Henny Penny Corporation, Eaton, Ohio, was recently named Dayton business Journal’s 2021 Business of the Year. It’s a terrific honor and we take a certain amount of pride in being recognized for the effort our employee-owners put in every day and the accomplishments that result. But it goes deeper than that. We see this as a validation of what we have, for decades, simply called the Henny Penny Culture.
What is that difference? Is there something unique about this 1000+ employee-owned manufacturing company that was founded in small-town Ohio and never budged? In this 5-part blog series, we’ll hear from some of the individuals who understand best the hows and the whys behind the things Henny Penny does and believes in that have made our company not only a Midwestern success story, but a highly regarded global brand in the commercial foodservice equipment industry.
Engineering at the Business of the Year
Engineering has always been a priority at Dayton Business Journal’s 2021 Business of the Year. In fact, it’s not much of a stretch to say Henny Penny is an engineering company that happens to make restaurant equipment. After all, it was founded by an inventor who happened to run a restaurant.
Today, engineering has been reimagined as a collaborative effort between Henny Penny and our strategic partners. It involves research, design, production, and food science, and it takes place in a brand new state-of-the-art product development center designed from the ground up for that specific purpose. Dubbed “The Incubator,” this 150,000 square foot addition to the Eaton campus encloses a daylight flooded expanse of open-plan design and huddle space, 300 linear feet of hood across eight test-and-build bays, a food science lab, prototype assembly, robots, 3D printers, huge touchscreen video boards… and several kitchen sinks.
The Incubator hosts a veritable Venn diagram of activities fundamentally associated with engineering. The three big circles are New Product Development, Research and Development, and Sustaining Engineering. Various resources, such as the Food Science group, testing lab and prototyping are shared. More overlaps occur with Quality Assurance, Technical Services and Assembly. The building itself transitions from design, testing and prototyping to an entirely new manufacturing assembly floor.
Planning for the Future
It’s hard to talk about what Engineering does at Henny Penny without constantly referring to its new digs. While that may be true of any new facility and its inhabitants, the Incubator was designed and built to order just as the restaurant industry descended into the chaos wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jim Anglin, Vice President of Engineering, called that a testimony to the long view.
“The leadership at Henny Penny understood that the way we choose to do business with our customers meant we would continue to grow. We would have to. And the current setup simply wasn’t going to support that effort. Once we decided to build this big state-of-the-art engineering, product development and food science facility, how would we make our efforts efficient? How would the building do this? How would we put our talent to work in the most productive ways possible? This is the answer.”
For starters, he said, the new facility supports an unusual degree of collaboration internally and with customers. “Developing customer solutions is a continuum. We engage with customers before the sale and then follow up with technical support after the order. Sometimes we have an existing product that can solve a customer’s immediate problem. Often, we are able to take a proven product platform and modify it in some way that addresses a customer’s specific needs. Occasionally they bring us an idea and ask if we can make it.”
The sheer size and number of resources, and their integration within the space, helps with the speed of development. Conceptually, the Incubator embodies the transition from functional departments to customer-focused activities. Anglin mentioned electronic controls as an example. “We design and build them in-house, but it was always the software group here and the firmware group over there, even when they were working on the same thing. Now, every project has a team, and anybody might be on it.”
New Product Development
New ideas for improving commercial kitchen equipment usually come from helping customers improve their operations. It could be anything from a new basket design that makes loading a fryer easier to an entirely automated freezer-to-fryer system that maintains production with fewer workers. Senior Product Development Engineer Melissa Hohler heads up New Product Development. “It’s a new world,” she said. “No one has the luxury of building, testing, and evaluating sequentially any more. Speed to market is so important. This facility allows us to iterate so much faster.”
With all those new bays and hood space, Hohler and her team are able to test several ideas at once and emerge with the best solution in a fraction of the time. They work directly with customer recipes in our existing products so they know exactly what has to be achieved with modified or even new concept equipment. In every case, the Food Science lab is dialed in to make sure we are producing the customer’s gold standard products perfectly.
“We even have our own skunkworks,” said Hohler. “Behind the curtain stuff where we’re able to replicate a customer’s existing production system to test the new ideas. We’re always trying to improve performance… increase throughput utilizing new technologies, heating algorithms that react to what is going on in real time. Most of the time we’re trying to solve this high-level problem of increasing throughput from the same space. It’s true of all kitchens, especially globally. And even more so at the moment with energy becoming a major concern.”
Research & Development
Cracking the same nut means exploring new technologies and materials or applying existing technology in new ways. That’s where R&D comes in.
“We tend to focus on core technologies like heating and mechanics,” said Bill Casey, Director of Research and Development. “We work on the big problems that sometimes involve things we don’t know how to do yet. We’re typically outside the box looking for solutions we may not need for another year. We’ll take a new technology or concept to a point where it can go to New Product Development or on a shelf until they need it.”
Henny Penny does R & D a little differently according to Casey. “At other companies engineers see R & D as this secret group that reports only to senior management. Things are more collaborative here. We deal with engineering day to day. It’s important that we stay in touch with what they are doing. And they need to know what’s on the shelf. We all share resources. In fact, that’s what this place is all about. That’s why we call it the Incubator. Resources, decision-making, talent, feedback, leadership, it all happens in here. And this is where big ideas will get hatched.”
Henny Penny customers are constantly looking for ways to increase the value of their brand by entering new markets, introducing new menu items, or redesigning stores or kitchen space for greater efficiency. Most of the time that doesn’t require new products or technology, just well-performing ones readily available.
“The job of sustaining engineering is just that,” says Engineering Manager Jason Hollinger. “We’re here to make our existing products easier to manufacture, and to support our customers ongoing growth and our supply chain team moving forward.”
Hollinger’s group focuses on ways to “commonize” parts and components across product lines, and to reduce manufacturing complexity and lead times by designing with fewer parts and more sourcing options. Design engineers also interface with Quality Assurance through a reliability engineering program. The idea is to design for the level of risk to quality. If a part or component fails, what is the risk? If it is a safety issue, engineers work to either design out the risk or design in a failsafe that eliminates the risk without depending on any other system.
Improving safety and ease of use, increasing throughput, reducing the cost of operations—these are the constant “problems” facing the development of commercial kitchen equipment, and the ones engineers at the Incubator work on every day.
“This is a fantastic environment for engineering work,” said Hollinger, who has been with Henny Penny for a little over two years. “People work together here. The company continues to grow and improve. We get to be a part of that process. We are granted the flexibility to do what’s right. As employee owners, everybody has a stake in the game. And that means working together for what’s best for the company, not just for yourself. It’s a totally different environment than I have experienced. Henny Penny planned and built this facility for growth not knowing exactly where it would come from. It was a great bit of forward thinking.”
Anglin agreed. “It’s amazing what this organization does to put in place what we need to get the job done.” And does he think that means the future of foodservice equipment will be coming from Eaton, Ohio? “Absolutely.”
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