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Costco Gets to the Meat of the Problem

Fri, 10/10/2003 - 10:28am
Costco Wholesale Corporation utilizes Thermo Electron's Autocheck 9000plus checkweigher to streamline meat packing plant operations
Costco Wholesale Industries, a division of the Costco Wholesale Corporation, operates manufacturing businesses, including special food packaging, optical laboratories, meat processing and jewelry distribution. These businesses, as with Costco Wholesale warehouses, have a goal of providing members with the highest caliber products at the lowest prices. Costco's meat processing facilities in particular have a tradition of offering quality ground beef product at a bulk rate. In order to uphold its reputation, Costco is constantly looking for ways to improve productivity and quality safely and effectively, allowing for a tighter operation and decreased overhead.

It is this pursuit of improved internal operations and product yield that led Costco's Tracy, California based meat packaging plant to seek a more efficient way to package its ground beef product. The 80,000 square foot facility was packaging its hamburgers by sealing penny pack bags with aluminum clips. Packaging using aluminum clips posed several problems. First, there was physical strain on the employees along the conveyer line as they worked to keep pace with the rate of production. Applying aluminum clips to each bag was ergonomically unfriendly. Also, it was becoming more difficult to consistently increase productivity. In addition to those problems, the bags were not consumer friendly with aluminum clips. The average consumer would cut the clip and tail off the bag when initially opening, thus leaving a bag with little to no plastic left to reseal it with, compromising product freshness and life. The plant felt that switching to a twist tie and hot air sealed bag would solve their production and consumer problems.

"We felt that the initial clipping process was putting more of strain on our people than we were willing to live with," said Liam Nestler, Plant Manager. "In addition, we try to supply our customers with the best product available and felt that the aluminum tie forced the user to cut the end of the bag, limiting product life and freshness," continued Neslter.

While the twist tier was a more consumer friendly solution, Costco anticipated they would need to purchase a checkweigher to compliment the twist tier system to monitor the patty count in the bag and alert packers who were under/over packing due to the higher speeds and less handling time of the bag. One of the challenges facing Costco was their ability to weigh their stacked bag of patties coming across the facility's conveyer system while limiting package roll and still obtain an accurate weight in order to reject bags with patty counts under or over the number for that product. The challenge was to come up with a conveyor system that could handle the transfer of a penny (slug) pack from an accumulating transfer conveyor across the checkweigher weigh table and then onto a pack off conveyor. To accomplish this Costco sought out Thermo Electron to come up with a unique set of conveyors that handle the bag seamlessly.

"We felt that by automating the closure process of the bags and taking people off the processing line, we would have to be constantly rerouting bags of meat that were either over or under our target weight unless we came up with a way to monitor the packaging in real time, rejecting over and under bags and alerting packers to the problem," stated Nestler. "We wanted to keep the consumer friendly bag while still maintaining a consistent product." "When you are running a conveyer at the speeds we are, you require a checkweigher that can monitor your package weight and also be able to react fast enough to reject mispacked bags and alert operators/packers. Otherwise you end up with a pack off line full of mispacked bags," continued Nestler.

The facility's staff began its search for a checkweigher that could rectify the weight concerns while still accommodating Costco's internal space and wash down requirements. Thermo Electron offered its Autocheck 9000plus Checkweigher. Additionally, Thermo Electron could also build Costco a custom conveyer system across the weigh table. Thermo Electron designed a custom conveyor system utilizing three high-speed conveyors and the electronic internal processing system to provide basic and advanced production statistics to the facility's PLC unit. The fully automated system would allow Costco's meat packaging facility to improve its product flow, increase efficiency and minimize giveaway.

"With the addition of the checkweigher we are now able to pull incorrect weighted bags off the production line before they are case packed," continued Nestler. "This gives us the ability to quickly repackage the bags of meat to the correct weight, greatly limiting our repack time."

Thermo Electron's Autocheck 9000plus Checkweigher is a 32 bit processor system, integral PC micro-controller, that allows end-users to handle weighting, control and reject functions at line speeds of up to 700 packages per minute.

Due to the success that Costco had with it's initial installation of Thermo Electron's Autocheck 9000plus it decided to install additional checkweighers on the out feeds of their chub machines. One of Costco's goals in bringing on the Thermo Electron units was to control the facility's give away on its ten and one pound hamburger chubs. The plant wanted a system that could fill the chubs utilizing a Henry and Son AC 30 screw pump, a meat pump that has high volume capacity with precise weight control.

One of the challenges facing the plant was that traditionally the system operator had to constantly fine-tune the speed of the machine to keep the weights on target, as not to short the warehouses and customers. The facility had been running on the heavy side, giving away up to a quarter of a pound on a ten-pound chub. Costco again turned to Thermo to help them modify their processing.

"We required a unit that had the ability to weigh ten pound chubs accurately to 1/100th of a pound at 50 per minute and provide a feedback signal to a Programmable Logic Computer (PLC). In addition we wanted to capture critical information and make it available to our production staff," states Nestler. "Thermo Electron's Autocheck has the ability to track trend changes in weight and adjust weight limits which enables us to weigh every chub, keep track of how many chubs have run, and how many rejects we had for our internal processing data."

Costco found that by implementing a machine that allowed them to pull and capture real time production line data they dramatically improved product flow. The Autocheck's ability to control filler adjustments and record external events gave Costco the tools to maximize its flow of operation.

"From a processing standpoint, the Thermo Electron checkweighers got us to a point where we are processing 45 ten pound chubs per minute and keeping a shrink rate that was greatly improved as compared to our historical number," explains Nestler. "We also have the ability to receive real-time production stats giving us the ability to react quickly to changes in weights, flow levels and proportioning. In addition this allows us to monitor 110 one pound chubs per minute (when doing one pounders) while keeping the shrink rate to very acceptable levels by feeding back control signals to the filler, enabling us to make filling adjustments and proportioning changes faster."

In an industry like meat processing, product integrity, process control, and safety are critical. Costco has taken the necessary steps to stay ahead of the curve by choosing a fully automated processing system. By switching to a checkweighing system that allows them to control up to five weight zones and automate self-diagnostics, Costco's meat packaging plant has been able to take on an overall greater value-adding role.

"Thermo Electron's checkweigher allowed us to fully automate our packaging process. We run a much closer control weight," said Nestler.

Costco's objectives in switching to automated checkweighing technology were clear: to improve processing flow and control and reduce employee strain.

"Without installing these automated checkweighing systems, achieving our processing goals would have been very difficult," explains Nestler. "The systems are exceeding our expectations."

As the demand for safer and higher-quality food products increases, Costco Wholesale Corporation shows why they are raising the bar in bringing the highest value and quality to their customers.

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