Better Baked Foods, founded in 1970, is a manufacturer for traditional frozen pizza, french bread pizza, and sandwich items for private-label customers and food-service venues. The company was a family-owned business until 2019 when Schwan’s acquired the company with its three factories in Erie and North East, PA and Westfield, NY. Approximately 450 employees serve across the three facilities.

Business Issue

The Better Baked Foods’ facility in Westfield, NY serves as the bakery for mass producing bread that is then transferred to the other facilities for toppings, freezing, and shipping. Maintenance Manager, Scott Pierce, said they were having
difficulty procuring replacement parts for the conveyor system. Specific parts, such as the conveyor sprocket, were obsolete because the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) discontinued that conveyor belt model to replace it with new technology. Once the existing sprockets wear down, there would be a need to replace the part or replace the conveyor in order to keep the line running. A line that generates production of approximately $2500 a minute, not to mention provides jobs. The conveyor is 230 feet long and consists of five sections, with 6 sprockets in each section. “The conveyor wasn’t down, but it was acting up,” Pierce said. “When the machine isn’t running properly it shakes the bread and we had zero replacement parts to fix it.”


McDowell Manufacturing, A Student-Run Manufacturing Enterprise

Photo of McDowell Manufacturing students working on CNC MachineBrittany Gribble (former FSQ supervisor) at Better Baked Foods saw a story in the news about McDowell Manufacturing, a student-run manufacturing enterprise at McDowell High School and mentioned it to Pierce as a possible solution to explore. NWIRC partners with McDowell High School for this career awareness and work readiness program with a focus on connecting manufacturers with specific needs. Through this innovative program, students participate in a manufacturing enterprise that is making actual parts, delivering services, and adding value as part of the supply chain for local manufacturers. Over the course of an academic school year, students learn about and perform different job functions in manufacturing, develop essential and life-long skills, utilize advance manufacturing technologies, and establish connections and build relationships with local companies. At the same time this work readiness is occurring, capacity for local and regional manufacturers is advancing, a short-term solution to job placement is underway, future talent pipeline issues are being addressed, and the next generation of manufacturing business leaders is being cultivated. Pierce reached out to Kyle Bucholtz, Teacher Advisor for the program, to see if his students could help.
For this collaboration, the students would need to reverse engineer the sprocket from a sample provided because there were no drawings or specifications available. The students also needed to understand the application for the part and the various features of the part that were important for proper operation. Pierce then sourced the Delrin® plastic because of its durability.


Photo of Better Baked Foods' conveyor and sprocket part produced by McDowell ManufacturingAfter a couple months, a prototype was ready for testing and ran on the conveyor for two weeks to verify. After the successful test-run, Pierce received a quote and placed his order for 21 sprockets. “I really didn’t know what to expect because I considered this advanced work, but the students jumped right in and I was impressed with what they were able to do,” he said. Needless to say, the company was happy to keep the equipment running. “We produce over 60,000 pounds of product per day from the Westfield facility that gets transported to the two other locations for finishing. If that bakery doesn’t run, the other facilities can’t run either, so it was critical for us to find a solution.”

The project was a win-win because the students participated in a real-word application for problem-solving. “The job was challenging because Better Baked Foods only had a replica part which needed to be reverse engineered, modeled, and CAM files created, said Bucholtz at McDowell Manufacturing. “The students worked through it with success and now love being able to walk down the grocery store aisle to see a food product that a part they produced was vital to create. Providing real projects adds a level of excitement to education that can’t happen in a traditional classroom.”

Pierce estimates that having McDowell Manufacturing produce these parts enables the company to retain approximately $5.8M in sales and retain 450 jobs over the course of a year as a result of not enduring equipment downtime. In addition, they had cost avoidance of around $200K by not needing to replace the conveyor equipment.