Hill’s Pet Nutrition has opened a new facility in Tonganoxie, Kansas. While the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics grabs attention, on closer inspection, the creation of an economic cluster around animal health and the politics are more interesting.
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A New Pet Food Facility in Kansas
Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive, opened a 365,000-square-foot facility in Tonganoxie, Kansas. Costing US$450 million, the investment will double the company’s production capacity for canned pet food.
Operations at the greenfield facility will be supported by robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based process/safety monitoring systems. The objective for the technologies is to not only improve production, but also add operational flexibility in terms of pack sizes and product types—Hill’s Pet Nutrition offers more than 170 different products catering to pets’ dietary requirements and ailments that befall them. Hill’s has, for example, launched Prescription Diet ONC Care, a formulation designed to provide nutrition for cats and dogs with cancer.
AI for Food Safety Is a Key Focus Area
Hill's was founded by Dr. Mark Morris Sr. in 1948, and was the first manufacturer of veterinarian-developed pet food. Like a pharmaceutical plant, Hill’s needs to prevent the ingredients from being contaminated.
The Tonganoxie facility has a Mission Control Center that monitors every activity, including the delivery, mixing, and cooking of the ingredients, and when the pet food is filled in their containers and packaged for the customers. AI is used to support what the company refers to as the “digital food-safety vigilance system” and supports the automation of the production line to ensure the pet food meets quality and safety standards. In addition, AI is being incorporated in the Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) that will move materials around the facility.
These technologies will help shorten the production cycle and time to market, as well as assist Hill’s launch of new product formulas and formats.
The Animal Health Corridor across Kansas
While it’s not necessarily breaking news in 2023 that a leading pet food manufacturer has opened a smart factory (Purina, for example, announced a new facility in North Carolina), the context of Hill’s choice of location, however, is noteworthy.
As result of more than 300 pet food, animal health, and feed companies located in the state, the Kansas Department of Commerce claims that the state has “the largest concentration of animal health companies in the world.” The authorities have coined the term the “Animal Health Corridor” to characterize the economic cluster. Hill's commented that it chose Tonganoxie to access a talented pool of workers and to help rectify its supply chain issues with raw materials suppliers and pet food distributors; all of which reinforces the state’s objective to be known as a primary location for an animal health enterprise.
Another challenge for Hill’s is rising energy costs. To establish the Tonganoxie facility, Hill’s not only worked with the Kansas Department of Commerce, the Leavenworth County Development Corporation, and the City of Tonganoxie, but also energy company Evergy and the Kansas Gas Service.
Kansas Governor Laura Kelly could have been critical of the use of AI and robotics, but instead applauded the fact that the Tonganoxie facility will create 100 jobs. Softening any criticism of the number of jobs being created might be that Hill’s is creating a “new hub” in the Greater Kansas City area by relocating its global and U.S. headquarters from another location in the state, investing in its other manufacturing facilities in Kansas as well as a Research and Development (R&D) campus (including the Small Paws Innovation Center that opened in 2021).
Creating clusters has been an effective way to encourage investments by manufacturers for decades. National governments and regional authorities are revisiting these policies as the world shifts away from free trade and unhindered supply chains. Technology firms need to monitor announcements by local agencies for clues on greenfield facilities being created as they tend toward incorporating the latest technologies in their operational plans.