Step-by-step process

Clif Bar planted the seeds for this world-class operation as far back as five years ago and slowly — the company would probably prefer the term “organically” — nurtured them into fruition.

The engineering team began attending trade shows to narrow down the request for proposal process.

“We wanted to work with the best vendors and equipment in the world,” Mr. Sloan said. “We were looking not only for best-in-class suppliers but also best-in-class people.”

The overall decision-making process also extensively relied on what Mr. Sloan describes as “charrettes” — a French concept where multiple, diverse groups from the bakery collaborate to generate an integrated solution. That often resulted in custom-designing equipment around the unique product qualities of a Clif Bar.

“We brought in our food safety team, R.&D. team and supply chain team, and we showed our suppliers not only what we are using a piece of equipment for but also how it fit in the overall system,” he said.

When it came to factory acceptance tests (F.A.T.), the company took no chances. Typically, the F.A.T. process started four months before the equipment was delivered. In some cases, Clif Bar spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars shipping actual ingredients or packaging materials to vendors throughout the U.S. and Europe. It relied on a stage-gate process, where the equipment had to pass a validation test (the gate) before proceeding to the next stage. There were also hundreds of check lists to validate details, even those as fine as the location of a photo sensor.

“F.A.T. tests are substantial investments for both Clif Bar and our partners. To gain the greatest value from that investment, the team validates more than functionality before these systems ship,” Mr. Berger said. “We verify total performance of safety systems, sanitation, controls integrations, network compatibility, energy efficiency and more.”

About 18 weeks before making saleable goods, Clif Bar began a sequential startup with the ingredient handling system. The initial stages included installation and operation qualification (IOQ) and process qualification (PQ) that took about three weeks to complete. Only after validating ingredient handling, for example, did the bakery install and conduct IOQ and PQ on mixing. Once all individual unit operations in process and packaging passed PQ testing, the entire system was then tested to prove it is capable of consistently delivering quality product through the process validation (PV).

In addition to making sure all of the equipment worked together from beginning to end, the sequential startup provided two primary benefits: strict front-end controls to the production process and packaging combined with extensive training. Mixer operators, for instance, received up to two months of experience from developing the first 20 batches during the mixers’ initial validation process all the way to creating doughs for the packaging installation and final ramp-up. By then, those operators had made hundreds of batches and understood why “respect the dough” has become the foundation of Clif Bar’s manufacturing philosophy, according to Mr. Ducommun.

That respect, however, took time to learn, especially when it came to producing a high-quality product consistently.

“A sequential qualification gives our people more training time up front,” Mr. Berger said. “By the time test product was needed to commission packaging systems, the front of the operation was mastered.”

|||READ MORE: Going live on production|||

Going live on production

For two weeks prior to making saleable products, Clif Bar focused on GMPs and conducted final validation runs on both lines. Production for the bars flows straight from west to east with four receiving docks taking in ingredients, most of which come on pallets or in totes, and scanning them to initiate the company’s closed-loop, lot-tracking process. Information systems record every raw ingredient and packaging material, everything is tracked from the time it is received off the truck to the time the finished goods leave the facility.

Around the perimeter of the temperature- and moisture-controlled bakery, the plant has separate warehouses for dry and refrigerated liquid ingredients and packaging materials — with ample space to hold seven days of inventory for three production lines operating at peak overall equipment effectiveness.

Likewise, organic syrups — an ingredient in Clif Bars — are delivered in bulk and stored in Shick Solutions tanks with room to add more as the third production line goes live. The CIP-capable tanks sit on load cells that constantly monitor syrup delivery and usage through the plant’s Manufacturing Execution Software (MES) and ERP systems.

Shick’s batch management and lot tracking systems provide ±0.1% metering accuracy, according to Mr. Sloan. A mezzanine outside of the room allows bakery employees to safely inspect and test the syrups prior to accepting delivery into the tank farm.

“Clif Bar required a hygienic, dairy-grade storage and automated batching system for liquids, and Shick Solutions delivered,” Mr. Berger said.

Flavorings are stored in a separate room for safety reasons, and Clif Bar makes all of its chocolate using a Sollich system in another enclosed room just aside production and bar forming.

About 80% of the primary dry ingredients, such as organic oats, are dispensed from a Shick bulk handling system with ±0.1% accuracy. The other 20% of minor ingredients, such as chocolate chips and other inclusions that allow the plant to make different product varieties, are scaled using a semi-automated system in another separate room. Overall, just under 77% of Clif Bar & Company’s ingredients are certified organic or sustainable. Mr. Berger added that The Henry Group and Quality Electric provided exceptional installation services, platforms and mezzanines.

Both identical production lines, which are enclosed for allergen control and food safety, come with multiple heavy-duty horizontal mixers allowing constant flow of viscous doughs to the proprietary bar forming lines.

Because most Clif Bar formulations contain various allergens, the bakery must do a deep cleaning of the lines between different product runs. To expedite changeovers, the company invested in duplicate bar-forming equipment for each line. While producing one variety, the removable core components are taken to an enclosed washing and drying room for offline deep cleaning.

Mr. Sloan said the bakery takes a NASCAR-style “pit stop” approach when it comes to changeovers. “We can’t get hamstrung or bottlenecked by cleaning,” he observed. “At the same time, we won’t compromise effectiveness for the sake of efficiency when it comes to properly cleaning between changeovers.”

Because of the configuration of the packaging department, Mr. Sloan noted the layout of the processing lines is staggered — production on Line No. 2 starts about 30 ft downstream from the mixing and makeup on Line No. 1. “We did that to maximize the effective use of space between the production and packaging departments,” he said.

|||READ MORE: Fast, flexible packaging|||

Fast, flexible packaging

As the bars enter the packaging room, they pass through Fortress Technology metal detection. The packaging lines are identical, with the bars for Line No. 1 wrapped and cartoned toward the front, while Line No. 2 systems are staggered toward the back of the department that’s nearest to warehousing and distribution.

Each line has a bank of Bosch flowwrappers. A feeding system continuously supplies bars to each wrapper. The bars then travel along a raised conveyor — which permits foot traffic underneath — to the cartoning and casepacking operations. After carton forming, the lines rely on BluePrint Automation (BPA) robotic carton loaders, which can pick and place bars into a variety of carton formats. Changeovers can be made via touch screens.

At full operation, the automated robotic cartoning system has the flexibility to load multiple caddy configurations simultaneously, delivering ultimate packaging flexibility on the production line without the need for stoppages associated with carton or case changeovers. Cartons with different counts can easily be packed on the same production run without an interruption in production. Each line has redundant robots so if one or two lines needs a new suction cup, for instance, the operation keeps running smoothly.

The cartons next head to a series of BPA robotic casepackers. The sealed cases travel up vertical spiral conveyors, painted Clif Bar red, then along an elevated conveyor to the warehouse, then down more conveyors to a Kaufman robotic palletizing system and shrink wrapper — one for each production line. Each pallet carries a coded label to provide the end of the closed-loop lot-tracking process.

The cases are then stored in the warehouse and held until third-party microbial testing is completed.