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A personal test of mettle . . . and concrete

Learn how improvements at Allen Family Foods' Seaford, DE milling facility have created efficiencies in both production and traffic flow.

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Every day we juggle career obligations, family schedules and other responsibilities in an effort to keep our professional and personal lives humming along at peak efficiency. Juggling schedules is a concept Chad Allen, manager of the Milling and Grain Division for Allen’s Hatchery Inc., and Allen Family Foods, Seaford, DE, understands in spades.

“We had quite a lot to accomplish in a short period of time,” says Allen. “In order to take advantage of certain marketing opportunities, we had to get this facility up and running, and it would require we take an unconventional approach to make it work.”

How unconventional? Well, considering that the project had to be fully operational in less than 18 months, the grain receiving systems would be built before the mill, and actually taking grain in five months. During mill construction, the facility would be located on virgin ground with no access road and, to top it off, the water table on the site was roughly 6 feet below the soil surface; “unconventional” could be one of many words used to describe the project.

Why the rush?

When the management at Allen’s decided to build the new mill, it had done so with an eye toward future growth in supplying high-quality protein products to both domestic and global customers.

When it was founded by Charles and Nellie Allen in 1919 as a hatchery, the Allens probably couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams that their company would grow to become a fully integrated operation with more than 3,000 employees in North Carolina, Delaware and Maryland. Today Allen’s processes more than 2.5 million birds and packing roughly 12 million pounds of product weekly.

To satisfy demand takes a lot of chickens, and a lot of chicken feed. Chad Allen points out that the quality of the feed and feed ingredients has allowed the company to have great success and that commitment to producing a high-quality feed is the linchpin to growth now and in the future.

“We think we have set a high standard for the product we bring to the marketplace, and we are not interested in any shortcut or other practice that would result in any savings at the expense of our feed quality,” Allen states. “Our reputation and growth depends on the quality and we will not compromise that process in any way.”

However, as 2007 loomed, Allen’s made a conscious decision that in order to position itself for a better future and to maintain its competitive edge, it needed to relieve some of the stress on its aging milling operation. The best way to do that was to build a new facility to the same exacting standards it holds for its finished products.

“Our facility was running at six and a half days a week almost constantly, and we discovered that when we shut down to conduct routine maintenance we were losing time, efficiency and productivity,” says Scott Hevner, corporate engineering manager for Allen Family Foods. “In a highly competitive market, the downtime and operational inefficiencies proved unacceptable to the Allens and the decision to build a new facility became an obvious one.”

What was also obvious to Allen, Hevner and the rest of the management team was that in order to take advantage of market conditions and to secure a steady supply of locally produced corn they needed to have the receiving and storage capabilities to have large inventories of grain available when the mill came on line.

As a result, the first in what would prove to be several unconventional and challenging elements of this project would be set, as the first shovel of dirt would be turned in the spring of 2007 and grain receiving would begin later that year in time for the fall harvest. In a sense, the project was to be built in reverse, with the receiving and storage coming before the mill construction.

Now all that was needed was to find the right design and construction partner to live the dream right along with Allen’s.

Be careful what you ask for

After a fast-paced search process, the job for the new Seaford mill project was awarded to Younglove Construction LLC, of Sioux City, IA, with Loren Field serving as project manager. In the building and design services business, anytime you secure a project, it’s perfectly natural to be excited and allow yourself to bask in the glow of victory. However, Field and his team were facing a daunting task on several levels.

“Allen’s had a very aggressive construction schedule, and there was still a great deal of prep work at the site which needed to be done first, before we could mobilize trailers, equipment and manpower to the site,” says Field. “Since it was a ‘Green Field site,’ a road roughly a mile long had to be constructed from the highway to the site.

“The site contractor had to complete site access to allow for deliveries of concrete, rebar, structural steel, not to mention access by the construction crews,” Field recalls.

The first real success story of the project occurred before turning the first wheel on the site. Both the management team from Allen’s and Younglove’s project team worked diligently with local officials to attain the proper permitting and even worked with the local power company to move power lines to accommodate rail construction.

With soil and other environmental testing completed, all permitting in place, access roads built and the weather turning favorable, it was time to start building, and fast. It was April and the first deadline hung out there for all to see like blankets on a clothesline, only a scant few months away.

“Our two primary goals of receiving local grains by the fall and having the mill fully operational by July of 2008 hadn’t changed,” says Hevner, “And knowing what that entailed, we basically approached the receiving and milling work as two separate projects.”

Now that the receiving facility was first on the work docket, it was time to go to work and get wet.

Water, water everywhere

The nemesis of any building project is wet weather as rain often causes sloppy conditions and costly delays. Now imagine that wetness being a constant companion throughout the entire building process and you have a good idea of the conditions surrounding the project. Only instead of the water falling down on the project, imagine it coming up from ground itself.

A quick glance at an atlas tells you that the Seaford location — much like the entire state of Delaware — is surrounded by major bodies of water including a river less than five miles away, and Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean less than 30 miles in either direction of the facility.

What you have then is a location that is roughly 20 feet above sea level with a water table at 5 feet. Not the most ideal scenario for a major building project featuring several massive concrete structures and storage for more than 1 million bushels of corn.

“We had an immense dewatering task facing us and with the aggressive building schedule, it took a lot of planning, hard work and some luck with the weather to get the receiving tunnel built,” says Field. “The engineering work done ahead of time helped us ‘game-plan’ the dewatering process and create efficiencies so we didn’t incur any delays during the excavation.”

The receiving tunnel measured 20 feet wide, 90 feet long and 20 feet deep, and Younglove intended to use their typical concrete pour techniques to build the tunnel — setting forms and pouring to shape.

During the process, dewatering pumps were constantly moving water away from the excavation site at nearly 1,500 gallons/minute initially and 500 gallons/minute on a steady basis thereafter. However, a key ingredient, and it literally was an “ingredient,” that helped make the tunnel form hold fast was found in the concrete itself.

“We have worked with wet conditions before but nothing on the scale of what we would face with the Allen’s project,” says Field. “We added a compound called Xypex to the concrete mix which essentially makes the concrete impervious to water, which allowed us to do the pour and greatly reduce our risk for delay. It set beautifully and held firm so despite the challenging environment, we maintained our project schedule.”

Hevner points out that the company caught a break not only with the weather but with the local expertise of the subcontractors and workers on the job.

“The contribution of the local subcontractors to the project was incalculable,” Hevner points out. “Having worked in this region and having familiarity with local conditions helped us avoid a lot of problems.

“Before the slip-form work was completed in November of 2007, we had to put pilings almost 80 feet deep to secure the foundation for the silos which required a constant pour,” says Hevner. “Our concrete partners kept trucks rolling 24/7 throughout the pour so we wouldn’t lose any time, all the while receiving grain at the same time.”

Parallel projects

With the tunnel work done and construction of the conveying and storage well underway, the task turned to getting the mill going full speed ahead.

“Even during the prep work for the receiving facility, site prep for the mill project was going on simultaneously,” says Allen. “Part of the magic in keeping those projects moving on parallel tracks came down to the little things having a large impact on the project, such as traffic management.”

With hundreds of trucks making hundreds of trips to the jobsite, keeping the traffic flow moving was imperative to hitting the project’s aggressive timeline. Managing that flow with proper signage, training of the drivers themselves and staging of the projects all made a difference.

“We made a conscious effort to keep workstations as far apart from one another as possible to minimize potential gridlock,” says Hevner. “We were doing a great deal of prebuilding of infrastructure like legs and towers, away from the primary site so when it came time to install we could move quickly without interrupting the flow on the storage and mill sites.”

Allen’s had that luxury from the get-go, when it selected its site — a 40-acre parcel it owned — with enough space around it to serve as a staging site, a luxury many sites don’t have.

As fall and the local harvest approached, the traffic management concept would be severely tested as local growers bringing in their product and concrete trucks shared space.

“We planned it so we were working on an aspect of the mill project located farthest away from grain receiving in order to reduce traffic,” says Hevner. “An access road was constructed to help direct construction trucks to a different route as well.”

In the spirit of cooperation that became the trademark of the project, local producers got into the act by showing flexibility in their delivery times to accommodate construction traffic.

Teamwork the key

Creating and capturing efficiencies, while enhancing quality of the overall product, was the overarching goal of the project and became evident both inside and outside the facility.

“The site location is a prime example of capturing efficiency with its location near the Norfolk/Southern rail line,” says Hevner. “This offered a chance for us to capture efficiency to bring in 75-car unit trains all year round to augment our supply of locally produced grain.”

Younglove’s Field says the cooperation of its many suppliers made it possible to complete interior work in the face of tight scheduling and an even tighter supply environment.

“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our supplier/partners for keeping equipment coming into the site in order to get this project done on time,” Field says. “If you recall, this was a time when biofuel plant construction was running hot and heavy, and the industry as a whole, had a difficult time with equipment orders — in some cases lead times were as much as 18 to 20 months.”

Younglove’s relationship with suppliers like Intersystems, CPM, Brock, APEC and Beta Raven made it possible to ensure the equipment and tech support was available to make installation deadlines.

As the calendar read July 2008, the project was completed on schedule and on budget in 15 months.

The mill facility features include 20,000 bushels/hour corn receiving and 240 tons/hour ingredient receiving capabilities, 50 tons/hour grinding; 19 ingredient bins with 1,700 tons of storage capacities, just to name a few. The facility manufactures feed at a 65-ton/hour rate and has a second line capability for a potential output of 130 tons/hour.

Even more compelling, the enhanced automation and streamlined construction of the mill’s interior meant product had to travel less from start to finish, maintenance could be done much easier and in a more timely fashion, and the whole plant could be run using less labor.

“We set out to create a facility that would allow us to achieve our goals for years to come,” says Allen. “Like everything Allen’s Hatchery sets out to do, we do it with quality in mind. This project and all those who touched it — the suppliers, engineers, local contractors, regulatory agency representatives and our construction partners — worked incredibly hard to maintain that pledge. We are extremely pleased with the results and have noticed a significant payback relative to throughput efficiencies and feed quality.”

A project like this also proves that it’s nice to know whom you can count on in crunch time.

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