Introduced in 1930, SNICKERS was named after the favorite horse of the Mars family. Although the new LEED Gold-certified candy plant in Topeka, KS is highly automated, there’s a human side to its success—one of collaboration and mutuality. From the plant’s design and construction to the installation and testing and startup of equipment, Mars team associates worked with team members from CRB Consulting Engineers and McCarthy Building Companies to complete a fully automated and integrated, 500,000-sq.-ft., just-in-time (JIT) candy manufacturing plant. Indeed, the participation of Mars associates with the design and construction teams and the designed-in sustainability of the plant reflect the five core principles of Mars: quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom.
I scheduled a visit to check out the new $270 million facility. After fighting travel delays caused by snow in the Midwest and the Northeast, “Why Kansas?” seems like a perfectly good question for anyone to ask. The Topeka location is close to major roadways I-70 and US Route 75 and has access to rail. Topeka is also home to some other well-known food and beverage processors, such as U.S. Foods, Del Monte Foods, Frito-Lay, Reser’s Foods, Hill’s Nutrition and Bimbo Bakeries.
Mars associates actively searched and evaluated multiple site locations. “In the end, the [Mars] team got down to four or five primary sites, all of which were still confidential,” says Jeff Matis, CRB project manager. “We fine-tuned our preliminary design a little based on some clues like ‘rail might be on the right side or on the left side’ or ‘it’s going to be cold.’ Beyond that, [the final choice] was held pretty tight within the Mars organization.”
“When we chose Topeka as a site, it came down to the geography, and location was a plus,” recalls Bret Spangler, Mars Chocolate NA site director - Topeka. “We wanted a location that was close to rail that did not require a lot of excavation—a flat piece of property.
“From a business standpoint, the location had all the right things,” adds Spangler. “Much of the choice had to do with the culture of Topeka itself. From a Mars standpoint and our five principles, the community really fit into the culture we have at Mars. This has continued to validate the reason we chose Topeka. The community welcomed us with open arms.”
In the formal public announcement of the site selection, Mike Wittman, vice president of supply at Mars Chocolate NA said Kansas and Topeka share the five core principles on which the company operates. “We think Topeka and Kansas can help us because of our common values and principles. The site will be a reflection of our commitment to manufacture our products in the markets where we sell them.”
Formal groundbreaking for the facility took place late in August. CRB had already started developing plans before the ceremony. In fact, five key associates from Mars began working with CRB to develop a facility that, according to Matis, was “an undefined site at an undefined location, except for the fact that Mars needed to build a new facility in the US.”
The Mars team and CRB met in Philadelphia to begin the development of a world-class facility based on best practices of plants in Europe, Russia, China and other global locations. In fact, the final design includes many European-supplied pre-built skids/systems that are used in other Mars plants around the world.
“From the beginning, there was a lot of discussion about lean design, but we would come up with an idea, a concept, a layout—and then it would be challenged,” says Matis. “And the [Mars] lean team would come in and help us reorganize again. It was a constant evolution until we finally were close to the layouts we have today,” adds Matis.
Six weeks after commencing a detailed design, construction management activities were awarded to McCarthy Building Companies, with CRB continuing to provide onsite architectural and engineering support. Major building elements were erected concurrent with the design. Several design aspects are noteworthy. These include the expandability of the building through non-load bearing, tilt-up wall sections; a rail terminal; suspended tanks and equipment to make cleaning the floor easier; a centralized maintenance department; clean building design; separate air-handling systems; and space to keep associates away from moving equipment.
Construction continued with the facility largely enclosed and weather tight. Major utility equipment installs started in the fall. The first systems in place and commissioned were the central utility plant, followed by 26 individual air-handling units and primary HVAC systems to condition the enclosed building spaces. During this construction phase, Mars began hiring and training more than 100 new operations personnel and now employs close to 200 people. Today, approximately 20 percent of the workforce consists of Mars associates who relocated to Topeka from other locations to be part of the startup.
Matrix Technologies provided power and control design support for a range of systems in several areas: ammonia system, boiler, air compressor, water trace and filled bar. The Matrix team conducted design and execution of supervisory control for central utility building; filled-bar control electrical and programming; peanut roaster control electrical and programming for the M&M’S area; and support of the raw material area. In addition, Matrix also had contractual responsibility for the wastewater treatment plant electrical controls.
By May 2013, the building was complete, although major equipment platforms and interior finishes still needed to be installed and coordinated with the arriving process equipment systems. The process systems were installed throughout the summer, with their completion and commissioning planned by area. In September 2013, railcars and trucks began delivering bulk sugar and syrup for the initial SNICKERS line. Subsequent minor ingredients receiving, chocolate manufacture, the caramel/nougat kitchen and filled-bar line installation startup were completed sequentially. The Peanut M&M’S operation followed the same commissioning and startup sequence and was making product shortly after.
Designing the process and keeping it clean
Currently, two value streams (production lines) exist in this spacious building. The bite-size SNICKERS line was modeled on the designs of pre-existing lines in other facilities. In other words, Mars creates a standard reference design and build-out for a line, which can easily be replicated anywhere in the world with the same hardware and software. The second line, Peanut M&M’S, was a little more challenging since it didn’t have a finished standard definition, even though much of it used pre-built components.
The 500,000-sq. ft. facility is situated on 150 acres with existing interior space and infrastructure to support five value streams. A great deal of thought went into the the design of the building to ensure it would support future expansion including non-load bearing exterior walls which can be relocated as the building expands.
”We believe our brands will continue to fuel our growth and increase the demand for volume in our site. We are well positioned to fulfill this demand,” says Spangler.
Most of the processes are hidden from view. This helps protect proprietary processes and intellectual property (IP). It also keeps the product safe. While a candy plant may not have the same issues with microbe contamination as a raw/cooked RTE lunchmeat facility, Mars takes food safety every bit as seriously as a lunchmeat operation. In addition, metal detectors are installed at end-of-line locations and other areas where metal fragments could enter a value stream.
Liquid processes and flows are piped and processed internally without exposure to the room environment. Dry ingredients are handled by closed conveyor systems from storage to destination, whether they originate in super sacks or from truck or railcar. Processes like candy or chocolate coating happen inside equipment, safely isolated from airborne contaminants. Open product conveyance also is minimized throughout the facility. The air is filtered and clean in areas where finished candy may be exposed to room air, and product processing/packaging lines are kept free and clear of any overhead utility lines. In fact, most utility piping runs outside the plant floor in pedestrian walkways.
The movement and traffic patterns of materials, products and people—along with the layout of the equipment—were designed to protect against potential contamination sources. For instance, unidirectional process flow from raw receiving to final product is used to avoid cross-contamination. Minimal warehousing and storage of raw materials to finished product is managed in a JIT manner to avoid accumulation of material in hard-to-clean areas. Allergen-related materials and operational areas are handled through segregation, restricted access through personnel hygiene points and HVAC pressurization control.
Modularization was used extensively in the filled-bar (SNICKERS) system design to allow the overall installation of the multi-story caramel/nougat kitchen and 500-ft.-plus cooling system to be completed in a matter of weeks. The whole three-story kitchen, including stainless steel flooring, all interconnecting piping and wiring, racks and equipment supports, was pre-built in Europe.
The kitchen skid was segmented for easy breakdown and shipping via sea crate. Upon arrival at the site, each module was lifted into position and aligned, and the off-skid piping and equipment were interconnected. The final welding of floor seams completed the operation, making the system ready for commissioning. The same modularization approach was used for the enclosed, 500-ft.-long, multi-component cooling, cutting and enrobing operation, which allowed the installation to be finished in a matter of weeks.
“There are some other areas where we have skids from US suppliers such as A&B Process Systems, which used more traditional, framed systems,” says CRB’s Matis. “There are some areas where you can’t tell it is a skid.”
Most—if not all—of the tanks, hoppers, storage bins and processing skids are suspended; where skids cannot be supported from above, they rest on smooth, stainless steel legs. Though the 15,000 to 25,000-gallon tanks may look like they’re hanging in midair, they are supported by flanges and steel cross-members that run along the side of the exterior wall. Where necessary, the floor was strengthened with an additional depth of concrete to support the weight of the cross-members that bear tanks or vessels. Since neither the ceiling nor the exterior wall bears the weight of this equipment, the walls are free to move (i.e., function as curtain walls) when building expansion is needed.
Why do all this? “A relentless focus on food safety and sanitation,” explains Spangler. “We have developed our food safety standards and expectations over time. It is important to consider all aspects of sanitation to ensure you are not creating added work for associates or incremental staffing needs. We focus on all the details down to how many equipment legs touch the floor as well as eliminating open threads which may collect debris."
Automation and the process
The M&M’S and SNICKERS value streams receive their chocolate supply from two in-house mixing, refining and conching units. Both receive cocoa powder via enclosed dry conveyance, while liquid chocolate is pumped and piped to processes that require it. The system is totally automated and integrated with all other automated systems in the value streams. Spangler points out that, if a milk chocolate value stream is added to the facility, it will be entirely separate from the peanut-based value streams, eliminating any peanut allergen issues.
Raw ingredients, such as cocoa, eggs and sugar, come in by truck or railcar and are moved to holding storage. The lean, well-lit rail terminal holds up to nine railcars and has provisions for off-loading liquid and dry ingredients. The rail siding holds up to 40 railcars; Mars has its own tractor for juggling the cars around on the tracks. Liquid and dry ingredient off-loading is automated, and products are completely sealed from the environment as they move to the holding vessels. Spangler says the JIT facility has storage for no more than three days worth of supply for major ingredients.
In the Peanut M&M’S value stream, sealed dry conveyors remove whole raw peanuts from the storage bins and deposit them directly into the roaster. A dedicated air-handling system keeps the air clean and separate from other rooms in the facility. Then, they are conveyed to the M&M’S process lines where they receive a chocolate spray, followed by a coating of chocolate. Next, the peanuts proceed to the painting process where the colors, waxes and other coatings are applied. Finally, the candy goes to the mixing system, which combines the different colors of candy so it is “assorted” when it finally reaches the pouch stage. From the mixing system, the candy is conveyed to the “printing” system where the candies receive their distinctive, lower-case “m” on each piece. Needless to say, these processes are highly proprietary.
Once printed, the candy is conveyed in sealed tubes to automatic weighing systems that portion it out according to the size of the pouch to be filled. After the pouches are packaged on form, fill and seal machines, a conveyor takes them to pick-and-place robotic systems that fill the cartons with the designated number of pouches. The cartons are filled, dated and stamped before proceeding to robotic palletizing machines. The filled pallets are wrapped and removed directly to trucks or staging areas to make up loads for trucks.
The SNICKERS value line operates to fill in the supply gaps, especially for the holiday season or as orders increase seasonally. Peanuts for the SNICKERS line are already roasted at another Mars facility before they come through the door; therefore, a kill step is not needed at Topeka.
The entire process of creating the caramel filling is automated in the kitchen; the chocolate enrobing and cooling are performed in a sealed, 500-ft.-long tunnel. When the SNICKERS Fun Size emerge, they go down a conveyor line, where they are inspected and grouped for packaging and cartoning.
Not only are the processes automated by local controls, several CIP systems operate in multiple locations, says CRB’s Matis. The caramel process in the kitchen uses milk and has CIP systems. The filled-bar line also has CIP capabilities. The facility’s chocolate areas are typically a hot-water clean, says Matis. This level of automation enables the majority of the cleaning activities to be dry cleaning processes.
Automation and controls
Wherever possible, Mars uses Rockwell Allen-Bradley PLCs and controls, according to Louis Hemmelgarn, Mars segment engineering manager. “Wonderware is our typical HMI. Over the past few years, we’ve done a lot of work coming up with global standards, so if we’re putting in a filled-bar line in Topeka versus something in Europe, we can reuse much of the same programming.” Hemmelgarn regards this not as installing a certain brand of hardware or software, but installing a set of standards. “If we’re putting in a certain capacity line, we can take those modules—those designs—and duplicate them at any of the sites we’re adding onto.” Hemmelgarn says the combination of hardware and software not only keeps product quality consistent, it has been great for determining reliability and downtime through the use of data gathering.
Mars uses networked Siemens controls to manage its HVAC system from a single front-end in its utility building. In addition, it leverages value stream level flow and electrical metering using a combination of Schneider Electric and Wonderware software systems to allow associates to have a single view of process and energy monitoring.
Higher-level software coordinates the plant’s activities and connects them with the entire Mars supply chain. “We run industry leading planning and ERP software to ensure our operations are fully integrated into the supply chain,” states Spangler.
Design promotes communications
Several employee-oriented features in the Topeka facility make it a pleasant environment that fosters efficiency. Besides the full-service cafeteria, there is a fully equipped workout room. An open office space has windows looking out to the factory spaces. No closed-in cubicles or offices tower over the plant below.
In keeping with the Mars five core values, this arrangement keeps people talking, discussing issues and solving problems. A prime example of this is the placement of the maintenance area. While most maintenance departments are located off in some remote corner of the building or in a separate facility, this maintenance department is centrally located with manufacturing around it. The location encourages communications among plant floor operators and maintenance staff, so in many cases, the maintenance department is already on top of a problem before it’s formally recorded.
This modern maintenance department has tools most people only dream of owning, as well as a separate, enclosed room for metalworking and welding with its own ventilation system. There’s also a station for checking PLCs and plug-in modules, plus a large, quiet, enclosed space for training and/or programming systems.
LEED and commitment
The goal of the Mars Sustainable In a Generation initiative is to minimize the impact of its operations on the environment. By pursuing absolute reductions, Mars believes it can reduce this impact, even as production increases. The aim is to eliminate fossil fuel energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, while also working on water and waste reduction.
Mars Topeka earned LEED Gold certification, evidence that the plant is doing its part to have a sustainable operation. Categories that make up the certification include sustainable site, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and regional priority.
Mars feels a strong sense of community, and it shows when you meet the associates. “We have assets, but the greatest asset we have is our people,” says Antoine Smith, value stream manager - support. “They have done a phenomenal job in embracing what we do here because 80 percent of the associates we brought in—if not more—were not Mars associates at all.”
“Whether it’s on the floor or our leadership team, we hire through culture first. So, you have to show the [Mars five] principles in your interview,” adds Spangler. “We have leaders on the floor who previously worked for other manufacturers, but we also have people who were teachers and worked in retail operations.” Spangler says it’s easy to train someone on the technical details of a position, but it’s more difficult to find somebody who measures up to Mars’ five core principles. “We have an extremely diverse culture of people with different levels of experience, and it’s worked out fabulously.”