering and processing, albeit not at full capacity. After shutting down operations completely, the plant was partly reopened only for second processing. “We actually processed birds at Buena Vista and brought the WOGs (birds without giblets) over here and ran those through second processing, very slowly to get everybody ramped in through the month of May.”
And when considering lead time on equipment and doubling the size of refrigeration and then scheduling the litany of vendors to install all of the new equipment, Ricken categorizes the project as a massive undertaking in a very short amount of time, which he says was nothing short of a “raging success.”
“I’m not sure it’s ever been done before,” Ricken says.
As trailers and pallets of equipment and construction supplies arrived at the plant, the parking lot and front yard of the facility was transformed to an open-air staging area. To accommodate an all-tray-packing operation, the additional square footage was divided equally between the evisceration operations and labeling. “We added at the front and the back and everything in between got gutted and put back,” Ricken says, adding that even a year later, several loose ends of the project are still being “buttoned up.”
The $110 million project included installing an additional extensive refrigeration system, including holding coolers and staging coolers, an eight-bay shipping dock, an entire labeling department and an expanded evisceration operation.
“This was a plant that [previously] generated product that went out in bulk,” Ricken says, “and to convert it to tray-pack we needed to be able to weigh-price-label products.”
The company did reuse three dual cone lines and added two more to it as well as two cut-up lines. Flexibility is designed into the plant, which Ricken says is one of its most important attributes. The expansion pushed the footprint at the plant to nearly 250,000 sq. ft.
Ahead of the official announcement of the project, engineering and purchasing officials with Tyson were quietly conferring with key supplier partners to give them the heads up that one of the largest single renovation projects in recent history was soon going to be a reality.
“If we wouldn’t have had that rolling start, we never could have done it,” Ricken says.
Partnering with Primus Builders as the general contractor was a decision made easier based on Tyson working with the company on other expansions.
“The preference was to use Primus,” Ricken says, “due to past history and successes we had with them in other projects.”
Each day, multiple meetings between Tyson’s site manager and Primus project officials took place to ensure the project was on track. “Everyone had to be in lockstep on a daily basis,” Ricken says.
Most of the supplier partners on the Vienna project were selected based on the success of equipment installed at Tyson’s other plants. As an example, in the evisceration part of the expansion, Marel was the supplier partner.
“They helped us lay in that drawing and all the equipment that goes with it. We knew we wanted that system based on prior experience and we built the building to accommodate that.”
The transformation included upgrading from two New Line Speed (NELS) Inspection systems to high-speed evisceration lines, which increased the chain speed allowing production to go from 91 birds per minute to 140.
“We’ve got all the latest and greatest equipment in our hang-kill-pick-evisceration system,” Ricken says. Modern technology like hooded scalders in the picking room make the facility and process in the evisceration area much cleaner and almost odorless compared to many older, traditional poultry plants.
Ricken has been involved in managing operations at tray-pack plants for 22 years and says in that business segment there is historically a distinct bell curve associated with demand for poultry parts that is seasonal, an ebb and flow that is well known to most large scale fresh poultry companies. Traditionally, peak season is around July 4 followed by upticks in demand just before and after Labor Day and Memorial Day.
“That is no longer the case,” Wilson says, especially now that the revamped plant is up and running. “We are busy all the time now.”
The Vienna plant produces between 250 and 275 SKUs, compared to about 10 before the conversion to tray-pack.
Before the new, more diverse product mix was introduced, the limited variety was good and bad, Wilson says. “It was the same thing every day,” he says, and the workers knew what to do. “Today, they’ve got to be more flexible. What I’m doing today I’m probably not going to be doing the same product mix tomorrow.”
Ricken points out the sales of cut-up poultry parts have overtaken demand for split breasts and whole birds at retail, as is evident in the product mix consumers can see in the meat cases at grocery stores. Delivering on that trend and designating operations, like Vienna, that are dedicated to producing parts for retail customers is more efficient and fulfills customers’ always-evolving demand.
Achieving the ability and flexibility to deliver the right product mix required plenty of attention in the packing and deboning part of the plant. Already equipped with cut-up lines from a previous investment about a year ago, the renovation required adding two additional lines to the original configuration.
To upgrade the product mix, poultry is cut up, marinated and deboned. “So our plans were designed around a lot of flexibility that allowed for a lot of cut-up,” Ricken says.
Food safety interventions such as new chillers were incorporated to address new US Dept. of Agriculture regulations to require reduction of pathogens on poultry parts.
“This is our seventh tray-pack plant so we adopted all of the best ideas from the six we already operate and applied those ideas to the plant we’ve built here,” Ricken says.
The latest plant was designed to optimize flexibility, product mix, worker safety, food safety and productivity.
Since becoming operational, the new plant has impacted Tyson’s poultry business as a whole.
“It sent ripples throughout the whole group,” Ricken says, “in a good way.” However, while the company was busy hiring 700 workers at its Vienna facility, in late March Tyson announced it would close its aging Buena Vista plant and eliminate a shift at its Dawson plant, affecting about 260 workers.
Consolidating operations allows the company to service retail customers located in markets like Atlanta and Florida. Other plants were considered for the conversion but Vienna made the most sense, due in part to its proximity to a major highway and easy access to more retailers in the Southeast and along the East Coast.
“We needed more capacity,” he says. “We couldn’t bring Vienna online quick enough.”
Barry Vincent was hired by Ricken in 1998 at Vienna. After stints at other Tyson Foods plants, Vincent’s role today is considerably different than his initial years at the plant. He says the most challenging adjustment made after the renovation was shifting gears to adjust to the new, more robust product mix.
When considering just breast meat alone, Vincent points out, “it might be marinated, non-marinated, net weight, catch weight…so something as simple as breast meat becomes complicated real fast.
“This is a much more complicated product mix than what we had,” says Vincent, who also weathered the storm during the construction process. Keeping daily production going while aggressively hiring hundreds of workers were only some of the challenges associated with the project. Not only did the plant require about 700 new hires, but filling positions for maintenance workers and skilled labor to work in the technology-rich plant made the task even more challenging.
The harvest-and-chill approach of the previous era’s plants, including Vienna, are gone and maintaining a labor pool with the specialized technical skills needed to oversee the newly installed control panels and systems will be an ongoing challenge, Vincent says.
The plant used to be based on an on-off switch and a start-stop button, he says, but today the facility is wired with touchscreen control systems to monitor production and maintenance of all of the systems, which maximizes productivity and efficiency in real time.
Another benefit of the newly designed facility is its automation. Automation is evident beginning with the giblet capture in the evisceration area. Additionally, the installation of Ishida scales automates the sorting, dropping and dumping of products to the appropriate lines. At Vienna, every chicken is graded upstream using visioning technology before they are sorted by weight and automatically dropped into trays.
“That’s an automated process and that helps keep the flow on the line going as well,” Ricken says, and this process creates a cadence in the production at the new operation.
Two Foodmate automated deboning systems is another upgrade designed to streamline operations at Vienna. Also, an Ossid overwrapping and sealing technology was something Tyson officials were already familiar with. Equipment for shipping and labeling was also based on what was successful at other Tyson plants.
“We had a prior design we knew we wanted to go with,” Ricken says.
In addition to hiring new employees, training was also a priority at the plant. Both new and existing employees had to be trained to get up to speed on the new tray-pack operation. For the tenured workers, the biggest change was learning to adapt to the new technology. In the picking room for example, the scalders have not only been upgraded, but there is now a touchscreen PLC to monitor and control the scalding equipment.
Wilson points out that the upgrades, in the picking room for example, far exceed most of the poultry operations in the industry. “You couldn’t ask for a better picking room,” Wilson says. “It’s nice, neat and clean.”.
Ricken says training workers to use more sophisticated equipment and adding SKUs was a challenge that was met.
“These guys have done a great job handling the learning curve, it truly has been a phenomenal success,” Ricken says. “Now it’s all about refining the process and training.”
Transitioning from one product to another is something Ricken is confident Vienna will soon be accomplishing seamlessly, similar to Tyson’s other facilities. “It takes a little more thought here just because they’ve only been doing it for a bit over six months.”