Energy reduction is a cutting edge topic for Simplot Food Group and its Aberdeen, Idaho, plant.

Just comparing the first five months of fiscal 2008 to the year before, Simplot Aberdeen already has used 20 percent less electric energy and 15 percent less natural gas.
Photo courtesy of Simplot Food Group

It’s not uncommon to hear about companies honing their “core competencies” to distinguish themselves. So, why can’t food plants think and act the same way?

“To be successful in today’s business environment, a plant must find a competitive edge,” says Bruce Hauber, a 32-year-industry veteran and the manager of Simplot Food Group’s Aberdeen, Idaho, plant.

Hauber continues, “Through the years, Aberdeen had developed an edge with its raw product program. With changes in the raw product market conditions, that edge disappeared. Since then Aberdeen has focused on energy efficiency and that has become our new ‘edge.’”

A unit of Boise, Idaho-based J.R. Simplot Company, the Simplot Food Group operates seven North American potato plants, including Aberdeen. The 48-year-old operation processes seasoned and battered French fries, wedges and pre-formed products. Hauber manages the 40-acre site, which includes a 100,000-square-foot process facility, raw potato storage buildings, frozen storage, waste treatment facility and maintenance support facilities (boiler, refrigeration, parts room, shops).

Using fiscal 2004 as a baseline, Hauber says Aberdeen was able to improve its natural gas utilization (the plant’s highest utility expense) by 10.4 percent while electric utilization improved by 1.3 percent. Comparing the first five months of fiscal 2008 to the year before, he adds that Aberdeen already has used 20 percent less electric energy and 15 percent less natural gas.

Pardon the play on words, but that’s no small potatoes. That said, it’s important to note that Simplot emphasizes energy reduction at all of its plants (food and non-food). Officials say the company performs audits at each factory, including Envinta ‘One-to-Five’ energy assessments. Likewise, it follows Department of Energy (DOE) assessments in steam, compressed air, process heating, pumps and motors.

Hauber notes that maintenance personnel drove Aberdeen’s initial energy reduction program - involving everything from boiler efficiency and condensation recovery to improvements with air compressors, lighting and motor controls. From 2005 to 2007, Simplot helped too, by fitting Aberdeen with a high efficiency boiler and condensing economizer system, a pre-cool thermo siphon and automated refrigeration controls. Slated for this year is a digestor bio-gas utilization project, a new boiler fan with variable frequency drive pump and an oil tank insulation project.

Meanwhile, more Aberdeen employees are taking up the cause. Working with the Industrial Efficiency Alliance (IEA), a northwest energy strategies consultant, Aberdeen has developed short-, medium- and long-term action goals (non capital). Hauber notes that the plant’s energy improvement team has been expanded to include members from every department of the plant’s operation.

Hauber says Aberdeen goals for the remainder of fiscal 2008 are to (1) improve natural gas utilization efficiency by another 10 percent, (2) implement an employee-supported leak and spill elimination program, (3) introduce and track an employee suggestion program to solicit energy savings as well as ideas for improved safety and waste reduction and (4) define and implement an electrical utilization improvement target. 

Just the facts

Company:Simplot Food Group
Food plant honored:Aberdeen, Idaho
Selection criteria:Environmental initiatives
Employees:Approximately 250
Facility size:100,000 square feet
Products:Frozen seasoned, battered French fries, wedges and pre-formed potato products

Executive Insights

Refrigerated & Frozen Foodstalks with Bruce Hauber, manager for Simplot Food Group's Aberdeen, Idaho, plant.

Refrigerated & Frozen Foods:Looking back on 2007, what are you most proud of?

Bruce Hauber:Last year saw the culmination of major energy projects, which have delivered significant energy efficiency improvements to the plant. Last year also saw the full utilization of some environmental improvements (wastewater treatment, land application) that were initiated several years ago.

We also put a significant effort toward our plant safety program. We've targeted a goal of "No one gets hurt," and last year we made great strides with full employee buy-in and participation. The continued teamwork and "can-do" attitude of the Aberdeen team was successful in responding to changing customer needs and requirements, especially in the elimination of trans fat oils.

R&FF:What were the greatest challenges of the last year?

Hauber:The rapid rise of input costs, including energy and direct materials. We also saw tightening of the skilled labor market. There also was the issue of trans fat oils and the resulting transition to different oil types.  

R&FF:Talk about a few of your operations' strengths in relation to the "Food Plants of the Year" criteria. How did you develop these strengths?

Hauber:The Aberdeen plant has a history of innovation and creativity when it comes to process and operations improvements. We actively support employee involvement and input. This is reflective in the level of technology that supports our facility, our safety program, our energy conservation/improvement activities (and results) and our environmental initiatives. We pride ourselves on being a good neighbor and steward of our environment.

R&FF:What industry issues most trouble you in plant operations? What steps are you taking to address these concerns?

Hauber:As mentioned earlier, I'm concerned about the continued rapid rise in input costs, as well as the market shortage for skilled labor.

To address the first issue, Aberdeen is focused on the elimination of waste and the improvement in process efficiencies - through both non-capital and capital means - to partially offset input cost increases. Employee teams are working to identify and implement these improvements, utilizing various techniques ranging from lean manufacturing to project management.

Secondly, Aberdeen is working with the area schools to identify opportunities for skill development and recruitment for future employees. We have retooled our internal training program to enhance the standardization, turnaround and results of our training. In conjunction with a regional transit company, we also are testing a bus service for our employees from two of our larger labor markets (40 and 15 miles from plant site).

We also are testing and evaluating creative scheduling methods to see if they will improve our recruitment and retention of new employees. Last but not least, we are redirecting recruitment efforts towards skilled employees.

R&FF:What are some of your key operational (and other goals) as you move forward in 2008?

Hauber:The Aberdeen leadership team developed a strategic plan that supports our Food Group operations. Specific strategies, goals and projects have been identified to focus our efforts and drive improvements in Aberdeen's performance for 2008 and beyond. Our five key strategies involve (1) quality, (2) cost reduction and control, (3) employee recruitment and retention, (4) environmental, health, safety and security measures and (5) personal accountability.