An exploding market for meal kits demanded an upgrade to Blue Apron’s southwest operation. Food Plant Engineering built-out the first 50,000 square feet of the original operation and was asked to look at expanding it once again. The plant was originally conceived to produce meal kits with primarily manual means, but market demand grew to a point that only additional space and automation could address.
This project required not only a creative design mindset, but a thorough understanding of a unique operation that combines manufacturing with traditional ecommerce within the same building and business. FPE project managers were given a rough concept layout from Blue Apron’s startup team. We were able to improve upon the concept to create additional space for incoming materials, reduce travel distance for the product flow, improve the hygienic environment to produce the meal portions, and reduce the space needed for employee amenities.
Producing meal kits that contain ingredients that differ from week to week creates the need for adaptable storage. Our firm was able to work with Blue Apron’s plant management to devise a flexible storage and space plan to accommodate their needs. Containers, packages and pallets of all shapes and sizes needed to be stored. In addition to the large number of SKUs, Blue Apron’s raw materials have very high turns as these are typically not stored for more than a week. Temperature needs within this area range wildly as well, so flexibility is also necessary regarding freezers, coolers and temperature/humidity controlled dry ingredient storage.
In addition to a flexible storage plan, the production environment needed extreme flexibility to produce the large variety of SKUs needed. Though automation is typically well-suited for mass producing the same type of products in large quantities, our firm was able to help devise a strategy to implement targeted work cell automation. This allows for flexibility in production while reducing the workforce requirements.
This facility’s hygienic environment is critical, as a variety of food types are portioned from bulk ingredients into individual packages for assembly in mail order cases. Our design team determined that the operation should be separated into two basic room types, depending on the type of products being produced and packaged. One room type is a cooled low-humidity dry room, and the other is a refrigerated wet wash-down room. The vegetable processing operation required a cold and wet environment; the grains and spices needed a dry and cool environment, and the oils and liquids required a cool wash down environment. Our firm was able to position these different types of spaces into a layout that created a productive and hygienic work environment. In addition, many bins are utilized in the operation for the transporting of work-in-process. A plan for installing an automatic wash system was devised by our firm and added into the operations workflow to keep a circulation of clean bins available for use.
Significant collaboration between Blue Apron’s team and our firm’s designers was necessary to achieve the correct balance in processing areas. Our team learned the process flow of this operation, was willing to consider space tradeoffs, and designed in tight spaces. We were engaged in the entire process from start to finish.
The facility needed a way to increase the rate at which meal kits are packaged into shipping cartons. The original system involved mostly manual assembly line style packing and sorting. In order to automate this operation, our firm worked with a vendor that provided an automated pick-to-light style system and automatic sorting and slotting for the finished cartons. This system was installed while maintaining ongoing packing and shipping operations.