It's harvest season at National Frozen Foods Corp., and vegetables are everywhere at the company's processing plant in Chehalis, Wash.
Under an overcast late-summer sky, a truck rumbles up to the plant and dumps a pile of corn that was picked just hours ago. Diesel-powered shovels scoop up the crop and pour it into a chute that feeds the corn onto a conveyor belt, where the husky ears begin an hourlong journey through the bowels of the sprawling factory.
Inside there's thunderous noise and an overpoweringly sweet smell as the leafy, green ears bounce into a series of husking and cutting and blanching machines, emerging as perfectly manicured yellow cobs or shiny kernels. A hundred and fifty ears a minute race through this automated gauntlet, and workers in hard hats and rain gear hose down machines and prod at produce to keep the vegetables moving. On the other side of the building, quarter-sized slugs of carrots spin in a cylinder, and vats of bubbling orange froth overflow. Water sloshes across the floor.
Eventually, all conveyor belts lead to freezers where each kernel or carrot slice is blasted with arctic air until it is colder than zero degrees. The yellow and orange ice cubes are funneled into dishwasher-sized boxes called "totes," which are slapped with bar-code labels, then trucked across town and stacked in a cold-storage facility the size of six football fields.
On the loading dock, John Meersman, the company's director of IT, dodges speeding forklifts driven by operators in ski hats and parkas and slips into a cavernous warehouse. "I hate going in here," says Meersman, his breath forming clouds in the cold air.
The company's business is slicing, freezing and packaging vegetables. Meersman's job is to use technology to reduce costs and improve efficiencies. After bringing the almost century-old company into the digital age with e-mail and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, Meersman and his five-person team have begun deploying advanced solutions to better manage the organization's two most vital assets: its employees and its frozen food. Using a time-and-attendance system, National Frozen Foods can now automatically schedule its seasonal workforce, which balloons from 600 full-time employees to 1,700 during the fall harvest. A bar-code inventory system allows the company to seamlessly track each box of produce as it moves through the warehousing and distribution system. And a beta demand-forecasting product helps select the right mix of vegetables to plant a year ahead of harvest time. All of which, Meersman says, makes for increased productivity and improved employee and customer satisfaction.
While you might take frozen carrots for granted, it's a multibillion-dollar industry defined by fierce competition, razor-thin margins and logistical challenges. "The frozen-food section is the most cutthroat section in the entire store," says Dale Hagemeyer, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "What's tricky about the frozen section is capacity. There's only so much space. And it's much more expensive to haul frozen stuff. Logistically, it's hard to get it all right."
Thus, saving a penny per pound is crucial to National's bottom line. "Reducing cost is always on our minds," says Meersman. "The game is watching costs and looking for efficiencies."
This was first published in December 2005