CASA GRANDE, Ariz. (AP) -- The next time you pop a bite-size Frito-Lay chip in your mouth, it's worth realizing that individual chip is the only small thing about Frito-Lay's Casa Grande operation.
Frito-Lay has manufactured chips in the community since 1984 at its plant on Casa Grande-Maricopa Highway.
As the plant nears its 30th anniversary next year, Manufacturing Plant Director Jason Gray says everyone is prepping for the celebration. "That's a big deal for us," Gray said.
The Frito-Lay plant employs 365 people; almost all are full-time workers.
"Our philosophy is with full-time employment comes better engagement," Gray said.
Those workers make 90 million pounds of product, or 17 million cases of chips, per year.
The Casa Grande facility vies with other Frito-Lay production sites every year for being the most competitive in volume, Gray said.
"I'm always trying to out-produce them," he said of other plants within the company. "We are one of the best performing plants in terms of down time, waste, our warehouse, trafficking and quality.
"I'm very proud of our work force," Gray said. "They're the ones who make it happen."
With a rail spur leading directly to the facility, materials arrive by train or by Frito-Lay's massive semitrailer fleet. Frito-Lay has one of the largest private semitrailer fleets in the U.S., Gray said.
Semitrailers of potatoes arrive at the plant daily. Potatoes used in Frito-Lay products are grown by farmers throughout North America. The company's agronomy group in Rhinelander, Wis., develops the chipping potatoes and contracts with growers.
On average, one semitrailer load of potatoes is processed every 105 minutes in Casa Grande. To ensure quality, it's important to process fresh potatoes as quickly as possible, Gray said.
Once the potatoes arrive, an automated process of unloading, washing, peeling, sorting, slicing and frying begins.
Slices that don't make the quality cut are pulled out and end up being used for animal feed.
After the chips are fried, salt and seasonings are added and the product is packaged and prepped for shipment.
Within a day and a half of its arrival, a processed potato is out of the facility, on its way to a customer, Gray said.
Once chips leave Casa Grande, they are destined for stores or Frito-Lay warehouses, which then arrange for distribution to stores.
Oil arrives at the plant via 10 rail cars a month. The Casa Grande facility uses sunflower, corn and canola oil.
The plant has five manufacturing lines where Cheetos, Fritos, potato chips, tortilla chips and Sun Chips are made.
Within each line, different styles are made, Gray said. For example, in the potato chip line, Lay's are made, as are Ruffles and Lay's Wavy.
The seasonings used by Frito-Lay vary, based on the region and the season, Gray said.
Changing things up "is how we keep our consumer interested in our product," he said.
Frito-Lay operates two corn facilities, one in Sidney, Ill., and the other in Gothenburg, Neb. Employees at those facilities procure all the corn used in Frito-Lay products. Corn arrives in Casa Grande by rail car and is stored in silos on site.
The corn is cleaned, sized, cooked, washed and ground before it's used.
Cheetos and tortilla chips are made from cornmeal, which is mixed with water, made into sheets that go through rollers, then cut, fried and packaged.
Fritos follow the same process, except after the corn is ground for Fritos, it's extruded directly to a fryer. The shapes are then cut and the chips seasoned before packaging.
Wheat is shipped in to make most Sun Chips, Gray said. The wheat is sized, cleaned and cooked. It's mixed with corn that's been through the same process, plus grinding. That mixture is extruded, cut to length, fried and seasoned.
Chips made in Casa Grande are delivered in seven states — Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and California.
Other nearby Frito-Lay manufacturing plants are located in Colorado, Texas and California.
"We have so many types of products we can't make them all in one plant," Gray said.
The 160,000-square-foot Casa Grande plant is smaller than some Frito-Lay production facilities in part because it features a nine-story high rise with 3,000 upright pallet locations. Product in the stacks is handled by cranes, Gray said.
The plant has been at its current site since it opened. However, it was then outside the city limits — it's now part of Casa Grande. In 2007 and 2008, a 50,000-square-foot addition was built, so Sun Chips could be added to the plant's mix of products.
The Casa Grande site was chosen by Frito-Lay because of the proximity to Interstates 8 and 10, which means "we can get to a lot of markets quickly," Gray said.
The Casa Grande plant operates at near net zero levels, which means "we try to get as close to off the grid as possible," Gray said.
The plant runs primarily on renewable energy sources and recycled water and produces nearly zero landfill waste.
A water recovery and reuse system, which combines membrane bioreactor and reverse osmosis technologies, allows for the recycling of between 50 and 75 percent of the plant's water.
Photovoltaic systems produce about 10 million kilowatt hours of electrical power for the plant.
A new biomass boiler, which uses wood and agricultural waste to create steam, now generates all the steam needed for the plant. The boiler reduced the plant's natural gas consumption by 80 percent.
Less than 1 percent of the waste from the plant is sent to a landfill.
In 2009, the plant was the first food-manufacturing facility to attain gold certification as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building from the U.S. Green Building Council.
"Our team members can feel good about the tremendous investment in near net zero," Gray said. The Casa Grande plant is Frito-Lay's flagship site for that effort.