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.

I also spend a lot of time training people to do this. Not many of them are engineers. A lot of people in other departments with master's degrees are picking up work that engineers used to do. These are smart and energetic people, eager to learn. They are hard working and capable.

Training makes up a lot of what I do today. I coach guys on how to write a proposal. I help them write a CER (capital expense request), explain the strategy, help them select the words appropriate to the request. Today, the role is more one of oversight and coach to the younger folks - women and men who may not be engineers.

One fellow has been with me for several years. In the last two years he has handled $1.5 million in project work and managed a dozen projects. He has had CAD (computer-aided design) training and now project management experience. He knows how to schedule projects, and he assigns tasks. But he's not an engineer. He knows how to find other people to fill in the gaps in his training and ability.

Our organization challenges young people. One young woman in our organization is very bright. She listens and learns. She has no engineering training and has never bent any metal, but she has good skills and a good brain. But, without a mentor, she would not be able to do the job.

In the mid-1990s, as engineering downsizing was becoming the trend, the most conspicuous void in the industry was the absence of mentors. "Who is going to teach the young engineers?" we wondered. "Who is going to show them the ropes?" With so few engineers now, we have to mentor! We have no choice but to teach. Necessity is a marvelous persuader.

My value to the organization is my experience. A lot of guys like myself have been forced out of the food industry. That's a lot of experience walking out the door. Who's going to coach and train these people after me?

You see, I don't manage projects anymore. I manage the process of managing projects. Out of six people working on projects for our company, only one is an engineer. One has computer design training. The other four are bright and technically minded, but they don't know what questions to ask.Yet.

From metal bender to line design to project management to managing project management…to teacher. That pretty much sums up how the job has changed.

Marketing projects

Selling a project within your company is critical today. Money is tight; capital is restricted. So we've learned to get more creative on projects. We can get projects done with less capital than in the past.

I know how to market a project, how to sell the organization on the appropriation. My value is in translating strategy, taking ideas and putting them down in ways that make sense. You have to make "business" come out of a project.

A project proposal should say "this is a good business investment because…" This is tough for those who haven't been down this road before. You have to understand that the people who give us money don't care about the project. They care about the business!

You are competing for capital within your organization. The better projects wind up on top of the pile. But what characterizes the better projects? They are better because you have made a better case or provided the better economic justification.

It's all about sales!

In four years, I have never had a capital appropriation turned down. My success is a combination of engineering training, experience and judgment. We study, we plan, we take our shot.

But that's not how everyone does it. For some, the pattern is "Ready, shoot, aim."

A couple of years ago, an engineer left the company in the middle of a multi-million dollar project. I took over.

I couldn't transfer the job to someone else because I had no one there to give it to. I had the experience and could interpret what needed to be done. I had to put on my shoulder pads and leather helmet.

I worked seven days a week for eight weeks.

To the organization, that is my value. I was the only registered engineer.

The downside of third-party engineering

For years, we were hiring outside engineers to do our project work. We hired or "partnered" with engineering firms. We teamed with the equipment makers. Sometimes we hired a specialty shop to build a piece of equipment.

But someone at the company needs to understand the technology, needs to know the plants and the lines. Companies using vendors or hiring professional engineers to run their projects. I just don't see the value in that.

When you hire an outside engineering firm to manage a project, you are not developing your own people. You don't learn anything from it.

That our company is taking projects back inside is a good sign. Now there's more focus on protecting our core competency, keeping our expertise in-house. The generic stuff goes to the outside engineering firms.

We are doing everything we possibly can now to keep our knowledge base in-house.

Engineering made an easy target when the downsizing began because few people understand what you do. Even when manufacturing and quality problems begin to mushroom, management isn't screaming, "Boy, we better hire back a bunch of engineers!"

If you look at the companies that have maintained a relatively strong engineering organization, you'll find that they did it by communicating with upper management, by letting them know what they are doing and what value they have brought to the company.

By and large, engineers don't toot their own horns a lot. Many disappeared behind their pocket protectors in the past. Slowly, quietly, we did ourselves in. You have to communicate.

Surrogate engineers

We are becoming more independent again. We are doing more and more things in-house. We are teaching people how to track costs, control projects. This kind of training is taking place all over the company. We are also getting a lot of help with our SAP system.

You automate for cost saving and safety and ergonomics. But then you need skilled people to keep the black boxes working.

Why not just hire back engineers? Two reasons:
  1. First, the company is still trying to save money. A fundamental fact that contributed to downsizing in the first place is that there's not enough work in most food companies for specialists. Our CAD guy doesn't have enough CAD work to keep him busy all the time. He has to do other things. Food companies are looking for a lot of qualifications in their candidates, but they don't want to pay for the skills.
  2. Second, the food industry is simply not recruiting top engineers like it once did. Profit margins are modest in the food industry. Engineers aren't coming out of college saying, "I can't wait to go into the food industry and bake bread."
Vendors are raiding the food industry ranks as well. They are actively looking for people among their customers - the food companies - because the guy who knows the business gives them a certain capability. He's their conduit into the company.

In the past, we had more specialists and depth in the engineering ranks. We had more people, too, to give us more breadth. Now we need people who know a little about more things.

Flexibility is what I am after - in my department as much as on my processing lines. I need people who can jump from one project to the next. Enjoy your project today. Tomorrow you will be doing something else.

I don't need functional experts, guys who know everything about ovens or depositors. I don't have enough ovens or depositors to keep him busy. I need more generalists, people who know hot to manage projects, work with teams, prioritize work, find resources. They need to know when and what questions to ask.

Maintenance

Another area hurt by downsizing is maintenance. It's easy to buy equipment or technology. But you can outpace the ability of the plant to maintain and utilize and leverage that technology by not having the right people. You can't run equipment fast just because a machine has the capacity for high output. You have to support your technology.

Maintenance, too, is part of the brain trust. It wasn't treated that way in the past.

Today we set maintenance standards, we test, we train. We've tightened the requirements, demanded better education and experience. We won't repeat the mistakes of the past and hire (maintenance) people without the requisite skills. If they don't have the skills, they are not hired.

In the past, if you could fog a mirror, that was good enough to make the maintenance team.

It's all changing, you see. The plant has changed. The business has changed. The whole world has changed.

Executive management wants to push decision-making closer to the plant floor. The problem is that when you get closer to the floor, you find people who don't like to make decisions or take risks.

You need people on the plant floor who can deal with the responsibility you place on them. They must understand the business consequences of their decisions. Those are special attributes. The best mechanic may not be the best maintenance supervisor. A supervisor needs to be able to train, explain, and delegate.

The same goes for engineers. You have to learn to let go - to train people and let them do the job.

By and large, companies are being asked to do more with less - less time, less money, fewer people. Those who are left must be able to tackle more than they did in the past.

You have to delegate, or you will be working six or seven days a week.

You have to make decisions with less information, not more.

You need new skills. The team must possess new and different skills. Skills that weren't needed before are necessary now.

Look anywhere in the industry and you will find engineers sharing the same problems and the same concern - the slow ebb of expertise.

Ten years ago, I heard an engineering vice president say, "The saddest thing in this industry is watching experience walk out the door."

Sure. We've adapted.

But it's still sad.


NOTE TO R&D

Downsized department. Reduced technical staff. Lost experience. Doing more with less.

The pattern describes what has happened to research and development as accurately as it does engineering at scores of companies across the industry.

Your technical staff may not be as "technically" capable as it was in the past. How are you filling in the gap left by downsizing?

Many companies value training more in the abstract than in actual practice. Training time and dollars often disappear in the first round of budget cuts.

Make a strong and persistent case for adequate training for your staff. Make equally certain that you have the in-house qualifications and experience to meet your department's - and your company's - business needs.

Analyze your current capabilities. Outline your needs. Share your analysis with upper management so key decision makers understand your department - and what it needs to maximize its contribution to the company.

This article is a composite profile of the current food engineer, based half on the story of one engineer, as told to Food Processing, and half on interviews with other industry veterans.
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