Aseptic technology creates new market niche – Ultra Products Co – includes related article on Land O’Lakes Inc.’s acquisition of Ultra Products Co. stake
Ultra Products produces 80 million dairy and non-dairy shelf-stable creamer cups per month for the institutional trade… and is setting its sights on further growth.
Typically, marketing and R&D are the drivers of new product development. In the case of shelf-stable creamers manufactured by Ultra Products Co. (UPC), Phoenix, it was advances in aseptic processing and packaging technology that led to their development.
Ironically, UPC’s biggest customer, McDonald’s Corp., also played a key role in the creation of the aseptic liquid coffee creamers.
In 1987, UPC’s current president and CEO Dan Flores formed Ultra Products with two partners, who are no longer with the company. Flores had been an attorney with McDonald’s for 10 years and had just begun training for a franchise when the fast-food giant asked him to help start the creamer company.
“It was perfect timing,” says Flores. “McDonald’s wanted the aseptic creamers to eliminate spoilage and free up space in its refrigerator case, and it also was developing minority-owned supplier businesses. I had worked in their legal department for 10 years. I’m Hispanic and they knew I wanted a business.”
In July 1988, the FDA accepted UPC’s low-acid aseptic filing, and the company began producing 3/8-oz. creamer cups on an aseptic thermoform/fill/seal (tf/f/s) machine at its Tempe, Ariz., plant. A second packaging machine with twice the capacity of the first unit was installed in October 1989.
Late last year, UPC started up production of a third tf/f/s machine. In addition to half & half cream, the machine runs non-dairy flavored creamers, which were introduced in ’93. Altogether, the three machines produce 200,000 cases of product or 80 million little cups per month.
Approximately 70% of UPC’s products is shipped to more than 5,000 McDonald’s restaurants in the South and West. The remainder–under its own Ultra-Cup |R^ and other labels–is sold to institutional buyers. McDonald’s assigns a 90-day shelf life to the creamers; UPC markets its own labeled product with a 150-day shelf life.
While all of UPC’s non-refrigerated coffee creamers are currently distributed to the foodservice sector, the company does have it sights on additional marketing venues.
Half & half containing 10.5% butterfat is piped to UPC from an adjacent dairy co-op. The product–separated, pasteurized and standardized–is stored in a 6,000-gal. tank at 38 |degrees^ F. From there, it is pumped to a balance tank feeding the UHT sterilization system.
A high-pressure pump (homogenizer without homogenizing valve) delivers product at 850 gal. per hour from the balance tank to a plate heat exchanger, where it is preheated to 170 |degrees^ F. Next, a vacuum deaerator removes any entrained air in the product, which then flows through a primary shell-and-tube heat exchanger.
The shell-and-tube unit heats the half & half to 250 |degrees^ F. A secondary shell-and-tube heater increases the product’s temperature to 291 |degrees^ F. After holding for two seconds to achieve commercial sterilization, product flows back through the system for regenerative cooling.
Chilled water cools the sterilized product to 40 |degrees^ F in the last section of the tubular heat exchanger. Following cooling, the product flows to an in-line 1,000-gal. sterile surge tank.
“We bought the processing system as an integrated, skid-mounted unit, so we only needed to hook up piping to surge and fillers, utilities and power, and we were ready to run,” explains Jim Olsen, chief engineer. “The unit was originally sized to run 450 gallons per hour, but we increased it to 850 gallons per hour when we installed the third packaging machine.”
Flavored non-dairy creamers are made from water, oil, sugar, flavorings and additives in a 1,000-gal. jacketed kettle and sterilized in the UHT system.
The plant normally operates around the clock for several days. However, the processing system requires cleaning every 12 hours because of fouling and product burn-on in the heat exchanger tubes. The surge tank has the capacity to maintain filling for two hours, enabling the plant to clean the tubes and resume processing without having to shut down the fillers.
The half & half and flavored creamers are not pumped following sterilization. Sterile air, produced by incinerating filtered air at 600 |degrees^ F and then cooling it to 100 |degrees^ F, is used to pneumatically convey product from the surge tank to the fillers.
UPC operates three aseptic thermoform/fill/seal machines. Supplied by Bosch, the first two machines installed at the plant use hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the cup and foil lidding material. They are very similar mechanically except for minor improvements on the second filler. The major difference is that the first machine–a Model TFA 2520–runs 700 cups per minute, while the second machine produces 1,400 cups.
During operation, the cup film (20-mil thick polystyrene laminate) is drawn into the machine from a roll. The film passes through a bath of 32% hydrogen peroxide at 176 |degrees^ F and then through a hot-air drying section. Next, it enters the forming area where the film is heated to 288 |degrees^ F and cups are thermoformed.
In the succeeding section, individual nozzles fill four rows of cups simultaneously. The TFA 2520 unit uses an individual diaphragm pump for each nozzle, whereas the TFA 4940 has one piston pump feeding all 40 nozzles. The amount filled by each nozzle can be adjusted on both machines.
“An interesting feature of both of these machines is a plate that can be mechanically locked onto the fill nozzles in case it is necessary to open the sterile zone of the machine,” reports Olsen. “The plate contains a fitting with an O-ring that seals around each fill nozzle and maintains the sterility of the product handling system. While it would still be necessary to sterilize the chamber, this eliminates the necessity of sterilizing the filling system,” explains Olsen.
Supplied by Hassia, the newest thermoform/fill/seal machine–a Model TAS 24/28–uses steam instead of hydrogen peroxide to sterilize the cup and lidding material. Another difference is that it sterilizes the cups after they have been formed. In addition, the cups are slightly thicker at 27 mils.
In the first section of the machine, the web film is preheated and drawn and formed into cups. The unit forms 35 cups in staggered rows during each cycle and produces 840 3/8-oz. containers per minute. After forming, the web of cups is sterilized by high-temperature steam at more than 300 |degrees^ F for less than one second.
Product is filled into cups by individual nozzles, after which the foil lidding is applied. The lidding material is steam sterilized and then dried as it travels through a vertical chamber into the sterile filling zone of the machine.
As with the two other machines described previously, the cups are cut out of the web as they exit the machine and are counted automatically for loading into corrugated shippers.
CONTROL & INFORMATION
Dedicated to the fillers and UHT processing system, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) monitor and regulate temperatures, flow rates, motors, and machine sequencing. Each PLC is tied into a control panel with CRT screen and keypad for operator interface.
In addition to computerized process control, UPC has installed a customized information management system throughout the plant. More than a dozen personal computers (PCs) are networked on the information system. The PCs (both 386s & 486s) on the plant floor have been industrially hardened to withstand manufacturing conditions.
With the exception of FDA-mandated documentation, the information system has eliminated most of the paperwork on the production floor. Through the networked PCs, operators can input production data and suggestions for improvements and access troubleshooting guides, maintenance logs, parts in stock, work orders, production schedules, etc. Information from all of the PCs is transmitted daily to the desktop computer in the plant manager’s office, where it is reviewed by a committee of key personnel.
Presently, UPC is installing an MRP II-type (manufacturing resource planning) software package that will incorporate the existing PC information network. In addition, the PLCs–which now act as standalone controllers–and their operator workstations will be tied into the MRP system.
TRAINING & UQM
UPC has embraced the principles of continuous improvement of its processes, people and services. Dubbed Ultra Quality Management (UQM), the program starts with training.
“Our training begins at the hiring process,” says Randon Croshaw, training manager. “We look for people with some manufacturing experience but, more importantly, we seek individuals who are team players and can lead with new ideas.”
UPC’s most structured training program involves production employees. New hirees (apprentice process controllers) are given 14 months to become process controllers. During this period, they receive extensive operations and maintenance manuals on the equipment. The apprentices are taught to type and are instructed on basic PC and workstation skills.
“As they learn a piece of equipment, they are given a series of tests–some written and some hands-on,” says Croshaw. “Salary increases are based on the acquiring of skills, not seniority.”
Process controllers are instructed on HACCP, the information management system, and FDA and state inspection requirements. They also are sent to better process control schools to become certified in low-acid processing. After passing all of the requirements, the process controllers become advanced process controllers.
“The training program for process control leaders is still being formalized,” reports Croshaw. “We’re evaluating courses in management, communication and personal development. Our goal is to bring everyone up to the team leader level, with all the required training and skills.”
LAND O’LAKES ACQUIRES 49% STAKE IN ULTRA PRODUCTS
Last month, Land O’Lakes purchased a 49% interest in the Ultra Products business. The transaction has resulted in the formation of a new company, Ultra Products Company L.L.C.
The strategic alliance with Land O’Lakes will expand manufacturing and open new marketing opportunities, according to Dan Flores, president of the new company with projected sales of $24 million in ’94. “Ultra Products Company L.L.C. is well positioned to meet the tremendous growth available for our aseptic products.”
Land O’Lakes’ interest in the new company will fall under its Country Lake Foods Division, which operates fluid milk and ice cream businesses primarily in the north central portion of the U.S.
In a separate but related action, Ultra Products Company L.L.C. has purchased the interest held by its Chicago-based joint venture partner, Cream Products, in the Ultra-Cup |R^ product line of shelf-stable dairy and non-dairy creamers. However, these products will continue to be manufactured under contract at the Chicago facility.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Business News Publishing Co.
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