On-Demand Bottled Water


Production technology keeps Safeway’s bottled water line flowing

Despite the tranquility of the mountain valley surroundings, exciting things are happening indoors at Safeway’s grocery and bottled water plant in Merced, Calif.
The plant’s bottled water line is one of Safeway’s more recent capital manufacturing investments.
“Every year, we’re raising the bar with the technology of our equipment and the in-line inspections we have in place,” says David Nelsen, vice president of manufacturing for Safeway. “The goal is to reduce variability in the workplace in order to improve quality and reduce costs.”
Production matters
This May, the plant celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and employees took time to remember the plant’s somewhat cluttered beginning. When the Merced location was constructed, enough equipment for three plants was brought into one facility during a consolidation effort. Employees originally ran two production lines — one for grocery products and the other for peanut butter.
The plant still operates two lines, each with an enclosed filling area, but peanut butter production was replaced with a blowmold operation in 2004. All of the rooms were scrubbed down for safety reasons, water lines for spring and purified water were installed, and employees were trained on the new equipment. But the lines were completely switched within a week.
“It was due to creative scheduling,” says Plant Manager Amalee Jayasinghe.
It also was credited to the motivation of the line operators, says Michael Williams, plant superintendent. “Empowerment of the employees is the utmost. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen the successes we have,” he says.
Employee participation is promoted aggressively and rewarded — the motto “Think like successful owners” is spread across the production entryway as the Merced plant’s vision statement. The vision is updated every year in November, when plant employees meet to discuss production goals. Every employee receives a credit-card sized copy of the plant's vision and key initiatives.
Line operators also participate in “Six-Minute Meetings” at the beginning of every shift to review the previous day’s activities, and on Wednesdays, they have pre-planning meetings to develop the following week’s schedules and action plans. “Seven by Seven” meetings (which refer to the plant’s 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. day) are held once every four weeks to discuss the prior period’s performance on waste reduction, efficiency, quality and productivity.
“When you start empowering people, you get a lot of untapped talent that you would not normally get otherwise,” Williams says. “Once we’re satisfied internally, our external customers are satisfied.”
According to Nelsen, plant managers work to develop their staff through a formalized, ongoing process. Individuals receive feedback on a regular basis and personal development plans are established on an annual basis. Individual employees and Safeway have benefited from the process through performance improvements and by helping individuals achieve their career aspirations. In addition, Safeway’s 31 plant managers meet as a group on an annual basis to review each plant’s key performance metrics along with the annual operating plan for the next year.
“Providing coaching is really a win-win situation, and it gives our employees the opportunity to sharpen the saw,” Nelsen says.
To acknowledge outstanding achievements, Safeway introduced plant awards to recognize improvements in the areas of safety, quality, innovation and world-class manufacturing. Merced’s award banners are hung in the warehouse area with the same pride that sports teams hang their championship banners.
A friendly spirit of competition co-exists with teamwork, both of which contribute to the plant’s production excellence. The water line operators nicknamed themselves the Water Dogs, and the grocery line employees are the Tomato Bullies. While the two teams vie for internal rewards, they also play side by side on the company-sponsored plant softball team.
Full bottle
The bottled water line doesn’t look a day older than two weeks, thanks to the meticulous upkeep of its recently installed equipment. The installment of the bottled water line was a two-phase process.
Safeway first had to install the water lines. Twenty-five percent of the production is spring water, which is sourced from Baxter, Calif. (about 180 miles away), and the rest is purified drinking water. In the first phase, the plant used stock plastic bottles from a supplier, which cost roughly $8,000 a day, Williams says.
In the second phase a year later, a blowmolder was installed, and the plant now produces what it needs on-demand.
The Merced plant handles bottled water production for all of Safeway’s brands, so efficiency is a necessity. The plant produces 0.5-, 1- and 1.5-liter bottles, and change parts along the line are color-coded for changeover efficiency. For example, orange is for the 0.5-liter, yellow for 1-liter and green for 1.5-liters. “One-Point Lessons” also were developed for quick changeovers; pictures are posted with arrows that point to the parts that need to be changed, rather than having employees read a lengthy document.
The bottled water line starts with bottle manufacturing. Seventy-two totes of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) preform vials (19,800 to be exact) are held in a temperature-controlled room where they cure for 48 to 72 hours. They are then fed to a blowmolder. To learn the new machine, Jayasinghe, Plant Engineer Tony Delgado and lead operators were sent to Germany for a week of training and did factory acceptance tests on their own machine.
The preforms are heated to 67° C, 230 at a time, for two and a half seconds. The stretch blowmolder pushes down the preforms and blows the walls against the bottlemold. The 500-ml. bottles are blown with a decorative pattern just below the neck.
“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, what a pretty design,’ but it really serves a purpose,” Jayasinghe says. “It’s all about panel strength.”
As the bottles are being blown, quality checks are performed by an operator once an hour. Pictures are posted in the quality control area that show the visual characteristics the operator should look for, such as puddling, haze and cocked necks. The plant uses the same pictures as the preform supplier to improve communication. “We wanted to make sure we spoke the same language,” Jayasinghe says.
The formed bottles are then accumulated and passed through at roughly 300 feet per minute. An air-driven conveyor moves them along a 200-foot path overhead to a 60-valve rotary filler. This filler is a self-contained positive air enclosure that includes a bottle rinser and a 15-head capper.
After the bottles are filled, it’s off to the packaging area for the remainder of both the bottled water and grocery lines. The labeler applies label stock to the bottles at 615 bottles per minute, and a coder marks the necessary tracking information. A lane separator then divides the proper number of bottles, which are packed into trays and shrinkwrapped.
The trays then travel to the next room to be palletized and are live loaded for shipment. All trailers are held on the lot for 24 hours. The plant handles 135,000 cases of water per week, adding up to more than five million cases per year.
The automated line has five operators. And while they always have their eyes and ears open to check for quality, some 50 vision sensors oversee all packaging operations.
For quality assurance, at least one bottle of each batch is kept at the Merced plant for the duration of the two-year shelf life. Samples also are collected each week and sent to an independent lab for quality checks.
Secondary packaging
The plant uses two palletizers, one dedicated to each line, to package the cases of bottled water and grocery products. Vision sensors make sure the lids and bottle caps are on properly and the trays are oriented correctly. For the bottled water line, the palletizer creates one pallet (72 cases) every minute; for the grocery line, it’s one pallet every four minutes. Some 41,000 cases are packed in two 10-hour shifts.
Two line support drivers are the only operators in the distribution area. A laminated sheet with 13 different codes based on the package type is posted near the computer controller for automatic and pre-programmed changeovers.
“It’s just a matter of pressing a button and clearing the line out,” Williams says. “It takes 30 seconds.”
After the trays are palletized, an operator uses a standup forklift to move the pallets to the six storage levels in the warehouse. The storage area can hold 2,500 pallets at capacity. Bottled water is stored at Merced for at least 24 hours. During filling, ozone is added to the water for sterilization, but it has to dissipate before the water is drinkable. The process takes 12 hours; Safeway doubles it to be safe.
When the pallets are slated for distribution, they’re loaded onto trucks in one of nine loading bays. Seventeen truckloads of water are distributed per day; 30 truckloads of overall product per day.
Quality controlled
Quality checks don’t start at the Safeway plant; they start with its suppliers. To achieve Quality Assurance vendor approval, packaging manufacturers have to:
• Complete a pre-audit questionnaire
• Submit samples for approval
• Receive a third-party audit (Grocery Manufacturers Association, Safe audit or equivalent) for food or pass an internal audit
• Have first production samples approved
• Receive ongoing sample evaluations
At a glance
Location: Merced, Calif.
Plant size: 133,000 square feet
Employees: 72
Product lines: Bottled water, salsa, pasta, jelly and preserves
Package types: Glass jars, plastic bulk containers and PET bottles
Number of packaging lines: 2