Lotus Bakeries Wins: 2020 ProFood World Award
Lotus Bakeries Wins:
2020 ProFood World Manufacturing Innovation Award Runner Up
When food manufacturers are eyeing a new market, there are a host of distribution options to consider; specialty stores, major retailers, food service, or direct-to-consumer e-commerce. Product placement is usually critical to success. When one envisions building a viral following, airline food is rarely described as trend-setting. However, that’s exactly the unlikely channel that kicked off America’s love affair with a crispy, caramel spiced cookie – Biscoff – more than 30 years ago.
Speculoos or speculaas, is a spiced shortcrust biscuit, popular in Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands, and typically enjoyed around holidays, weddings, and births. In 1932 a Belgian baker named Jan Boone Sr. created a speculoos made from simple, all-natural ingredients.
By the 1950s, his company, Lotus Bakeries, would be wrapping the cookies individually for retail sale. These cookies, with their crunchy consistency, paired perfectly with coffee. It was this popular combination which eventually yielded the name Biscoff - an amalgamation of the words biscuit and coffee.
Today Lotus Bakeries is active worldwide in the snacking segment with the Lotus, Lotus Biscoff, Lotus Dinosaurus, Lotus Suzy, Peijnenburg, Snelle Jelle, Annas, Nakd, Trek, BEAR and Urban Fruit brands. However, it wasn’t until a US food broker came across this scrumptious treat during a trip to Belgium that Biscoff cookies were introduced in America. In 1984 Delta airlines started serving the biscuits as their in-flight snack. Fans of the cookies would contact Delta or track down the distributor, Gourmet Center, asking where they could purchase Biscoffs. This eventually evolved into a mail-order catalogue business, and then an online-ordering business before Biscoffs were finally available in the United States via traditional retail outlets about a decade ago. No other food has experienced the crossover success of Biscoff, beginning as a brand exclusive to airlines before being pulled into retail outlets by consumer demand.
Targeting the Piedmont Triad area
For the last 30 years, all Biscoff cookies were produced in Lotus Bakeries’ sole factory in Lembeke, Belgium and shipped to U.S. By 2010, airline passengers nibbled on 1.5 billion cookies, with Lotus Bakeries selling 3.3 billion Biscoff single and double cookies in Europe annually. As demand in the United States continued to grow both from retailers and the airlines, Lotus Bakeries began evaluating the possibility of expanding production capabilities. They built a second and then a third production hall in Belgium.
However, the supply chain model where product was produced in Belgium and then shipped worldwide had several downsides. The lead times were long and sea freight costs were significant. Having one production facility also carries risk in the event of production disruptions. In 2015, the company was projecting that the U.S. would soon become their number one market in the world, fueled by the growing popularity of both biscuits and their new cookie spread. This market analysis helped solidify the company’s decision that a new facility would be built, and for the first time, it would be located outside of Belgium.
The search for a site in the United States began with a dedicated team from Lotus working with global commercial real estate company, Cushman and Wakefield. Many of Lotus’ major clients were located on the east coast. Eventually the team focused in on the Piedmont Triad area, because of attractive incentive packages, the labor market, as well as the similarity in climate to Belgium. A site was purchased in Mebane, North Carolina and groundbreaking took place in 2017. Lotus Bakeries entrusted the design, engineering, and system integration to the largest food design firm in the United States, Dennis Group, and hired Samet Corporation to construct the building.
Consistent product quality since 1932
Lotus Bakeries’ tagline is “Being great in little things.” Long before “clean-label” or “all natural” became a consumer trend, Lotus was focused on offering delicious, high-quality snacks made from wholesome, simple, natural ingredients. The quality for Lotus Biscoff had always been easily controlled since there was one production site. As the team began to make plans for a new facility located on a new continent, maintaining consistent product quality was essential. From the very start, the Lotus QA/QC department was heavily involved in the design process. The first major hurdle was that the exact ingredients used in the Belgian recipe formulation were not available in the United States. Small variations such as the consistency of the flour or the oil and water content in the margarine could have big impacts on the final product. The task was to use the ingredients readily available stateside and optimizes the specs to match the texture, taste, crunch, and color of the Biscoff cookies American consumers had grown to know and love.
“Our engineers studied and duplicated the equipment used in the Lembeke factory,” noted Dennis Group’s Project Manager, Mark Snieckus. “We’ve constructed many bakeries over the years, but we had to become intimately familiar with Lotus’ way of doing things.” In addition to duplicating equipment, extra measures were taken, even if they incurred additional expense, to make sure there were no missteps that would alter product quality. The bulk ingredient silos were enclosed to replicate the ingredient conditions in the Belgium factory. U.S. based ingredients were shipped and run on the Lembeke lines for testing during the design phase.
Staff training and knowledge-transfer was also critical. Once staff were hired for the Mebane facility, they spent a significant amount of time in Belgium. New employees spent several weeks to months in Lotus’ existing facility during which time they were introduced to the company culture, the product, the processes and the equipment. During start-up of the new facility, key operators from Belgium were flown in to work side-by-side with their U.S. counterparts and ensure smooth transitions. This practice continues as they add staff and a third shift.
While the design and engineering team wanted to take the best of Lotus Bakeries’ existing operations, the didn’t want to shy away from also incorporating new technology. For example, the controls systems had to walk a fine line between using the latest available advancements, while still maintaining the overall framework philosophy from the systems in Belgium. All process and packaging systems are fully automated, and the PLCs are integrated in a common network that allows data and alarm notifications to be shared. Sensors can detect changes that might otherwise be imperceptible to staff, and alert them in real-time. Plant personnel receive notifications via their mobile phones and emails, as appropriate, if a critical alarm has been triggered in the system so they can investigate immediately and possibly mitigate product loss.
Quality assurance continues today, with corporate-appointed taste panels assessing overall product quality, shelf life, and consistency between Belgium-made and U.S.-made cookies.
(Continue reading below)
A Belgian treat, produced locally
With groundbreaking in 2017, the goal was to have the 150,000 SF facility running saleable product by third quarter 2019. In the late stages of the project, a few of the European-based equipment vendors experienced shipping delays. The CQV team, comprised jointly of Lotus Bakeries and Dennis Group members, doubled the number of staff devoted to CQV and I/O check out in order to safely check out the systems in half the time. This pre-planning condensed the start-up timeframe while avoiding personnel fatigue. By August 2019, the facility was running its first products for the U.S. market.
“Having a Lotus Biscoff plant in the USA is a major step for our company. For the first time since our foundation in 1932, Biscoff is being produced outside of Lembeke, Belgium. Lotus Bakeries and all its employees are extremely proud with this expansion in the world’s largest consumer market,” said Jan Boone, CEO of Lotus Bakeries.
The process starts with flour and sugar being received via bulk tanker trucks. Bulk and minor ingredients are conveyed to a pre-mix system. One input that might surprise most people is granulated post-baked cookies. All ingredients are incorporated to create a batch within the dough mixer. After mixing, the dough is transferred to totes. Each mixer batch feeds six totes, which each have a capacity of 720L. The dough rests for a set amount of time, and there is capacity for approximately 120 totes at a time. A tote handling system is automated, and empty totes are stacked mechanically until they are ready for fork-lift removal.
Accuracy is critical so there is little to no deviation between batches. Scaling systems are used throughout the process for receivers, storage, and hoppers to make sure dosing and product delivery are consistent. RFID scanning is used on all totes entering and leaving the system (loading, emptying, cleaning, storage) to track dough batches and maintain consistent quality. Another quality assurance measure was integrating SAP into the manufacturing execution system to track batch ingredients through to the finished products.
The dough from the totes is deposited into the chunkers and formers, which roll out the biscuits before they are relayed onto a high-speed continuous steel-belted oven. Immediately upon exiting the oven, the biscuits are approximately 120 degrees Celsius, cooling to 62 degrees Celsius after conveyance on the steel belt where they air cool. They proceed through a cooler tunnel so the temperature of the cookie is only 30 degrees Celsius upon entering the packaging line.
For phase one, the factory has two high-speed production lines; one primarily dedicated to airline customers, Delta and American airlines, and the other for retail customers. Delta biscuits have become so closely affiliated with their brand, that they are inscribed with the company’s logo. Two different sizes of cookies are produced on the lines.
Lotus Bakeries preferred hydronic systems, so rather than using more conventional steam boilers, a high-temperature hot water system was installed for process heating, CIP systems and hot water. High efficiency gas boilers, with near condensing efficiency at part load, are configured with a primary and secondary variable flow system to minimize pumping energy. Hot water is heated to 99 degree Celsius and has a target return temperature of 62 degrees Celsius. For cooling, the plant uses 30% propylene glycol cooled to 6 degrees Celsius by an air cooled package chiller with variable speed compressors configured with a 11,000 litre buffer tank as thermal store.
During the design phase, current good manufacturing practice regulations were utilized to ensure the correct flow of products and personnel within varying hygienic zones. Proper air balancing between zones mitigates the risk of cross contamination from raw flour and other food safety risk vectors. Each area of the plant was also evaluated for the potential of airborne or layered dust and proper measures and processes were implemented to avoid the build-up of dust in areas where its presence was unavoidable.
Lotus Bakeries has a robust quality management system based on BRC food standard and their own internal corporate requirements. The Mebane facility received BRC certification in December, which covers both food safety and quality. Part of the quality systems entails checking each lot of cookies for product or packaging defects. Each lot is assigned a quality score, and those scores serve as an important KPI for the plant.
Flexible packaging to accommodate a large number of SKUs
Biscoff cookies are flow wrapped in various formats, before being packed in cases or cartons. The primary packaging including accumulation conveyors, singulators, up-enders, robotic pick and place, flow wrappers, end sealers, check weighers, up and down spirals, and cartoners were all designed and integrated by Italian-based CAVANNA.
Dennis Group integrated additional equipment for material handling and secondary packaging. Conveyors, spirals, accumulators, weighers, labelers, tray packers, palletizers and stretch wrappers from OEMs such as Flexlink, Ambaflex, Aagard, Wulftech, Webber and Columbia were used.
The packaging system is exceptionally versatile, capable of handling packs of cookies in varying sizes in both cases or cartons in trays on a single line. Lotus can process a substantial number of SKUs on one line with minimal downtime for changeovers. Another unique design aspect is a vertical accumulation spiral which can accumulate a variety of sizes of products in a small footprint on the plant floor. The accumulator is integrated into the HMI, making changeovers automated.
Enhancements for worker safety
Worker safety is always a major consideration with designing a plant. Two notable design features were introduced in the dough mixer, which differed from Lotus Bakeries’ original plant. The sizeable dough mixer has customized spray balls that integrate into the CIP system. During the design phase, this novel application was tested using simulation modeling. In this manner, the mixer can be cleaned automatically without human intervention, while the old mixer required manual access for cleaning.
Another design improvement for the mixer was introducing a “trapped key”. The door to enter the mixer area can only be opened using a key that is part of the motor control panel. Removing the key from the panel makes it physically impossible to turn the mixer on. Therefore, a person cannot accidentally access the mixer while it is running, nor can someone accidentally turn it on while the personnel possessing the key are inside it.
Expansion is baked into the plans from the beginning
The initial $55 million investment in a U.S. facility is just the beginning for Lotus Bakeries. The company was awarded nearly $1.5 million in county incentives and $1.6 million from the City of Mebane based on creating 60 jobs with average salaries of close to $36,000. The plant started with two shifts but is increasing to three shifts next month. “We’re excited to be part of the Mebane community, and we’re already eyeing future expansion plans,” stated Bart Vanterwyngen, Director Of Manufacturing at Lotus Bakeries US.
A room dedicated to cookie spread processing and packaging is already built in the facility, which will greatly expedite installation and start-up for that product once Lotus Bakeries is ready to add it. The site and building were also designed for expansion, with current utilities sized for eight production lines and the master plan accounting for a total of 10 lines.
Prior to reaching 10% design during the earliest planning phase of the project, phased expansions were mapped out to gain consensus among the stakeholders and ensure the current design did not interfere with future expansions. As a cost-avoidance measure, the finished goods warehouse was constructed adjacent to the packaging material warehouse, and the sum of those two areas are sized for the packaging material warehouse required for total build-out at 10 production lines. The masterplan took into account a future location of a separate finished goods warehouse and shipping docks that will be built based upon needs at the that time.
Lotus Bakeries first foray outside of Belgium has been extremely successful. A safe job site was maintained though out the duration of the project with no recordable incidents over more than 100,000 hours of utility, process construction and start-up performed by 120 sub-contractors and vendors. The project finished on-time and on-budget and the new facility is producing close to 1 billion biscuits annually to the delight of airline flyers and consumers here in the United States.