In spring 2009, employees at Tate & Lyle’s sucralose factory in McIntosh, Alabama, got some grim news. The site – the first in the world to produce sucralose on an industrial scale - was being mothballed, with production shifting to T&L’s new facility in Singapore.
While the dismal state of the economy presumably did not help, bosses ascribed the move to “a technological breakthrough” enabling Tate & Lyle to boost sucralose yields by a whopping 25%, making it possible to meet demand from a single plant.
Almost exactly two years later, however, the McIntosh team – which by then had all found work elsewhere - started to get phone calls at 7.00 in the morning.
The caller was former operations manager Mark Huber – phoning from Singapore at 8.00 at night – asking them if they wanted to return to McIntosh and get the show back on the road…
Rising demand for healthier products in the face of spiraling obesity and type II diabetes coupled with volatile sugar prices, meant sucralose demand was back with a vengeance, said Huber, and bosses wanted to bring Alabama out of retirement and lick it back into shape, fast.
After proving sucralose could be made in the lab, the next stage was building a pilot facility at a Johnson & Johnson site run by its McNeil Specialty Products division in Athens, Georgia. When this proved a success, the McIntosh plant was commissioned and built in the late 1990s.
In spring 2004, Tate & Lyle took over the manufacturing of sucralose and the responsibility for selling it as an industrial ingredient to food and beverage manufacturers, while McNeil Nutritionals took responsibility for sales of Splenda-branded consumer products to retail and food service customers.
A £40m expansion program to double 2004 capacity levels at McIntosh was completed in 2006, while a new £100m facility opened in Singapore in April 2007.
I wanted them to hear from me personally
Huber, who left Alabama in July 2007 to jet over to Singapore, moved swiftly into action as soon as the official announcement to reopen McIntosh was made in May 2011.
“Since it was announced in UK time and I was in Singapore, I began calling people in the US at 7am central time or 8pm in Singapore. I was up all night and into the next morning.
“I started calling everyone I used to work with that I still had a number for. I wanted them to hear from me personally.”
So what kind of response did he get?
“It was a pretty successful 24 hours,” he says. “Most of them jumped at the chance. And that’s not because they needed a job – by that time they had all found work somewhere else. They wanted to come back.
“In the end, about 50% of the salaried staff came back and 80% of the hourly staff, which is just incredible.”
The twilight zone
Spring and summer 2011 was “pretty crazy” recalls Huber, a chemical engineer who was recruited back in the late 1990s when the McIntosh plant was being built by Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Specialty Products division.
Huber, who moved rapidly up the ranks at McIntosh, was operations manager when he left for Singapore in July 2007. By May 2008, he had been promoted to plant manager at Singapore.
“Between April and July 2011 I was traveling back and forth between here and Singapore every couple of weeks”, says Huber, who was in a jetlagged-fueled twilight zone for much of the changeover period.
“I would be back here working, leave the plant, get to my hotel and collapse and then be wide awake again at 2am.”
People, plan, plant…
But the hard work paid off, because Alabama is now back in business – three months ahead of schedule.
“It’s about people, plan and plant”, says Huber, who now has about 90 members of staff on the team in McIntosh.
“We’ve got some new team members, but we’ve also got people that know how this plant works, because they were there from the beginning, so we have been able to hit the ground running.”
The first batch of sucralose rolled off the production line on February 16. And less than a month later – on March 9, the first product was shipped out to customers.
Safety manager Mitch Davis, who joined the team in August 2011, says a lot of contractors were doing maintenance work when he arrived. “At one point there were more than 100 of them here, but now they are almost all gone.
“To start with we ran the entire plant with water to see if there were any leaks. We tested all the vessels and pipes. We’d hang different colored tapes on things that were good to go (green), needed some work (yellow), or needed to be fixed or replaced (red).”
Overall, he says, the plant had held up well, considering it had been idle for a couple of years – albeit with a skeleton crew conducting basic maintenance and security.
Today, with McIntosh back up and running (under a senior team of four ‘PCs’ (plant co-ordinators) and three operations specialists), a lot of his time is spent “going through all the necessary documentation”, he says. “All the procedures need updating.”
What goes in, what comes out?
So what goes in and what comes out? Plain old table sugar (sucrose) goes in and neat sucralose or C12 H19 CI3 O8 (600 times sweeter than sucrose) comes out. This is then sold in a 25% sucralose in water solution in various packaging sizes from one gallon bottles to tote size.
McIntosh can also produce micronized sucralose (with tiny particles of just 12 microns across), although it is initially focusing on liquids, says Huber. “We will be ready to produce micronized sucralose whenever the business needs it.”
A third grade of product - DFF or granular sucralose with a larger particle size - is only produced at the other site in Singapore, and is unlikely to be produced at McIntosh in the immediate future, he says.
And what happens inbetween? That’s classified…
But how is sucralose made? And what does it mean when Tate & Lyle says it uses ‘4th generation’ technology?
“I can’t talk about that at all”, says Huber, who clams up faster than a venus fly trap when asked anything at all about the manufacturing process, the competition, volumes, efficiency, capacity, or IP.
But surely the basics of the process itself are no great secret – given that the company has outlined them all in patents that are publically available?
True – everyone knows that sucralose is made from replacing three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms – he acknowledges.
“But you don’t put anything in a patent that you don’t absolutely need to,” adds Huber, who won’t permit any photography in the main plant or the control room. “You’d be amazed how much someone that knew what they were looking for could glean from just one blown-up picture.”
That 25% yield boost
But what about that much-hyped 25% yield-boosting breakthrough bosses were boasting about in 2009? Was there a major change in the production process?
It wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, says Huber, who says the yield improvements were less the result of a single ‘Eureka’ moment, than a combination of several improvements that collectively delivered efficiency gains.
“All I can say is that making sucralose is a very complex, multi-step process that requires real expertise. Anyone can make it in a lab, but manufacturing it efficiently on an industrial scale is completely different.”
So if I gave him 10 samples of sucralose produced from 10 different manufacturing facilities around the world, would he know which came from Tate & Lyle plants?
“Yes,” says Huber.
But any more than that, he won’t say, or he’d have to shoot me first.
Click here to read our interview with James Blunt, senior VP product management and marketing, Tate & Lyle.
Click here to look at our picture gallery of Tate & Lyle's plant in Alabama.
Click here to read about the competition.