Food Plants of the Future: Not Bigger, Just Smarter

The next generation of food and beverage production facilities will be sanitary, flexible, more pleasant to work in and self-sustaining.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Survival replaced sustainability as a top-of-mind concern in recent years, leading some to think sustainability was a passing fad in the food industry.

Think again.

Sustainable manufacturing was never about saving the planet, although some of the concept's most enthusiastic proponents tried to drape a green cape on it. Stripped to its fundamentals, sustainability is a synonym for efficiency, and it's extremely difficult to find proponents of inefficiency and a return to wasteful ways.

Sustainability also is a counterpoint to criticism of "industrial food," the perception that mainstream practices disregard the public and put profit and expediency first. Corporate social responsibility argues that making products that are nutritious and environmentally responsible is just as important as profitability, and that food companies are not evil ogres but responsible organizations where talented workers can feel good about their jobs.

The last point cannot be overstated. While outsiders associate food production with jobs, the reality is today's food plants produce more products with fewer workers, and tomorrow's facilities will run leaner and meaner. Today's workforce possesses in-demand skills like mechatronics -- a talent without a name 20 years ago -- and recruiting and retaining those workers is a challenge.

Down and dirty locker rooms are out as companies lavish improvements on employee welfare areas. Company-provided clothing and even shoes are becoming the norm in dairy processing, where the introduction of outside contaminants can undermine the best sanitation protocols.

Multi-site strategies

The look of tomorrow's plant automation is uncertain; the box it sits in, on the other hand, already is taking shape.

Bigger is better was the industry's mantra through much of the last century. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, holds two prime examples: General Mills' million-square-foot facility and, across town, Quaker Oats, a 22-building complex on 25 acres fronting the Cedar River.

Centralized manufacturing enabled low-cost production, but the downside of the eggs-in-one-basket approach became painfully obvious over time. An electrical substation fire once took GM's plant off line for 18 hours; a 2008 flood knocked Quaker completely out of commission for three weeks. By the time full operations resumed two months later, lost throughput at the world's largest cereal plant would have fed a small country for a year.

Regional production is today's trend, and that will continue. Logistics dictate site selection, and hauling finished goods halfway across the North American continent doesn't make economic sense. Diesel generators and even solar panels are being installed as a hedge against power outages, and energy conservation efforts increase the likelihood that at least partial production will continue in a worse-case scenario.

Smaller facilities are being laid out for maximum flexibility. The Dr. Schar bakery in Logan Township, N.J., exemplifies this. Riding the crest of the gluten-free diet trend, the Italy-based company opened the 60,000-sq.-ft. plant in the Philadelphia metro area in June 2012. More than 100 different products are produced, the company boasts, from breads to cookies and crackers to pasta. It was the company's fourth new facility in six years.

Equipment is getting easier to clean and sanitize, in part to meet higher food-safety standards but also because managers recognize that older designs mean more downtime and much higher labor expense over a machine's useful life. Stainless steel is the material of choice, and suppliers are redesigning their equipment to meet cleanability expectations.

"We're experts in thermal processing, and we're seeing that's not enough," says Andy Sharpe, product director-global food and feed at Buhler Aeroglide Corp., Cary, N.C. Panels on his dryers now are fully welded instead of spot welded, and the company soon will introduce a model that cuts cleaning time to an hour, compared to 8-10 hours for existing units.

"The equipment is going to look very different," adds Gary McMurray, director of the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta, which is developing a robotic chicken deboner. "I don't know if we'll get to clean-in-place, but you're going to see more machines cleaning themselves, and doing it on a continuous basis."

Beyond smaller envelopes and fewer workers, tomorrow's food facilities will be sensitive to social trends, resource-availability concerns and other issues that go beyond daily throughput numbers. Humane practices typify the new social awareness: Low-atmosphere stunning systems are making inroads in turkey and chicken plants, McMurray notes, a shift that placates animal-rights activists and reinvents shackling, one of the dirtiest and nastiest jobs in the food industry.

Better track-and-trace capabilities not only address regulatory and customer demands, they help satisfy the expectations of a more educated public. "People will know where their food is coming from, where it was stored and other details," he says. "The consumer is buying on trust, and the processing plant will play a role in building that trust."

Sustainable manufacturing

Energy costs are in the low single digits of overall operating costs for the typical food or beverage facility, but companies dare not ignore reduction of electricity, water and other utility consumption. Industry is the country's biggest consumer of energy, and a Dept. of Energy study suggests two-fifths of it is lost to inefficient pumps, fans, compressors and other equipment. Those inefficiencies collectively cost companies $60 billion a year.

When resource availability becomes an issue in rolling brownouts and drought-driven water shortages, production can grind to a halt or be curtailed. The technology to reduce consumption exists, and plants are deploying it when the rate of return meets hurdle rates.

Variable frequency drives are a case in point. A rarity in food plants a decade ago, VFD installations have increased as their costs have declined. Ammonia compressors for refrigeration were among the earliest applications, and many companies were pleasantly surprised by the extent of the savings found in post-project audits.

The use of VFDs in newer facilities has spread well beyond the engine room. When Commonwealth Dairy built its yogurt plant in Brattleboro, Vt., VFDs were installed in every motor larger than 1 hp, according to maintenance manager Daniel Frommel. An ultraviolet light pasteurization system for process water replaced conventional thermal-treatment tanks, a decision Frommel termed a "no brainer."

Waste heat recovery and reuse is an opportunity well suited to food production, given the amount of product heating and cooling that goes on. Adena Beef, a grass-fed beef operation in Fort McCoy, Fla., actually flirted with a tri-gen system for its 63,113-sq.-ft. packing house. Gas-fired turbines would have generated the plant's electricity, with waste heat harvested for hot water and space heating, as well as for absorption chillers tied to a cascade refrigeration system, an environmentally friendly technology receiving renewed interest in North America. The tri-gen concept would take the plant off the grid and possibly defuse local opposition to the related cattle operation, although the nine-year payback was a problem.

Nonetheless, energy recapture is an intriguing opportunity for food facilities, and many engineering minds are focused on making it economically feasible. Emerson Climate Technologies is touting a system that concentrates the energy in ammonia refrigerant, which usually is too low-grade to justify recovery, and harvests it with a heat pump. The enabling technology is a single-screw compressor manufactured by Milwaukee-based Vilter Manufacturing LLC, which Emerson acquired in 2009.

Refrigerant heat harvesting

Vilter's single-screw compressor can handle pressure that is multiples higher than the 185 psi of returned ammonia refrigerants. Instead of venting the heat in the ammonia, the Emerson technology elevates it above 500 psi and harvests the energy for boiler feed or direct heating of municipal water.

"It sounds like a lot of pressure, but there is a strong track record of safe operating at those pressures," assures Sam Gladis, business director-heat pumps for Emerson, Sidney, Ohio. The resulting energy is sufficient to raise the temperature of cold water to 145° F, high enough for sanitary washdown.

The first application was in 2010 at a Nestle chocolate plant in the U.K. Sixteen have followed, including at Kraft Food Group's Davenport, Iowa, facility. Part of Kraft's Oscar Mayer network, Davenport bills itself as the world's largest bologna plant, producing more than 3 million lbs. a week of the deli staple.

Kraft's investment is producing annual savings of almost $300,000 and 14 million gal. of water, with coefficient of performance (COP) of 6.51 in summer, significantly above the typical COP of 4 for ammonia systems (COP declines in winter, when demand for refrigerant declines). Kraft declined to provide an ROI timeframe, but Gladis indicates corporate engineers were "extremely pleased" with the economics. "We're seeing paybacks in the 2.5-3.5-year time frame for many of the projects," he adds.

As with Kraft, many of the installations have been retrofits, which can mean additional piping if the engine and boiler rooms are isolated from each other. But the savings in energy costs are substantial: Chile's dominant poultry processor, Super Pollo, slashed heat energy costs 72 percent at its San Vicente plant.

The engine rooms of these plants don't look very different than those with conventional systems (although presumably they're cooler). The same holds true in many plant improvements, like the one executed by Siemens Inc. last year at Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D. The sugar beet processing facility uses the same heavy-duty centrifuges to separate the sugar from the molasses as it did before the project. But installation of advanced drives and state-of-the-art controls have helped the plant shatter a dozen throughput records in the past year, while lowering energy consumption by almost half.

State model displays with lights denoting the machine's current state used to guide the plant's operators, leaving them without the ability to shorten a batch cycle if the process was completed early, explains Adam Shively, a drives & motion specialist with Atlanta-based Siemens. The drives were equally antiquated and prone to unscheduled maintenance.

Before the 10-month production season began in August 2012, high-performance drives measuring 8 ft. high and 2 ft. deep and configured on a common DC bus were installed, along with HMIs that gave operators visibility to base voltage, RPMs, default codes and other data pulled from a PLC. The existing centrifuges and the six 300 hp motors that power them remained in place.

Older drives generate electricity while decelerating, directing it to a resistor where it's dissipated, Shively says. The new drives direct the electricity to the accelerating drives. "When you look at the actual draw, it's significantly less, maybe the equivalent of two or three centrifuges," he says. Increasing throughput with existing equipment appeals to every processor, and slashing energy consumption meant an even faster ROI on the upgrade.

Mega-axes of motion

Like VFDs, robots were technological tools reserved for industries with bigger margins than food in the 20th Century. The financial barriers began to crumble in the past decade, and machines with robotic motion now can be found up and down the packaging line and into downstream material handling. The new frontier is in upstream processes, and the first tentative steps are being taken.

The Georgia Tech Research Institute is in the vanguard of that effort, a position requiring long time horizons and funding support. Poultry helps power the state's economy, and grants from firms like Wayne Farms and Tyson augment state funding of R&D at GTRI's food processing technology division.

Efforts to build an adaptive machine for making primal cuts as skillfully as a person date back to the year 2000, says Director McMurray. GTRI calls its solution the intelligent cutting and deboning system, and McMurray thinks it finally will be ready for prime time soon.

Just as ergonomic issues drove Pepperidge Farm to install SCARA robots in 1987, repetitive motion injuries are an issue poultry processors need to address. Minimizing the potential for product contamination from human contact also is an attraction, and labor availability is a growing problem. "You can't go into a poultry plant today where there aren't 10-12 languages being spoken," notes McMurray. "They are struggling to find people."

Unlike packaging, robotics in process automation require a vision system, and technical advances in that area are helping the GTRI effort. But making an incision that runs from the bird's clavicle through the shoulder joint and down along the scapula in 1/7th of a second to meet existing line speeds is the least of the R&D team's current concerns, McMurray says.

The greater challenges are controlling the force of the knife to prevent bone chipping, and matching the precision of the human hand in maximizing yield. Removing even 1 percent less breast meat than the average worker translates to an annual $2-3 million loss for a typical Georgia poultry plant, he estimates.

"Basic 2-D cuts are being automated in protein processing, but these are 3-D cuts," McMurray adds. "It's a lot more than following the dots with the blade. There's a finesse, a skill that makes this work something special. We're adding finesse to the system."

While he is optimistic GTRI will find a systems integrator or robotics OEM to license its technology and bring a food bot to the processing floor, McMurray concedes a champion is needed to push the technology over the commercially-ready finish line.

And that champion needs to be a poultry company with deep pockets, cautions Rick Tallian, segment manager-U.S. packaging robotics at ABB Inc., Auburn Hills, Mich. Sanitary robotic assemblies suitable for a USDA washdown environment still need to be developed, and that work won't proceed without revenue assurances. "Companies can't spend $5 million for development and get one order," Tallian points out.

Before joining ABB, Tallian was a systems integrator. He was involved in the first Pepperidge Farm installation in Willard, Ohio, helping to engineer a system for single-pack cookies for foodservice. "We needed to know the end customer's focus and requirements; we needed a company like Pepperidge Farm to say, 'We'll jump off the cliff with you' to develop the technology," Tallian asserts. A similar champion is needed for the intelligent cutting and deboning project.

The obstacles are daunting, though game-changing advances may facilitate the next wave of advanced automation. The first SCARA robots at Pepperidge ran 55 cycles a minute, and cycle speeds increased 50 percent over the next decade. But a faster, cheaper solution didn't appear until the late 1990s, recalls Tallian, when Delta pick-and-place robots capable of 190 cycles a minute became available. That kick-started the food industry's embrace of the technology, he says.

The next breakthrough could be bin-picking machines that leverage 3-D vision technology from the gaming industry. If those systems could assemble products like Lunchables while also eliminating the need for infeed conveyors and other components of fixed automation, they could shrink the payback time for a new breed of bot.

Naturally, not all manufacturers are fully engaged in meeting the changing market expectations, and some will ignore the opportunity to reduce operating costs until they are at a competitive disadvantage. Some of those organizations may discover, too late, they have followed an unsustainable business plan.

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