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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Project planning should consider all areas of potential benefit, even those beyond the needs driving the project. Safety, quality and other upgrades can be made at a fraction of what they might cost later and may even pay for themselves in savings, insurance costs or prevention.

“When you renovate an older facility, you want to put it to a higher standard,” says Sander. “You try to set a level of quality the rest of the plant should be elevated to.”

Don’t slow me down

Perhaps the biggest consideration of a retrofit of an up-and-running processing plant is what impact the project will have on production.

“You plan your downtime,” says our Top 10 company engineer. “You minimize it by scheduling deliveries and disruptive work for the weekends or shifts when the plant isn’t running. Sometimes you have to prebuild inventory to offset for lost production. Again, you plan.”

Contractors and materials suppliers have to be flexible with their deliveries and work hours to accommodate production needs.

“You have to be aware that tracking in equipment and materials, loosening particles and creating dust can contaminate the processing area while you are renovating,” says Bob Hendon, president of the Cincinnati-based design firm Hendon & Redmond.

Simple common-sense principles apply. Temporary walls can separate areas under construction from processing areas. Work is best executed during non-production hours, where possible. Overhead work, such as ceilings, piping and other utility measures, must be done during non-production hours.

Sanitation teams must be informed of the work as well and understand the implications for their function. End-of-week sanitation may have to be replicated on Sunday night or Monday following a weekend of construction.

Plant air flow is critical and must always factor into planning. Dirt and dust can easily migrate from construction to process areas.

“Improper ventilation also can create problems of condensation and refrigeration,” says Hendon. “Sometimes you don’t feel you have sufficient refrigeration capability in the summer when you are actually pulling in and refrigerating hot air. The real problem may be your ventilation.”

Sometimes it’s a question of what affect production people will have on the renovation. “You have to watch out for the plant ops people when you renovate,” Gomolka warns. “They’ll want to take care of 50 years of past sins when they see you renovating. Of course, you want to do all you can for them on-site, but that makes it tough to maintain the project’s focus and the budget.”

Cost and guarantee

Accommodating production schedules can make planning challenging for contractors, equipment suppliers and other project players. It can be particularly difficult with fast-track projects.

Often new orders or changes in the production schedule can close the small windows of time available to construction and materials delivery. Around-the-clock construction may be necessary when opportunity for extended work is limited.

All these considerations can push back project delivery schedules and cause cost overruns. Contracts and expectations may need to be adjusted to the vagaries of a renovation in an active processing environment.

It all comes back to planning and analysis, knowing your operation, peering into whatever crystal ball you have at your disposal, mapping a detailed and comprehensive decision tree to handle whatever arises.

Anything to narrow the odds of success.


The advantages of building new are many. Starting from a blank slate allows a knowledgeable team of designers to create the plant with the advantages of latest materials and equipment and the experience of prior successes and failures serving as a guide of what to do and not to do.

Retrofitting a plant poses a lot of difficulties, from accommodating production during construction to inheriting all the problems of age and out-of-date concepts, materials and equipment. Still, the potential advantages of lower cost and faster delivery usually outweigh the long list of pluses on the “new plant” side of the comparison during this era of tight capital budgets.

Here’s a side-by-side list of the pros and cons of building new and retrofitting your food plant, provided by Jeff Johns, vice president of Shambaugh & Son (, Fort Wayne, Ind.

New Plant Retrofit
A new plant generally delivers what is really wanted and needed. Unused and depreciated assets can be utilized.
Built-in expansion and flexibility can be part of the design and strategy. Maintenance of a local brand equity can continue.
Demographics and efficiencies can reduce labor costs. Employment of experienced work-force can continue.
Technology, newer infrastructures, efficiencies, and employee working conditions can reduce unit costs. Existing technology may be updated.
Can reduce employee exposure to ergonomic illness and occupational accidents. Continuation of local relationships with customers, suppliers and regulators can occur.
Reduced logistics costs. Shorter start-to-finish schedule.
Increased product quality potential. Lower project cost generally.
Possible municipality and state tax incentives and subsidies. Production can be greatly impacted during cut-ins and could require strategic marshaling, heavy inventory/storage costs or co-packing.
Can consolidate production of multiple plants more easily. Cut-ins and demolition pose threats to product and occupational safety while plant continues to operate.
A more modern, better-looking facility. Egress is generally interrupted and area isolation may be necessary.
No production time disruptions. Facility could have limited expansion space, be land-locked or heavily regulated.
Opportunity to create a state-of-the-art, showcase plant. Facility may require additional engineering for proper documentation prior to project.
Plant may be subjected to higher standards due to loss of regulatory grand-fathering. Unanticipated hidden conditions may be discovered in demo/construction phases.
Longer start-to-finish schedule likely. Adverse materials generated by construction.
Higher costs. Requires modification, training and consistent monitoring of GMPs, sanitation, documentation and production scheduling.
Relocated equipment may pose challenges. Budget should have higher level of contingency funds for delays and unanticipated difficulties.


Transactional growth over 30 years
“Facility creep” can result in hot spots: 1. mechanical equipment spaces are inconveniently situated in remote areas; 2. product quality is affected by disjoint processing and packaging; 3. future processing/packaging growth will result in second relocation of parking lot and inefficient flow; 4. future growth of the shipping cooler will require an interruption to shipping while dock is relocated.


Generational approach
This approach allows efficient operation and room to grow: 1. plant utilities are centralized in a single area; 2. converting an existing cooler space into packaging allows expansion of processing and packaging while maintaining production in a single/contiguous space; 3. future processing/packaging growth can be added without disruptions; future growth will not disrupt shipping operations; 5. office expansions have been anticipated.


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