Downsizing Leaves Holes in Innovation and Engineering Talent

A decade of downsizing has sent former food industry innovators to engineering firms -- where anybody can hire them.

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Many spent decades with the same company, absorbing then adding to the institutional memory, learning from the old timers, and mentoring the next generation of experts within the same manufacturing organization. Careers spanning 20, 30, even 40 years with the same company were not unusual. Processing technology was considered critical to maintaining a competitive edge. Processors prided themselves on homegrown technology and protected the family secrets jealously.

In a downsized world, the thinking is reversed. Why pay the high cost of keeping a stable of technological talent when you can buy technology more cheaply?

Indeed, companies providing engineering and equipment services today use that argument in their own sales and marketing pitches.

“We have two advantages,” says Goldman of Foster-Miller. “First, we’re aware of technology in a number of industries and food segments. We also hire heavily experienced people and have little turnover.” He adds that the company is multi-disciplinary, enabling it to take on complex projects and to look at all aspects of those projects.

Foster-Miller, recently purchased by Qinetiq, the $1.5 billion British engineering firm, is hardly small anymore. The company’s staff includes 260 degreed engineers. Unlike some of the technology boutiques built from the bones of castoff engineers, Foster-Miller has developed much of its own expertise internally. It has also acquired key personnel from other equipment manufacturers. Still, says Goldman, “Sometimes you come across processing personnel so good that you have to hire them,” recalling several hires of former Kellogg personnel during past periods of cutbacks.

The trouble is that the same cost pressures that limit internal hiring inhibit outside investment as well.

A sea of blue-chip talent

Even before the Atec acquisition, Power Engineers became a much bigger player in the food industry with the acquisition of Blue Chip Engineering of Boise, Idaho. The acquisition brought the company 50 engineers and designers and an impressive client roster that includes a number of Top 25 food firms.

Most of the employee-owned company’s current work in food has come from processing and packaging projects, predominantly in the salty snacks, bottled water, dairy and vegetable areas, with particular expertise in potato processing.

Developing new technologies and tailor-made equipment often involves partnering, with large engineering firms frequently linking with small fabricators and, if necessary, equipment design specialists.

Pros and Cons of In-house Experts
What are the pros and cons of keeping engineering and technological expertise on your payroll?

  • Expertise at your fingertips
  • Experience in a focused area of processing and/or packaging over time
  • Staff can address ideas at any time and build toward larger technological goals
  • In-house trouble-shooters intimately familiar with your operations

  • High salaries and benefits add to operational costs
  • Talented people may need more challenges than job demands
  • Company resources may not be sufficient to advance most promising technologies
  • Staff exposure to limited processes also limits exposure to wide range of potential solutions
“We have gone to outside resources, design and custom shops, before,” explains Keough. “But we didn’t have as much control. That’s why we wanted Atec. We may need to deliver a project to a client in six months. With an outside fabricator, I might not even get on his docket in six months. It’s all a matter of control.”

Power Engineers has many Fortune 500 food company alumni on staff. Numerous layoffs and early retirements in the food industry dumped mountains of expertise into the field. Much of it was swept up by the support industries, from major equipment and engineering firms to small specialty shops. Some talented engineers with an entrepreneurial itch and business sense have flourished. Many have come and gone or simply made enough to get by.

It is ironic that while many complain of industrial espionage, the drive to create technologies worth spying on seems to have all but died. Processor-developed patents run out each year, and some are simply not defended. Today, food companies are holding fewer technologies deemed worthy of a patent.

In some cases, even food companies with a vested interest in a specific system or piece of equipment opt to turn the technology over to a third party more willing to invest in and advance the system. No doubt, the quality and sophistication of supplier-made equipment is higher than it’s ever been. Equipment manufacturers and engineering firms are offering more and more turnkey systems that have taken the onus of design and development off of the corporate and plant engineers.

But few new systems are perfect and old systems abound. Furthermore, running a new product on an existing system invariably dictates some kind of line modification. That leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Filling the gaps

“You see the fryers and dryers at the heart of processing systems in a food plant, but there are all kinds of things needed to make that whole system better,” says Power Engineers’ Keough. “We see a lot of these projects that could save companies money. A lot of steps in food processing are still being done by hand but don’t have to be. We don’t need to create a better oven. We are happy to improve components and connections.”
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