JR Automation helps cut costs at Butterball

June 14, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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When Kevin Bowe goes out to dinner with his wife, she sometimes notices that he is intently studying the fancy butter pats.

“My wife just laughs at me,” he said. That’s because she knows he can never look at a butter pat again without stopping to consider the engineering technology that may have gone into making it.

Bowe is a mechanical engineer and business unit manager at JR Automation Technologies LLC, located on Tyler Street a few miles north of Holland. Bowe was the leader of the JR project team that designed, built and installed millions of dollars worth of automated machinery at Butterball Farms on Buchanan Street in southwest Grand Rapids.

The city of Grand Rapids recently issued a PA 198 industrial facilities tax exemption certificate to Butterball in support of the company’s $3 million investment in a new production line. The new line dramatically reduces the amount of plastic packaging material required, thereby reducing packaging costs to make the product more price competitive.

Butterball Farms may be the largest specialty embossed butter producer in North America. It buys butter in bulk and repackages it into single-serving pats, and also forms butter into specialized designs for high-end restaurants such as those in swanky hotels. Butterball also is the source of the butter pats embossed with the logo of one of America’s best-known fast food franchises. The butter is served with the chain’s hotcakes breakfast.

At least two million prepackaged butter pats are produced every day at Butterball, according to President Dave Riemersma.

Bowe said JR began the project at Butterball last August. It was completed in early June, resulting in a production line 109 feet long, which functions like a single machine but is really a series of integrated machines. The automation enabled the company to eliminate 61 unskilled jobs, which were replaced with 16 highly skilled jobs paying $16 an hour, according to a city of Grand Rapids memo on the tax exemption.

Both Bowe and Riemersma noted the radical improvement in waste reduction on the new line that forms the butter pats: It will reduce plastic scrap by about 400,000 pounds annually, according to Riemersma.

Bowe said the line is unique in the way it transfers the butter from one machine to the next — in plastic trays containing 160 small cups. In fact, Butterball’s process is so advanced, the company has applied for a patent on the system.

The production engineers at Butterball told Bowe that “there’s no machine builder currently that builds a machine quite like what we just did. It’s very unique,” said Bowe.

Up until a few years ago, JR was best known for building automated production equipment for automotive parts and furniture factories. “In the 1980s and 1990s, that’s where we really made our bread and butter,” said Bowe.

“We were actually pretty lucky,” he added. “We started to diversify in the late ’90s and early 2000s.”

That diversification was into equipment made for the pharmaceutical industry and for a variety of consumer products.

Butterball was not its entry into food processing equipment. JR has built machinery for Request Foods in Holland and for a Campbell’s Soup plant in Seattle.

“We stayed busy” during the worst of the economic downturn, Bowe said, when automotive and office furniture production slowed dramatically. But that doesn’t mean the company completely avoided the downsizing felt throughout Michigan industry in 2008 and 2009. Bowe said there was a reduction in headcount at JR, too.

“We slowed down like everyone else,” he said. “A little later than most people, and then we picked up a lot sooner than most people.”

The company currently has about 210 employees, according to Bowe, and he guesses about a third of those are degreed engineers. The company joke is “we’re an engineering company that happens to build machines,” said Bowe.

JR Automation Technologies was founded as a one-man-shop in 1980 by Ken Assink, according to Bowe. The initials J and R stand for the first letters of Assink’s daughters’ names. In 1995, the company was acquired by Huizenga Group, a privately held West Michigan group of tooling and manufacturing companies with headquarters on 36th Street in Kentwood.

Bowe said the general appearance inside JR Technologies changes completely every few months when the machines under construction are completed and shipped to customers, and work begins on completely different types of machines.

“We very rarely build the same machine twice,” he said.

Probably the most rapidly changing aspect of manufacturing technology now is “the use of robots,” according to Bowe. “Their cost has come down and it’s making them very affordable to use” instead of servos or multiple pneumatic devices, he said.

Riemersma said the investment Butterball made in its plant was needed to keep up with technology, and thus keep the company a contender in the highly competitive world of food processing. He said the company’s priority right now is to help the displaced workers find jobs.

“We are using all our community connections to identify potential opportunities” for those former employees, said Riemersma. Butterball has actually placed calls to potential employers, he said, to make sure they are aware of the workers’ abilities to work in a high-based environment.

“They also know good manufacturing principles,” he noted.

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