Tyson Foods opens high-tech chicken facility to accelerate growth, boost efficiency

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Tyson foods Processing equipment & plant design Poultry

Tyson Foods celebrated the much-anticipated grand opening of a new 325,000-square-foot fully-cooked food production facility in Danville, Va., last week – marking a significant milestone in its “bold,” multi-point plan to improve its performance, which has struggled in recent years amid falling prices, higher costs and volatile supply and demand.

As one of the company’s most highly-automated plants, the new facility represents a bright spot for Tyson in what has been a difficult year during which operational and other challenges contributed to a $450m net loss ​in the company’s recently reported fourth quarter. Part of a longer-term trend, the decline prompted the company to announce the upcoming closure of two case-ready meat plants in addition to the closure of six chicken facilities ​announced earlier this year.

While the new Danville location will produce different products – mainly value added proteins​, such as nuggets and patties – than the recently shuttered facilities, plant manager Nancy Frank says it represents Tyson’s commitment to accelerating growth and operating as efficiently and safely as possible.

High-tech approach should help attract, retain employees

As “one of the most highly-automated facilities,” the Danville plant includes “industry-first” technology and innovative pilots and prototypes at scale that will increase operational efficiency by 20-30% and reduce labor requirements by about 20%, according to Frank. In addition, she said, the technology will create more desirable jobs that should help the company attract and retain employees – a challenge that has held back Tyson’s ability to meet demand​.

As an example, Frank pointed to the facility’s 13 highly-automated packing lines that have five robotic cells and use a full suite of automation – from the case packing operations to the palletizing to a fully automated freezer.

“The more tedious jobs, such as manual palletizing, lifting boxes and putting them on a pallet, are completely eliminated,” as are “the jobs that require a lot of attention for safety,” such as moving forklifts or having them in close proximity to each other, she said.

Likewise, she said, new jobs working with enhanced technology created by the automation should be more rewarding for employees.

The technology goes beyond replacing manual labor. It also includes a digital dashboard that will give frontline employees operational data on a minute-to-minute basis and offer long-term trend insights without needing to “go through reams o paper or sit down and calculate the data after the fact. We’ll have that in real time,” Frank said.

The facility also includes inspection technology, including metal detection, x-ray and vision grading to ensure product quality, and it has integrated wearable armband devices to improve worker health, safety and productivity.

Tyson teams with Danville Community College to recruit, train employees

While enhanced technology will lower Tyson’s labor requirements at the Danville plant, the facility still will generate about 400 jobs, which the company hopes to fill in part through a partnership with a nearby community college.

“We are in close proximity to Danville Community College, and [we are] working in conjunction with them and with our training team on the Tyson level to develop a skill set that we’ll need in our facility. So the Danville Community College has had a tailored program for industrial maintenance that meets the needs of what we have” in terms of equipment at the new facility, Frank said.

To further attract and retain high quality talent, Frank said the new facility also offers a better working and team building experience with the addition of a “sanctuary,” or break room, that is filled with natural light and has a micro-market and hot café so that staff can enjoy a more leisurely meal with co-workers rather than rushing off campus during breaks to buy food.

“It’s more than just a pay check. We have an opportunity to have pleasant environment [where employees can] learn and grow,” Frank said.

With that in mind, she said, Tyson is approaching hiring for the Danville facility with an eye towards potentially promoting people who were hired for the facility’s soft opening in September as additional lines and production processes begin in the coming months.

Production will increase to 4 million pounds of protein per week

Over the next year, Tyson will continue to ramp up production at the Danville facility following its soft opening in September and grand opening last week. Eventually, Frank said, it will be able to process 4m pounds of protein each week on five production lines and with 13 automatic case packing lines operating across two shifts.

The Danville opening also precedes the upcoming opening of another 400,000 square foot bacon production facility in Bowling Green, Ky., to help meet demand for the company’s Wright and Jimmy Dean brands, and the expansion of the company’s Caseyville prepared foods facility to support production of Hillshire Farm and Jimmy Dean branded products.

The increased production capacity of value-added items at these facilities, paired with what Tyson CEO Donnie King characterized as a “disciplined and prudent” approach to capital, the company expects to restore its performance and year-over-year sales in 2024.

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