Another new mill for Mennel

by Arvin Donley
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While new flour mills are being built from the ground up in many parts of the world, construction projects in the United States (U.S.) typically involve renovating mills that have been around for decades in order to increase milling capacity.

One U.S. milling company that has bucked that trend is Fostoria, Ohio-based Mennel Milling Company, which has opened two brand new flour mills during the past 24 months, the most recent being a $31 million, 10,000-cwt-per-day (600 tonnes per day of wheat) facility in Roanoke, Virginia, U.S.

It is the second-largest mill owned by Mennel, which operates five mills in the U.S. that primarily process soft wheat into flour that is used to make a wide range of products such as cookies, cakes, donuts and ice cream cones.

"The new mill doubles the capacity of the old mill and allows us to pick up customers whom we could not accommodate because of capacity limitations at the old mill," said Mennel Milling Company President Don Mennel, who was in Roanoke on Aug. 14 for the mill’s grand opening.

The six-story, slipform concrete structure, which sits in a picturesque valley near the Blue Ridge Mountains, is quite an upgrade from the company’s 80-year-old wooden structure located in downtown Roanoke.

In contrast to that manually operated facility, the new mill includes highly automated milling equipment supplied by Cremona, Italy-based Ocrim, SpA. To emphasize that point, Don Mennel noted to the 150 people attending the grand opening ceremony that flour was being produced even as his employees were attending the festivities outside the mill.

"I want you to know that while they’re standing here, that mill’s running," Mennel said.

He added that the mill will soon be capable of running in "lights-out" mode, meaning that it can be operated from a remote location via computer, without employees inside the mill.

To help ease the transition of going from a manual mill to a highly automated one, eight Mennel employees were sent to Ocrim’s milling school in Cremona, Italy prior to the opening of the new mill for a two-week course (For more information on the school, see feature on page 50).

Serving as the general contractor for the project was T.E. Ibberson Co., South Hopkins, Minnesota, U.S., while Greenway Electric Inc., Wichita, Kansas, U.S. installed the electrical controls. Ibberson and Greenway worked together on another Mennel project in 2005, when the company built a 5,000-cwt-per-day mill in Bucyrus, Ohio, U.S., which was the first "greenfield" project in the company’s history.

"Our experience with the Bucyrus mill prepared us for the length of time it would take to choose contractors and design the mill," Don Mennel said. "It also allowed us to make decisions up front so that we minimized the number of change orders."

Prior to the Aug. 14 ribbon-cutting ceremony, Mennel officials had to cut through plenty of "red tape," not to mention soil, to get the facility built.

The company was forced to examine its options regarding the construction of a new mill about six years ago when the City of Roanoke threatened to take Mennel’s downtown mill via eminent domain to make room for a biomedical complex.

"We were also in the flood zone of the Roanoke River, so we had hoped to be able to move at some point in time and had purchased the property on which the new mill is now located," Don Mennel said.

After several years of negotiations, Mennel accepted $8 million in public funds for its downtown property in 2004 on the condition that the city allowed the company to keep milling grain at that location for three years while the new mill was being built. To ensure that Mennel remained in Virginia, the state offered several financial incentives including a $250,000 performance-based grant from the Virginia Investment Partnership program and eligibility to receive rail access funding through the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

While Mennel officials were working through the financial details as well as obtaining the various permits needed for constructing the mill, they also learned that they had an equally challenging issue to deal with at the construction site.

"The ground was not as stable as we thought it would be so we ended up having to put a substantial number of pilings in so that it would be able to support the mill and elevators," Don Mennel said.

In addition to that unforeseen cost, Mennel also decided to make the mill’s capacity 10,000 cwts per day rather than the 7,500 it originally had planned.

"We made the decision to go with 10,000 hundredweights rather than 7,500 when Ocrim and Greenway explained to us how complex it would be and how long of a shutdown we would have to go through to make that expansion," Don Mennel said. "We decided that we’d bite the bullet and do it now."

Like the previous facility, the new mill is designed to process both soft and hard wheat, although it is primarily a soft wheat mill. However, the new mill is capable of producing whole wheat flour, something that couldn’t be done at the old mill.

With statistics indicating the demand for whole wheat products is on the rise (a recent survey by World Grain’s sister publication, Milling & Baking News, of the U.S.’s top milling companies found a 26% increase in 2005-06 output over the previous year), Don Mennel said it made sense to add whole wheat flour to its offerings.

"With the whole wheat market grow- ing the way it was, we decided to include it in the building schematics when we did this mill," he said.

Mennel sources most of its wheat (primarily soft red winter wheat) from Virginia, with most of it being shipped in by rail on the Northfolk Southern rail line. The wheat is dumped into its eight slipform concrete storage bins, which have a total capacity of 800,000 bushels (21,722 tonnes). Storage capacity at the new site is about 50% larger than at the downtown facility, Don Mennel said.

He described the mill flow as being "relatively standard." After leaving the cleaning house, wheat runs through double-high roller mills before passing through a series of roller mills, sifters and purifiers. The flour is enriched with ingredients supplied by Research Products Co., Salina, Kansas, U.S., before being conveyed to storage bins.

Because flour made from "eastern soft wheat" tends to be stickier than flour made from other wheat varieties, the stainless steel spouting was installed using relatively steep angles at certain points to prevent the choking of product. The mill also has the ability to hydrate the flour at the end of the mill run so that the soft wheat running through the mill can contain lower moisture content.

Just as the increased automation should improve milling efficiency, having the equipment housed inside a concrete structure as opposed to a wooden one should also make it a bit easier to maintain Mennel’s high sanitation standards.

"Wood is always a challenge from a sanitation perspective," Don Mennel said. "It splinters, it cracks, it dries, it needs to be sanded and taken care of. This mill should be much easier to take care of."

Although Mennel has the capability of transporting its finished flour products by rail, most of the flour is sent by truck to its local customers in Virginia, which include Maple Leaf Bakery in Roanoke and McKee Foods Corporation in Stuarts Draft.

By doubling its production capacity in Roanoke, Mennel said it is now in better position to serve the market.

"There had been several customers that we weren’t able to serve because we didn’t have enough capacity," he said. "We’re hoping to get back to several of them as well as other customers."