2012 Manufacturing Trends Survey: Can Production This Year Top 2011?

Processors can't get a break from uncertain markets, rising costs and changing safety standards, but they continue to grow and keep optimism high.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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Shifting from the size of the workforce to its compensation, survey-takers remain conservative in their expectations, but have been rewarded for meeting the challenges of the times. In 2009, 35 percent of respondents expected salaries to rise at their plants, and subsequent research showed that salaries rose instead for 45 percent. When asked about 2011, 40 percent expected their facility to increase salaries, and once again, they underestimated: 48 percent of plants increased salaries, according to this year's respondents. 41 percent of this year's group expects a raise in 2012.

Automation and food safety
Automation, which roughly 30 percent of respondents cited as one of their three top priorities through the past few years of economic uncertainty, may be more important than the numbers indicate. It serves as a tool to support other high-priority issues, such as labor reductions (and labor consistency and quality), cost-containment, process efficiency, quality control and regulatory compliance. One respondent replied, when asked how his company is dealing with the economy, "We're going full blast with automation."

These figures may be contradictory, but 17 percent report "all or most of the plant" is automated – last year's number was only 5 percent. But only 8 percent say the "entire production line" is – versus 15 percent last year. Automation in production sections saw a healthy 9 percentage point increase, to 54 percent, while packaging sections dropped insignificantly to 37 percent.

Optimism in 2012

Food safety is the top priority of most food processors every year. Asked about their level of concern about E. coli, salmonella, listeria or other pathogens for the coming year, 21 percent said they are "more concerned--I think more incidents are coming," compared to 18 percent last year. Those who are "less concerned" and feel "things are under control" are up just a point, to 17 percent. These changes have come at the expense of the perennial, majority "same level of concern--these worries never go away," which declined 5 points to 61 percent.

Asked if they implemented new food safety measures in the past year, 70 percent answered in the affirmative. That's' not a big drop, but it is 5 percentage points below last year's response for year 2010. Not unexpectedly, then, the number of respondents who did not increase food safety measures has gone up annually, too: 23 percent in this year's survey did not do more last year, and 16 percent don't expect any more programs this year.

Perhaps this is understandable in light of the fact that many programs are ongoing and not technically "new." Likewise, looking forward to the coming year, 68 percent say they will implement new measures, again, lower than last year's 73 percent.

Asked to cite specific practices their facilities implemented in 2011 or will implement in 2012, employee training was by far the most-cited at 74 percent, followed by third-party certifications (49 percent), HACCP planning (47 percent), and several other practices involving improvements in sanitary design and equipment, pest control, microbial detection systems and the use of outside consulting services. One interesting development is that this year (for activity during 2011) third-party certifications overtook HACCP plans for second place.

Paradoxically, certifications under the various schemes of the Global Food Safety Initiative are down. Last year 51 percent of respondents were pursuing compliance under the Safe Quality Food Initiative; only 40 percent report doing so coming into 2012. Similar drops were recorded in GFSI programs from the British Retail Consortium and FSSC 22000. Only International Food Standard and Dutch HACCP were up. Perhaps most GFSI initial efforts were concluded last year -- or maybe we diluted the answers a little by this year adding AIB certification (being pursued by 17 percent).

Part and parcel of the need to meet government and market safety mandates is the need for food tracking and tracing programs, which 78 percent of respondents currently have in place today.

Underlying all forms of plant improvements, from food safety to machinery and automation/information systems, is the need for funding. As reported in our own 2011 Capital Spending Outlook, capital expenditures were expected to enjoy a very healthy recovery for the second year following "a dismal 2009, in which a 15 percent drop in expenditures reflected the global economic crisis." The Manufacturing Survey results indicate 47 percent of responding companies are increasing budgets this year, and 16 percent of them by more than 10 percent. The biggest answers, however, were "about the same" or "I don't know." Only 8.2 percent of respondents expect a cut.

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