In the Middle of Many Departments, Communication is Key for this Lab
“If it can be made out of corn, we pretty well make it.” That statement by Eric Collop, lab manager at Lifeline Foods’ (Saint Joseph, MO) quality control lab, sums up the corn product and ethanol plant in a nutshell. Or, a corn kernel, in this case. Using every part of the corn kernel, the food plant at Lifeline produces brewer’s grits, multiple varieties of corn meal, masa flour (used in Mexican-style foods such as tortillas), and food binder—based on corn starch—for some of the largest food and beverage manufacturers in North America. The parts of the corn kernel not used for food products are transferred to the company’s fuel ethanol facility where they are used to produce ethanol, dried distillers grain—a high-quality animal feed— and corn oil.
It’s the lab’s job to make sure those products meet the customer’s needs.
“Our role in the lab is to ensure the quality of the product throughout the process and to certify the product before it leaves the facility,” Collop explains. “All products are routinely tested throughout production by both lab and production staff to ensure that any issues are corrected before final packaging. Once in the finished container (bulk rail, truck, or packaged), the product is tested for all the key attributes the customer requires, and a COA [certificate of analysis] is produced before the shipment leaves the facility.”
Almost all of the roughly 2,000 samples the lab deals with each month are tested for three main attributes— moisture, fats, and granulation. Brewer’s grits, for example, are much coarser than cornmeal or corn flour.
Those analyses are handled by Collop and his staff of four lab techs, who work 12-hour rotating shifts to provide 24/7 coverage to the facility, and one full-time microbiologist. However, all 150 of Lifeline’s employees play a role in the quality of the final product.
Company culture and getting schooled
Employees taking ownership of their tasks is a big part of working at Lifeline, as reflected in the fact that all employees receive company culture training when they start.
“For example, if a guy’s filling bags of snack meal all day long, we want him to take ownership of that process, so that if he sees something that could be done better or differently, more efficiently, we definitely encourage him to bring those thoughts forward,” Collop explains. “It just makes our job easier and, by default, makes us more profitable.”
Specifically for those in the lab, training concentrates mostly on standard operating procedures (SOPs) and good lab practices for the first two weeks before employees are schooled in how the corn mill and ethanol plant work.
“The more they know about the actual production processes, the easier it is for my department to be able to assist them [production staff] with any issues they’re having,” Collop says.
Training also involves HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) and plant safety, with all employees doing mandatory safety training for one hour each month. While lab staff don’t face the same hazards as production staff, they do need to make sure they are wearing steel-toed boots, hard hats, safety glasses, and hair nets to protect the products they produce, and just use common-sense caution, Collop says, adding that Lifeline has a full-time environmental health and safety manager to handle all safety issues.
Collop has a unique insight into his employees’ jobs, as he has worked essentially all the positions in the lab since starting as a lab tech at Lifeline nine years ago, moving on to the ethanol testing side, then unofficially filling the microbiology position before becoming lab manager.
“That gives me a better outlook, I feel, than somebody just coming in and managing the lab,” Collop says. “I’ve actually done their jobs and I know what’s required to do their jobs, so I know how much workload they can or can’t handle. I think they appreciate that—that I’ve done their jobs before and have a pretty good understanding of what they’re doing.”
He adds that, while Lifeline prefers lab staff to have a bachelor’s degree in either biology or chemistry, past experience in a lab setting is also important, and postsecondary education isn’t absolutely necessary to do well.
“I have had lab techs with a high school diploma up through master’s degrees, and all can be successful,” Collop notes.
Job variety, challenges, and communication
Like many lab managers, Collop is responsible for a number of duties that change with Lifeline’s business needs. Those tasks include handling all staffing issues in the lab to maintain 24/7 coverage, communicating results to production employees and upper management, troubleshooting off-spec product or processes, and maintaining and repairing testing equipment throughout the facility. He also takes care of the inventory and purchasing of lab supplies, assists customers with any product issues, helps the sales team with new product development and customer plant visits, and is involved with the SQF (safe quality food) audit process, as well as other third-party audits.
“The lab has oversight of all production areas in the plant, so I constantly have to stay updated on changes in the process,” Collop says, adding that variety is what he enjoys most about his position. “It is never the same; I cover a lot of ground throughout the day. In any given day I can be sitting at my desk working on reports one minute, then be crawling in a tank or be covered in corn flour the next.”
The sheer size of the Lifeline facility, which is situated on about 35 acres, also presents some challenges to the job. The lab itself is 4,500 square feet, and there are five satellite labs spread across all production areas and the scale house (grain receiving area) to test in-process product as well as incoming corn.
“As with any production facility, there are many moving parts that can affect quality. Our corn mill alone is six floors,” Collop says. “As an example, one sifter screen out of hundreds can become worn and affect the granulation profile—finding that worn screen requires constant vigilance.”
Communication is the key to handling the challenges of working in such a large facility, with lab staff constantly monitoring the data and detecting issues before they become major problems.
“The lab staff is trained to communicate any variance in the product to the operators so it can be corrected,” Collop says. “Using historical data from the lab, the maintenance department can then adjust our preventive maintenance program accordingly.”
Documentation is also an important part of that communication process.
“If you call someone on a radio and say, ‘Hey your moisture’s high,’ there’s no record of that,” Collop explains. “If it’s not written down, it never happened.”
Lifeline, which got started in 2001 and added its ethanol plant in 2007, now has a system similar to a LIMS, in which any analysis of moisture, etc., is automatically entered into a database, which can then be accessed live on the Web by the production staff.
“That’s helped a lot, and I see a lot more of that coming in the future,” Collop says of the system, adding that many of the production and maintenance areas have switched to using iPads for documentation. “This has streamlined our documentation to a very efficient level, since documents are accessible to management immediately on completion. I see the lab moving to this setup in the next year.”
Each lab tech also communicates what occurred during his or her shift to the next lab tech during the changeover to the following shift, helping to keep things organized.
“Communication is the key, whether it’s verbal, email, text, phone, radio, or documentation,” Collop says. “Communication in the lab is flowing at all times.”
How things are changing
Currently, Lifeline is going through a renovation of its entire corn mill, which has meant installing state-of-theart Buhler milling equipment. It also means the strong communication and teamwork between lab and corn mill staff will be more important than ever.
“This will increase our mill’s efficiency, allowing us to make more product using less corn,” Collop says of the upgrades. “In the coming month [November], the lab will be instrumental in assisting the milling staff in finetuning the new equipment.”
As far as recent changes in the overall industry, Collop says new requirements by food retailers have had the biggest effect.
“In the past few years, major retailers have begun to require suppliers to [meet] a standard approved by the Global Food Safety Initiative,” he says. “Lifeline Foods obtained SQF certification in 2012, which ensures that all policies, procedures, and actions of the facility are directed toward making safe, quality food.”
And, of course, the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011, which aims to ensure that the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from reaction to prevention, had an impact as well.
“Although most of the requirements were already being addressed by Lifeline Foods, it added more government reporting requirements,” Collop noted of the recent change.
However, meeting those requirements, as well as the company’s own high standards for quality, is made easier by Lifeline’s strong focus on teamwork and results, which are rewarded through company-sponsored lunches, tickets to sporting events, gift certificates, and an employee bonus plan.
“At Lifeline Foods, we focus on, reward, and celebrate results, not effort alone,” Collop says. “The whole process is a team effort.”
And it also helps with motivation that Lifeline is linked to industries that aren’t likely to become unimportant anytime soon, including companies that make Collop’s favorite corn-based products—extruded corn snacks such as cheese puffs, and beer.
“It’s nice to be tied in with industries that aren’t going away, and the corn snack-food industry and beer sure aren’t going away,” he says. “It’s good to have that security.”
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