Production Operations: How to Retrofit an Aging Plant

Food processors are retrofitting aging facilities to get more out of their capital budgets. But heed these "rules of retro" before you bring your plant into the 21st century.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Every year, hundreds of food plants heed the call to expand production, improve quality, upgrade sanitation and safety or add a new line. Often all four areas are addressed at once. But when the plant in question is a little long in the tooth, it gets harder to teach old dogs new tricks.

Retrofitting an aging food plant can be problematic. Ceilings and roofs may be too low for new equipment. Flooring and walls may usher in decay. Air flow and traffic may pose chronic risk to safety and sanitation. Perhaps the plant requires all the energy of a Mt. St. Helens eruption to operate. Sober analysis may lead to the conclusion that a new plant is the simpler and, in the long run, more economical solution.

Sometimes the reason retro rules is more a matter of dollars than sense. Nevertheless, the predominant trend in the food industry is to undertake upgrades and retrofits rather than build new plants.

Most projects are driven by capacity issues and the need to expand a plant’s manufacturing capability either for volume increases or to accommodate new production lines. The prospects for retrofits and expansions climb after an acquisition when a company decides it is “overcapitalized” and prepares to consolidate manufacturing within existing facilities.

Sanitation and food safety concerns have driven many meat and poultry plant upgrades in recent years. By meeting its complex and highly challenging sanitation demands, the meat industry has set standards for plant hygiene that other segments of the food industry have adopted as well. Last year, the American Meat Institute’s Facility Design Task Force delivered “Eleven Principles for Sanitary Design of Facilities,” guiding principles for designing and maintaining cleanliness and microbiological safety in a food processing plant. (See “Blueprint for food safety,” March 2005.) The severity of sanitary shortcomings at an aging food plant, coupled with the concern over the consequences of a food safety catastrophe, may be enough to drive a major plant upgrade.

At bargain basement prices!

Other renovation scenarios revolve around the purchase of existing facilities at bargain prices. The deal may be too good to be true – and sometimes it is.

“Take an existing [food plant] structure and try to renovate it. By the time you have gutted it to get it ready for the new equipment, you have about 20 percent of the cost of the project left in the remaining facility,” assesses one engineer.

This engineer asked not to be identified because he claims he has had more than his share of bad experiences trying to fit processing operations into bargain plant purchases. “You have the structural system, the footing and foundation, columns and roof structure. The insulation is usually bad. Even the roof itself will probably have to go. Sometimes the buyer will boast that he got a great deal on the plant. Of course he did, because the plant isn’t worth anything! With all the work it takes to adapt the plant to your processing lines, you may find that you’d have been better off building a new plant.”

Still, some major processors defend these “brownfield” purchases, provided a company has done its homework.

“There are a lot of situations in which you would want to buy a brownfield plant and convert it to suit your needs,” says an engineering executive for one Top 10 American food and beverage maker. “Often you are looking for a location that gives you access to a market. And often your schedule can be a driving force. You want to get that plant up and running fast, and, in most cases, you can get an existing plant up and running faster than you can build one from the bottom.”

“Usually the decision [to retrofit] is predicated on cost and logistics,” says Chris Harmon, senior vice president and project manager for Hixson (www.hixson-inc.com), the Cincinnati-based architecture and engineering firm specializing in food. “If you have a building that can accommodate your operation, you already have your building and perhaps wastewater system and utilities – electric, gas, water – already in place. And you have workers or a labor pool to draw from.”

“Speed is one of the key elements,” adds Bill Sander, another senior vice president and project manager for Hixson. “It usually is faster to get it up and running – sometimes eight months compared to maybe 18 months for a brand new plant. And you usually don’t have as much regulatory red tape.”

Yet both admit that many retrofits and renovations can be complicated by the plants’ own histories and past trends.

Penford Food Ingredients, for example, purchased a frozen baked potato processing facility, intending to convert it into a plant for the manufacture of food-grade starches. At the outset of the project, the biggest issue became immediately clear.

“The plant had a low ceiling – 12 ft. above the floor,” says Chris Kensel of Boise, Idaho-based Power Engineers (www.powereng.com). “The roof framing was 25 to 30 ft. The equipment brought in for starch production needed a much higher ceiling. We had to remove the offices on the second story, using the entire height of the room, and remove all refrigeration units, too, because they weren’t needed.”

New flooring, walls and ceiling materials are often needed, particularly with plants – like meat and poultry facilities – with high sanitation requirements.

“What you don’t know will hurt you,” says Forrest McNabb, senior vice president-dairy and food group at Big-D Construction (www.big-d.com), Salt Lake City, Utah. “Wet environments create numerous issues — molds, mildew, rot, warpage. Once we did an exploratory on a wall in a food plant and found it full of rotted wood. There was not much holding up that wall other than the tiles.”
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