Confessions of a Food Engineer

How the engineering function at food plants has changed: 'I don’t manage projects anymore; I manage the process of managing projects.'

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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"The job has changed," says our composite engineer. "We spend more time managing projects than we do on design."

I've loved being an engineer, loved it for nearly 40 years. But the engineering function in the food industry has undergone profound change over the past 12 years.

Through downsizing and relocation, living in motels for weeks and months on end, being separated from family and friends, and seeing parts of my children's lives as little more than snapshots, I've still enjoyed the work.

I tried to retire but couldn't. Was forced to retire and came back. Some people say I needed the job more than I needed the money.

There may be more glamorous ways of making a living, but an engineer's pride is that he gets things done. You take a need or an idea and put together the pieces to make it happen, to make it real. Because of you, a new product is coming down the line. Or a new line is making product faster than it's ever been made before. That's a satisfying feeling.

The job is not the same as the one I entered out of college. It's not like the job I managed for decades as an engineering director and VP either. No more metal bending. We don't design new equipment and fabricate it in the shop. Hey, everything changes. But you don't like all the changes. Still, you make the best of them. And we've learned a lot along the way.

What's happening here is happening everywhere. I hear it from other engineers.

I used to work at a bakery. The baker used to test the batter by dipping his hand into the mix. Those days are gone. Now a PLC does it. The baker has been replaced to some degree by the technology.

It's evidence of a power shift. The power is in the hands of those who can keep the technology going. Ironically, fewer and fewer people can.

New product emphasis

New products drive almost everything we do. We spend more time converting lines to run products the lines were not originally built to run. The products have a shorter life cycle these days. We used to expect a product to last five years or more. Today it may run five months.

New products are why you feel marketing's influence more.

We are selling more to foodservice. That's where the food dollar is going. We are talking to fast food chains and big retailers. They all need something special. Customized products. Special packages. Mixed pallets.

Customized products force a lot of change … and create a lot of small projects! Up to 75 percent of the products on our lines run less than five hours per week, on average. We don't run them that way. But you better believe (short-run) products impact our processing lines. Conversely, some products may tie up two lines.

While the engineering numbers have eroded over the past 10 to 15 years, capital spending, on the other hand, has been cyclical. Until recently, a lot of the money spent was to improve the bottom line.

Now we are doing more things to improve the top line. This is truly a turnaround. Recently, we have been working on half a dozen new products at a time on average.

A couple of years ago, about 60 percent of our efforts were geared to cost-savings and 40 percent to new products. Now the 60/40 has shifted the other way.

I guess the industry has learned that you can "save your way to prosperity" only so far. It took a long time (to learn that lesson).

We spend more time on food safety. Not only product safety, but security. Protect the product from tampering. Site safety. And, of course, meet regulatory safety requirements.

A few years ago, we had no X-ray equipment in our plants. Today we have X-ray technology on eight lines.

Part of that is due to the customer's changing demands. You bring in technology capable of detecting smaller fragments of metal. Along the way, you find other uses for the technology. The X-ray systems can verify counts or determine density as a measure of weight. New X-ray equipment can substitute for a checkweigher. Double duty means something when you're competing for capital.

Food companies are also addressing supply chain issues. We are past the talk stage. Bar-code and RFID are playing a growing role.

All these areas are the engineer's responsibility today. But the engineering numbers are down. Fewer people do more work.

Responsibilities

The job has changed. We spend more time managing projects than we do on design. A lot of guys have spent most of their careers thinking that design (of equipment and processing lines) is what being an engineer is all about.

The design we do today is conceptual design, process flow. In an earlier life, we designed actual equipment. Today we are technology brokers between business units within our company or between our company and the equipment companies. We are the conduits.

Drawings are hard to read. We spend a lot of time translating what the plant needs, translating the technology and converting it back to a format and language that people in the plant can understand.

Understand that the plant workers do not see what you're working on as a project. They see it as an operation. A project is a means to an end, not an end itself. We are helping our organization to develop a capability it didn't have before.

You are not in the project business. You're in the meat business or the baking business or the dairy business. I think more engineers realize this today. That's one of the marks of our maturity.

At the heart of the job is capital spending. I am responsible for planning a project, communicating that plan, executing that plan. I work on the capital appropriation and the cost justification.
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