On The Road To Sustainability: The South’s Sustainable Snack Maker

EP Editorial Staff | July 16, 2012


Frito-Lay’s award-winning facility in Fayetteville, TN, is turning out America’s favorite snacks with low environmental impact. 

The Frito-Lay snack plant in Fayetteville, TN, is no run-of-the-mill food processor. Not only did its Engineering and Maintenance team win the prestigious North American Maintenance Excellence (NAME) Award in 2011, the plant’s focus on sustainability makes it a standout. That focus isn’t new: It developed soon after Frito-Lay acquired the 10-year-old plant from Eagle Snacks in 1996, and decided to lay the groundwork for a world-class operation.

The Dallas-based parent company saw the value of going green as a way to reduce the extraordinary appetite snack-food manufacturing has for water (to prepare key food ingredients and wash down equipment) and energy (to heat ovens and fryers). Today, the Fayetteville operation’s seven snack-food product lines are produced and packaged far more efficiently than they were just a few years ago, thanks to an experienced, motivated plant team and a parent company that supports sustainability investment as strongly as it does productivity improvement. 


The NAME Award-winning Fayetteville, TN, Maintenance crew includes (left to right): Roy Smithson, Jason Elliott, Elaine McGarry, Bruce Morehead, Mike Thomas, Chris Fowler, Jason Gower, John Loyd, Tim Towry and Richard Cole.

The mission of the 350,000-sq.-ft. Fayetteville facility and its 400 employees is to produce Frito-Lay’s familiar line of snack products—Lay’s Potato Chips, Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos, Munchos—and a new product, Tostitos Artisan Recipe, for customers in five southern states. Sales and distribution of the plant’s 110 million pounds of annual snack-food output are handled entirely by company salesmen/drivers who work from an on-site 110,000-sq.-ft warehouse and operate part of the nation’s fourth-largest truck fleet. Fayetteville’s rural location, near Tennessee’s southern border with Alabama, serves the facility’s unending demand for corn (with potatoes coming from out of state) and plays a role in its quest for self-sufficiency through sustainability. 

Ensuring Production Of Your Favorite Snacks

The recipes for America’s favorite snack foods are deceptively simple: Take potatoes or corn, shape as desired, fry or bake, add seasoning, and voila, you have a salty or spicy treat. But, of course, there’s much more to consistently producing these foods on a large scale and in unique shapes, textures and flavors. At Frito-Lay, for example, “seasoning” plays a big role in product distinction. This general term describes various proprietary mixes of salt, seasonings and other flavors—including cheese—that contribute to the unique taste of each product. Also, the “dwell time” each product spends in a fryer or oven has been carefully established (and kept secret) to create specific levels of product crunch. All of these elements receive constant scrutiny to ensure uniform quality, package content and, importantly, the flavor customers recognize and expect each time they open a bag. 

The Fayetteville Frito-Lay facility uses the latest high-tech equipment to make its products–in all of their iterations—quickly and efficiently. This equipment simplifies manufacturing and packaging, and out-produces even slightly older counterparts. It also uses less energy and requires less operator involvement. But all of these factors ask more of Fayetteville’s NAME-award-winning maintenance team. They don’t just keep the plant’s sophisticated equipment online, they do so amidst the withering effects of regular washdowns and salt-infused plant air. It’s safe to say that without this talented group, you wouldn’t have your chips, something that could be a big disappointment any time, but especially during football season. That, according to the Fayetteville, TN, team, is their busiest time of year.

Managing water, energy and reliability 
The Fayetteville plant’s close proximity to open land, for example, provides an elegant way to dispose of some of its wastewater. “We send our potato wash water to two different treatment facilities here on site,” says Richard Cole, Director of Engineering and Maintenance. “Then it’s pumped to our land application, which is a 1000-acre farm with a hay crop” (that’s operated by a farmer on contract with Frito-Lay). Before delivery to the farm, the water is also cleaned of dirt particles, potato scraps and the starch that comes off potatoes in their initial washing and the washdowns of the peeler units. The scraps are sold to a dog-food manufacturer, and the starch—some 3 million pounds of it annually—is dried with the facility’s stack heat and sold for use in paper production. 


Finished Doritos head to packaging.

“We use what we call a tsunami system to recover all our water,” says Jason Gower, Maintenance Manager. “Before we installed this system, we were running about 580,000 gallons of water daily. Now we average about 400,000 gallons of water a day.” The system relies on a chemical to break down bacteria in the water “so we can recycle that water and still be in compliance with the food environment,” says Cole. The chemical, created specifically for use with potato water, raised questions with regard to its sustainability, but the team deemed its use worthwhile because it opened the door to a huge reduction in water use. Cole adds that use of the tsunami system doesn’t enhance company profits, but its use “is the green thing to do.”

“The green thing to do” takes the Fayetteville team in interesting directions. In the hopes of finding a less-expensive, more sustainable water source, for example, the plant had several test wells drilled on-site. It also looked into running a pipe to a nearby river. While these tactics have proven impractical so far, and thus kept the plant a customer of the local utility, they may be revisited. 

The flood of water coursing through the Fayetteville plant each day is matched only by its consumption of natural gas—which heats ovens and/or fryers for each product line. With its three-shift operation, the plant consumes tens of millions of BTUs of natural gas per day, but keeps this amount in check with several high-tech investments. 

“One of our big wins here is the use of recovered heat,” says Gower, adding that the natural-gas-fired Fayetteville plant is one of Frito-Lay’s top performers in this regard. “Heat-recovery equipment we’ve installed includes our potato-chip line where we use stack-recovered heat. We also heat the building hot water with this, and use it for our corn cook system, for starch, for boiler makeup water and for pre-heat. We also have a zero-gas heat exchanger, which was developed by Frito-Lay, where we use all of our recovered heat from our Artisan-product ovens to preheat all of our oil.” On the starch-recovery line, says Gower, natural-gas usage “went from 1.5 million BTUs per hour to zero by pulling heat off our potato-chip heat exchanger. Each year for the last seven or eight years,” he adds, “we’ve installed some type of heat-recovery system.”

The team at Fayetteville both tracks and guides energy use with its “run right wall”—a dashboard that tracks energy performance across all plant sectors, including production equipment and the building-management system. “We review all of our natural gas and water performance at every shift, every day,” says Gower, “so if something gets out of line, it’s caught immediately, versus a month down the road.”

At Fayetteville, equipment reliability is also considered part of the plant’s overall sustainability initiative. “Our definition of sustainability includes maintenance and maximizing our equipment,” says Cole. “This is reliability and uptime or what we call ‘true efficiency.’ From my standpoint, I see sustainability driven if we can ensure that our equipment is running when it’s supposed to, and that we’re running the throughputs we want to run. When we produce more pounds of output in a shorter period, our energy usage goes down. And that’s what we’ve done.” 

In the last decade, the plant increased its hourly output by an average of 20%, says Cole, due to new equipment and superior maintenance techniques. “And as we have improved our reliability, we’ve cut downtime, from 7 to 8% of the time to only 4% on Fritos, Doritos and some of our other big products.” 

Reliability efforts are guided by Packaging Mechanic Roy Smithson, who makes regular use of ultrasonic and ultrasound inspections to detect air and water leaks and electrical problems, as well as monitor bearings and gearboxes throughout the plant. Smithson also relies on a weekly program that requires a mechanic to search for leaks in the compressed air system. Responsible for 25% of the plant’s energy costs, compressed air would comprise a major energy drain if leaks were not addressed in a timely fashion. The program has helped the plant shift from using its 500-hp compressed air unit for day-to-day operation to its 300-hp unit for the same purpose. A plan is also in place that allows for quick switches to the most efficient compressor as loads change. 

The Fayetteville team further reduced its energy use when it invited a team from motor manufacturer Baldor to make recommendations regarding installation of high-efficiency motors. This approach is typical of Fayetteville’s pursuit of energy-savings and sustainability. “We like to partner with experts like our vendors, and leverage their expertise,” says Cole. “They come into our facility, identify opportunities and provide a package of how they can help us save money and be more sustainable.” Visitors also include the utilities that operate in the Fayetteville area and the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) energy conglomerate.

0712otrts4The thin plastic material used in Frito-Lay product packaging is preferred for its strength and ability to extend product shelf life. This “film” arrives at the plant in pre-printed rolls.And everything else 
“We’re always driving the big items and the small items,” says Cole of the plant’s wide-reaching sustainability efforts. “Smaller” issues might include the plastic bottles and alu-minum cans it recycles from the cafeteria, as well as a plan being considered to compost cafeteria waste. These efforts contribute to Fayetteville’s goal to reach zero-landfill status. The plant’s participation in local Adopt-a-Highway and Adopt-a River programs contributes to its status as a good neighbor, as does the fact it donates both equipment and mechanics’ time to local recycling centers.

Other issues—like those involving packaging waste—are clearly not small, but might have been considered outside the plant’s sustainability efforts under different management. With 110 million pounds of snack food leaving the plant each year, its post-production footprint is significant. This massive output not only requires a significant amount of plastic-based packaging, but thousands of cardboard boxes per week to transport packaged foods to retail. 

The packaging that Frito-Lay uses for its products is a thin plastic material (referred to as “film”) that arrives on pre-printed rolls. Favored for its ability to extend product shelf life, it can present a recycling challenge for consumers. The plant, however, is working to both ensure its own film waste is recycled and that at least some post-consumer bags are, too. Film waste from the plant, for example, is made into pellets for repurposing. New uses (manufactured offsite) include backpacks, which the company uses for promotional purposes, as well as handbags and other products. The plant also sponsors a program at local schools where students are encouraged to place their empty Frito-Lay snack packages into boxes provided by the plant. The plant collects and recycles the used bags, and hosts an end-of-year party for the school that turns in the most bags. Party snacks, of course, are provided free by Fayetteville.

Cardboard also presents a challenge for the plant—but more because of its high volume than its recyclability. Each of the hundreds of thousands of boxes the plant handles yearly is tracked, says Cole, “so we know how many trips each makes, and when we send them to the distributor or [retail] location. We want to make sure these boxes come back. And because we’re our own distribution center and our drivers are our salesforce,” he says, “they’re with the program. They stock the shelves and are sure to bring the boxes back.” After seven or eight round trips from factory to retailer, he says, a box is removed from service and becomes part of the more than 3 million pounds of cardboard the plant recycles annually. 

Even the recycling process itself receives close scrutiny. “We keep the cardboard in straight bales and make sure it goes right to the mill that processes it so it’s not double-handled,” notes Jonathan Sumner, Third-Shift Maintenance Resource. Additionally, a horizontal baler was recently installed at Fayetteville to ensure the operation is making it to a 40,000-pound trailer load each time, which saves fuel. Sumner points to other improvement efforts as well, including switching the fleet to synthetic oil (which lasts a lot longer) and installing curtains under the trailers to improve fuel efficiency. The company also monitors drivers’ fuel con-sumption. Says Sumner, “They have a goal to hit with their trucks, and if they don’t hit that, they have a coaching session.” 

What’s next?
“From a sustainability standpoint, our next goal is simply continuous improvement,” says Cole. “It’s similar to what we did with NAME: We wanted a measuring stick to know where we stand, and if we’re not at world-class level, what do we have to do to get there?” According to him, the next specific focus will be to ensure the plant’s equipment runs at the standard it’s designed for. “So if it’s set to run at 5000 pounds per hour,” he says, “it will always run at this standard.” 

Packaging, of course, must match this level of output, and thanks to the recent installation of several automated packaging lines, this department is prepared to do so. The significantly faster, fully automated equipment in Fayetteville requires no operators and allows any bag size to run on any machine, without a set-up in between. Before, specific bag sizes required their own lines, which meant operator involvement and careful scheduling to minimize set-up times. 

With no foreseeable slack in snack-food demand, Frito-Lay’s investment in its high-performing Fayetteville facility is expected to continue. Next up is a warehouse expansion that will enlarge and enhance the current facility to “rival any UPS or FedEx type of operation,” says Cole of the project, details of which the company had not officially announced when this article went to press. Ground was broken in May, with start-up scheduled for 2014. 

As automation reduces the need for operators, the company’s plan is to shift those displaced by automation to the expanded warehouse. It will also continue its investment in training to ensure that everyone has ample opportunity to improve and move up. It currently provides some 36 different training programs throughout the year for the engineering and maintenance team alone, most of which are two-week classes held off-site. The plant also holds regular “lunch and learn” programs where vendors and other experts are invited in to educate workers in short sessions. 

Of the many world-class efforts underway in Fayetteville, Cole regards this level of commitment to its workers a top reason for the plant’s successes. “If you don’t provide that development and education,” he explains, “you can’t improve your sustainability and reliability. You cannot grow. The technology will outgrow you faster than you can keep up with.” And while he knows Fayetteville doesn’t need additional awards to underscore its successes, he says that if the decision is made to pursue another “and if we put it before this group, I know we’d get there.” MT

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on the NAME Award, go to www.nameaward.com. 



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