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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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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