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Plumrose Council Bluffs: Lean, mean and fully automated! Automating an entire raw meat cooking and packaging plant saves water, cuts energy usage and gets the product perfect the first time—without rework. By Wayne Labs, Senior Technical Editor

Upon visiting Plumrose’s Council Bluffs, IA operation, you won’t find fields of solar-cell arrays, bio-digesters, wind farms and the like. What you will find is an exceptionally well-constructed plant and fully automated processes run by a process control system that perfects product quality and saves energy. The entire process itself produces only a miniscule amount of waste and has little environmental impact on the community.

The LEED silver-certified facility was not only constructed with sustainability in mind, sustainability can be found everywhere you look—in the building and the automated processes. From the time raw turkey and ham come in the door to the time it goes out the door as cooked, sliced lunch meat, the product remains untouched by human hands. There is little waste—in product, electricity, water or natural gas—thanks to the exceptionally clean and efficient design of the plant and the plant-wide automation system.

Plumrose USA has several locations in the US and makes several meat products including sliced deli meats, bacon, barbecue items and ribs. The company owns and operates all its plants, makes its own brand of products and manufactures private label brands for major retailers.

But the 75-year-old company was in a bit of a pickle, perhaps a sweet one: keeping up with the insatiable consumer demand for its lunch meat products. “We had been battling to keep up with demand for some time, and our employees continued to show great flexibility by working weekends to process orders and service our customers,” says CEO David Schanzer. “Therefore, we had no doubt investing in a new, modern facility was the best solution to safeguard the future of our business. The state-of-the-art highly sustainable production plant has the ability to efficiently deliver the highest-quality, safest sliced lunch meat in the industry today. It will improve competitiveness, product quality and reputation, and support the company’s business plan for future growth.”

Plumrose USA contracted with ONEsource Facility Solutions of Atlanta, GA to complete the new facility, which in terms of its automation, could practically be considered a “lights-out” plant. ONEsource used Epsten Group, also located in Atlanta, as its LEED consultant and commissioning agent. Epsten Group not only set up the LEED certification with the USGBC, it also reviewed all LEED credits for accuracy, gave advice on how to accomplish certain thresholds and served as the commissioning agent for all equipment.

While LEED silver certification is, of course, an important milestone, Plumrose and ONEsource also collaborated to design and build the plant in 13 months to meet the production needs of Plumrose’s customers. In their planning, the two partners outlined four primary objectives:

1. Employee safety and welfare

2. Food safety

3. Product quality and consistency

4. Environmental responsibility and energy savings.


Contrasting old and new

Less than half a mile down 23rd Avenue, Plumrose USA has an older plant that uses more conventional equipment. Its water and energy savings are less than those of the new facility, which occupies approximately the same footprint of about 135,000 sq. ft. According to Freddy Mortensen, senior vice president, production, only 35 percent of the equipment at the older plant saves energy and/or water, while all the new plant’s equipment saves energy and water.

At the older plant, curing, massaging and premixing—and another massaging step—involves several manual steps, and every vat had to be washed by hand using 25 gallons each, adding up to 1.6 million gallons of hot water per year plus the energy to heat it. This step was eliminated in the new plant, producing big energy savings. In addition, because the meat is cooked in casings made in the new facility, there is miniscule waste (0.1 percent and less) going down the drain, simply “because we don’t have anything left over,” explains Mortensen.


Energy/utility saving results

While the plant is connected to a 42-in. sanitary sewer main, the idea was to use it primarily for just that—sanitary waste—and keep as much process and wash water out of the public system as possible. The facility treats and reuses all the water used in its thermal cooking/chilling process. “That’s where you see savings in the use of water, natural gas, etc.,” says Garland Smith, LEED manager/project manager, ONEsource. The water is passed through multiple levels of filters and sterilized with a UV light system. Using this process qualifies the plant for a water reuse program, which allows the plant to achieve an 80 percent reduction in the amount of water used per week. “Very little water goes to the POTW,” adds Smith.

By changing the processing methods, Plumrose has been able to decrease overall utility usage while dramatically reducing labor. For example, there have been reductions in the use of clean hot and cold water and the discharge of wastewater. The proprietary processes have reduced the standard usage of water by nearly 13 million gallons per year. This reduction in usage equates to a similar reduction in wastewater discharge. Plus, the reduction in hot water generation reduces the natural gas consumption required to heat water by nearly 20,000 MBtu per year.

Meat is pumped wherever possible in the processing area. (A single conveyor collecting meat from several massagers in line is one of the few places where this isn’t done.) In addition, all ingredients are pumped into the mixing tanks and then pumped out into the injector. “That’s sustainability because we save a lot of water,” says Mortensen. “There’s no packing.” Mortensen points to a large tank of a key ingredient that is maintained at 102°F so it can be easily pumped. One of the three main ingredients used in the process, it’s too expensive to waste by not warming it to an optimal pumping temperature.

To show LEED compliance, the project has demonstrated savings in electrical energy consumption by using POLAR PM20000 massagers, which operate for much shorter periods of time, while producing the same work of typical massagers used at similar facilities. The building uses high-efficiency lighting—both fluorescent and LED— throughout the plant and offices. In addition, areas that are not regularly occupied, as well as all offices, use motion sensors to enable the lights to be turned off when there is no activity.

The cooking/chilling operation was designed to be efficient because the equipment itself has leapfrogged older technologies. For example, with the Armor Inox system, the process water usage is reduced from five uses a week to one use per week, operating the same process load and generating the output as a baseline system. In addition to electrical consumption reduction, the massagers do not use water and, therefore, save energy due to reduced hot water usage when compared to a typical system. All the cooking water is reused in this facility by storing the hot water in outside tanks when the cooking cycle is complete and reusing it for subsequent batches.

Besides picking the latest generation of process equipment, several other methods were employed to reduce the energy required to heat and cool the building. Some of these include:

• Improved building envelope

• Exhaust air energy recovery

• Occupancy sensors (already described)

• High-efficiency air conditioners with a cooling efficiency of 11.5-15.0 SEER and heating efficiency of 9.3-10.2 HSPF

• High-efficiency hot water boiler (EFF of 92 percent).

At the same time, the refrigeration system was designed for peak efficiency and a proper match to the load. The refrigeration system consists of five Vilter screw compressors (one of which is a backup) and two evaporative condensers. The efficiencies of the compressors are 5.04 COP and 3.38 COP. In addition, the evaporative condensers have VFD speed controls.


Site issues

Prior to choosing a site, Plumrose and ONEsource worked out an overall process design to accommodate the latest energy-savings process equipment. The original design called for an “L” shape floor plan (one 90° bend) in which there would be two entirely separated sections—one for the raw and cooking phases and another for the slicing and packaging areas. After evaluating many sites in terms of their proximity to raw materials, sustainable practices and utility costs, Plumrose selected one near its older facility in Council Bluffs.

However, the site was not without issues. Originally it was developed as two individual building lots with an existing, common 42-in. sanitary sewer main, effectively dividing the site in half. In addition, the site consisted of sandy soil with a relatively high water table, a problem since the shallow Missouri River is close by and tends to overflow easily. To solve these problems, the sanitary sewer had to be rerouted, requiring the trench to be dewatered. Also, the building pad had to be stabilized and bridged prior to filling it to design elevation. Stone geopiers were installed to stabilize the building pad and tank farm foundation slab to carry the high weight of process equipment and product.

Plumrose and ONEsource decided to modify the building’s L-shape to a U-shape to better conform to the site. This involved an additional 90° bend, but did not affect the process flow. The main entrance and offices are located at the junction of the two sections. While there are separate employee entrances for both sides, visitors can enter the raw side by going past the main desk to the right. The entrance to the slicing/packaging side is to the left.

This design was not without purpose, according to Mortensen. The raw/cooking side (marked by blue striping on the walls) and slicing/packaging (marked by red striping) are completely separated, have separate airflows and allow only designated employees to enter the appropriate side. An employee’s badge from the raw side will not allow entrance into the slicing/packaging operation—and vice versa. Employees have separate welfare areas and lunch rooms that are designed to be hands free. For example, once their hands are washed, employees do not have to touch doors to enter the plant. And all these areas have motion-sensing lighting; Dyson air hand-dryers and water-saving equipment are used in the bathrooms.


LEED certification

ONEsource and Plumrose, in conjunction with Epsten Group, planned on reaching at least 50 LEED points toward a silver certification, but actually exceeded the requirements for the LEED silver certification. For the purpose of accumulating points, USGBC’s LEED Rating System looks at several categories.

Sustainable sites: Plumrose created specially designated parking spaces for use by carpools and low-emitting or fuel-efficient vehicles. Mitigating the issues of the facility’s impact on the local environment, the project team used light-colored concrete in the parking areas and a white roof surface, which reflects heat back into the atmosphere rather than sourcing it into the building where additional cooling would be required. The amount of hardscape, parking areas and roads is kept to a minimum (less than 50 percent of the site) so more vegetated areas are present.

Two large retention basins capture site storm water and control the flow rate of water leaving the site. In the retention basins, storm water is allowed to infiltrate back into the soil, reducing the amount of water entering the municipal treatment system.

Exterior lighting was designed to limit significantly its contribution to light pollution at night. Zero interior fixtures have direct line of sight to windows, and exterior site lighting uses less than one-fourth of the total ASHRAE allowable power for a comparable building.

Water use: Besides the process and wash water savings already described, Plumrose focused on ways to save water both outside and inside. The landscape design included particular plant species that can survive dry spells without watering. Inside, the bathrooms use dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals in combination with low-flow faucets, which reduce water usage by 30 percent compared to conventional equipment. As noted before, the processing equipment was designed to reuse water, reducing the plant’s need for local water.

Energy efficiency: Special care was taken on plant design and construction to ensure all systems worked as designed, and all energy-efficiency measures included in the system are functioning properly and tuned to save the most energy. The control system and processing equipment (massagers, injection systems, cooking and cooling systems) were designed to be energy efficient, and the associated holding tanks just outside the building are thermally insulated to keep water at its optimum temperature. After massaging, injection and mixing, raw meat is automatically stuffed into casings that weigh 75 lbs. and are eight-ft. long.

Once in the casings, the “logs” are put into trays, and the trays are combined into vertical stacks weighing 19,000 lbs., ready for the cooking stage—for which 15 cook tanks are available—each capable of cooking 10 tons of meat. The plant computer system does all the scheduling for emptying and filling the cook tanks. The stacks are handled by robotic gantries that do all the heavy lifting, using only the necessary energy to move them in and out of the cooking systems.

Mortensen says the specially designed process systems and building systems combined use almost 18 percent less energy than a standard plant doing the same processes with the same output.

After processing and cooking (about 10 – 11 hours) and curing (about two days), the meat is automatically removed from the casings and proceeds by conveyor into the slicing and packaging area—off limits to those in the raw and cooking phases of the plant. Every log is sampled by the in-house lab staff to check for any microbiological problems. It’s important to note conveyors only operate when they have product to transport, which saves energy. After passing through the slicing equipment, the sliced meat travels to the packaging area in which four pick-and-place, delta-style robots put meat slices into various-sized packages. Mortensen says they can handle about 160 one-pound packages per minute, far faster than humans—and the robots don’t cough or sneeze onto the product, nor do they get hurt.

Once the sliced meat is packed, it moves on to cartoning equipment. Then palletizers load the skids. When the skids are ready for the cooler, they may go there briefly for staging purposes, but in most cases, Mortensen says the pallets go right onto refrigerated trucks bound for distributors and retailers. Looking at the overall packaging-to-shipping operation, the amount of energy saved by not having to store product for any length of time is significant. Except for the necessary recipe delays for curing, products are tightly scheduled from incoming materials to products being loaded on the truck for delivery. Customers know when their products will arrive and when they were made.

Another way the plant—the entire enterprise—saves energy and money is through its transportation management system (TMS), which it installed about two and a half years ago. Prior to the TMS, the transportation system ran on paper and was very inefficient, says Marlon Bingham, Plumrose director of transportation. Today all loads are coordinated by the TMS, which keeps track of service, miles per hour, distance, stop charges, etc. Load-building processes have been improved significantly, and from a cost-perspective, Bingham has seen real savings by making trips more efficient and cutting unnecessary trips. With high runs and yields coming out of the new facility, Bingham says he can consolidate trips to large customers by providing stops and drops. Other savings in the trucking operation come from new trucks with better mileage (which has improved from 4.8-5.2 mpg to 6.0-6.3 mpg) and clean-idle systems.

Materials and resources: Material selections were made with environmental considerations that included waste and minimizing waste to landfill. ONEsource targeted more than 75 percent of construction materials to be diverted from landfill and sent to recycling centers. Diverted materials included wood, concrete, drywall, glass bottles, recyclable plastic, metal cans and scrap. When possible, paint and rigid foam were recycled. By the end of construction, ONEsource had surpassed its 75 percent target, achieving 81 percent of materials diverted from landfill. The project was able to use 34 percent of recycled and local materials in its total requirements.

Indoor environmental quality: Installed materials met strict restrictions on VOC content, including all adhesives, paints, carpet, composite woods and other coatings. Outdoor air is delivered to all regularly occupied areas, and offices were designed with full walls of natural light and views. All workstation areas have individual lighting controls; most have individual temperature controls.

Innovation and design process: Project teams used Epsten Group, LEED-accredited professionals, to consult on sustainable design and coordinate the preparation of the LEED silver application.


Food safety and sustainability

Food safety and food quality go hand in hand at Plumrose’s new plant. From the moment raw meat comes in, it’s immediately logged in on the computer system with all the source information (plant, truck, etc.). “Entries are made into the computer,” says Mortensen. “We know where everything came from, which batch it goes into—through every operation to the final packaging.  By that code [on the package], I can tell you what truck the meat came in on.”

When the meat is placed into a batch with ingredients, all the data is recorded. By the time it is cooked, every log has all its ingredient info, and samples of every log are sent to the lab for testing. When logs are sliced, and meat is packaged, the destination is already known, and all the sourcing, processing and packaging information is recorded in the database and is associated with reference numbers on the labels.

The automation controls that keep the process at its peak performance and quality were also designed to conserve energy. Likewise, the process equipment was designed to save energy and recycle water so no separate, onsite water pre-treatment center is necessary. The building’s environmental systems and process equipment both promote food safety and curb energy usage. A walkable ceiling overhead keeps all the conduits and piping out of the workspace. And the building’s solid construction will ward off insulation retrofits and other repairs that other facilities often face in 10 years.

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