MRO Magazine

Focus on Harsh Environments: Pie-Squared Maintenance

It looks as easy as pie at the Sarsfield Foods Ltd. in Kentville, N.S., which runs flat out producing fruit pies. But not only does the maintenance team do its scheduled work on a daily downtime of ju...


September 1, 2000
By Carroll McCormick

It looks as easy as pie at the Sarsfield Foods Ltd. in Kentville, N.S., which runs flat out producing fruit pies. But not only does the maintenance team do its scheduled work on a daily downtime of just four hours — alongside the sanitation crews and their high-pressure washdown hoses — it has energy left over to design specialized automation equipment to make production operations more efficient.

To make the best use of its time, the team relies heavily on maintenance task scheduling, and works continually to optimize the schedules. “All of our maintenance history goes back in the computers. Are we going out there too often? Should we lube it more often? Should we replace that chain every three months instead of every five months? The refinement of the task scheduling is a continuous function that some people forget,” explains Lee Fisher, maintenance supervisor at Sarsfield since 1991.

Before joining Sarsfield, Fisher worked as a maintenance supervisor with a plastics company, then spent 17 years with Michelin Tire at its Waterville and Granton, N.S., plants as a maintenance supervisor.

Fisher bought the pie plant’s first computerized maintenance program — a small Datastream Systems Inc. package called Sidearm — in 1992, a year after Ready Bake Foods Ltd., headquartered in Mississauga, Ont., bought the family-run business and carried out a major expansion which doubled the plant size and raised to 150 the number of employees.

In 1995 Sarsfield installed Datastream’s MP2 maintenance software on a three-user license. His team has 528 pieces of equipment on MP2, with several pieces of equipment broken down into equipment subgroups. A small portion of MP2 is used for inventory but, says Fisher, “We don’t rely on it for inventory control.”

His department has 14 maintenance workers. When the plant is operating just two 10-hour shifts a day, six days a week, Fisher’s team has an extra day to do maintenance and repairs. More typically though, an extra shift takes a big bite out of that seventh day, making careful planning and coordination with the production and sanitation crews that much more important.

Maintenance has a small repair shop for bearing rebuilds and minor fabrication. “We have the expertise but not the stock on hand for major rebuilds,” says maintenance mechanic Bruce Falkinham. Sarsfield makes extensive use of outside contractors; for example, for high-precision machine shop work and refrigeration overhaul.

The maintenance team includes four licensed refrigeration operators who also function as equipment maintainers, doing production equipment preventive maintenance and the bulk of PM on building service equipment like HVAC and lighting.

Four of Fisher’s team members work on a rotating shift that covers all of the scheduled production times. “They ride the production crews and respond to breakdowns and assistance calls,” explains Fisher. Everyone on his team carries portable radios. Four more members work mainly the day shift and are involved in day-to-day problems, ordering parts, issuing work orders and coordinating contracts with outside contractors such as machine and welding shops.

There are two electrical/mechanical technologists on staff. One provides support for general electrical problems. The other spends about 75 per cent of his time furthering the development of automation in the plant and the rest of his time working in other support functions.

The maintenance department is responsible for the bulk of the equipment training. For example, they have cross-trained the production people to be able to make changeovers such as switching from 8-in. to 10-in. pies. Sarsfield relies on equipment suppliers for acceptance testing and initial training for running equipment.

Pie making at Sarsfield begins in three places: Pastry room workers prepare many thousands of pounds of pastry a day. In the second-storey mix room, operators prepare fillings such as strawberry-rhubarb, cherry and blueberry. In the peeling room, huge Atlas Pacific peelers peel and slice apples for apple pies, which account for 40 per cent of plant production. These sources feed the pie line.

A recent challenge for the maintenance department was designing better guards for the two Glen Mixers, which have 80-gal vats for mixing pie filling ingredients. The manufacturer could not help, so the maintenance team worked with the production people and the Occupational Health and Safety Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Labour to design and build guards that would work automatically and allow the mixer operators to maintain their cycle times. Maintenance also programmed the PLC that directs the mixer heads to park at the back of the vats and raise the guards so the operator can add ingredients. The new guards looks simple but, says Fisher, “there were so many things that had to be accommodated, compromises were made.”

Fisher’s team configured and designed all of the infrastructure around the Atlas Pacific peelers, purchasing the system components and marrying them together. Their innovations include optical scanners that reject bruised slices with lightning-quick puffs of air as they fly off the end of a belt and equipment that weighs the rejected slices, providing the maintenance crew with feedback on how efficiently the peelers are running. The PLC control panels, from which an operator can run the entire peeling room and apple loader, were also designed in-house.

100 pies a minute

The centre of the action for both production and maintenance is the rarely-silent pie line — Sarsfield is a single-line plant — along the west wall of the main production floor. Over 100 pies roll off it every minute. The maintenance team has developed a lot of special equipment for this line; for example, automation equipment that allows the equipment that doles filling into the pie shells to communicate and react to the scales that weigh the pies. No photographs are allowed here, to protect the proprietary nature of the design.

The pies race off the pie line to take a ride through an enormous spiral freezer, organized rather like two side-by-side parking garages. At any one time, thousands of pies are slowly making their way through it. At the far end they come out completely frozen. From the freezer every pie passes through an X-ray machine that looks for foreign matter and then through packing machines.

The maintenance department deals constantly with three major challenges: The first is carrying out its business during four hours of downtime a day — alongside the sanitation department. “The lines of communication work very well. We work very closely together,” says Fisher.

The second is working around a production schedule that is so customer-driven that it can be rewritten almost on the spot. To illustrate, Fisher jerks his thumb to the peeler room, which is quiet at the moment. “If [production] were to change the schedule right now from fruit pies to apple pies — we are trying to do some of maintenance work there right now — they might not be able to get in there for another hour. Our maintenance schedule is so tight, we have to deke in there when we can.”

Toughest though is that pie line. “There is no back-up, no redundancy. That’s our challenge,” says Falkinham. It has a lot of high-speed components that must at once survive pastry dust and water. Too, even during the daily downtime, it is usually running so the sanitation department can do its job. On the shutdown day, maintenance typically puts in 24 to 30 man-hours doing lubrication, maintenance and repair.

PM is critical

During the weeks of the year — 52 of them in some years — when the third shift is on, preventive maintenance on the pie line is critical. “It is running all the time,” says Falkinham. “That is what we have to prepare for. During the time of the year when it is running fewer hours, we get everything right up to par so we can run under an aggressive schedule. That is the only way this equipment can be run under a maximum production schedule.”

One day in early July someone smelled heated oil somewhere on the pie line.
It was an overheated bearing in a 10-hp drive motor. “Three of us tore it out, rebuilt the whole motor and got it back in the line in an hour and a half. That’s the name of the game in maintenance,” says Falkinham, adding for the record that they have never suffered a breakdown that shut the place down and sent everyone home.

Falkinham gives high praise to the local manufacturers and suppliers that provide Sarsfield with parts: “They are second to none. Those people will open their shops 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We have full access. I think it is because it is a small town. We can call anyone, any time.”

Contributing editor Carroll McCormick of Montreal travelled to Nova Scotia in the summer to examine maintenance in Atlantic Canada industries. His favourite kind of pie is blueberry.