2014 Manufacturing Trends Survey: The Swagger’s Back

Economic recovery remains anemic in much of the economy, but food processing professionals are more confident about 2014 than they’ve felt in recent years.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Uncertainty dogged all manufacturing sectors in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, including food and beverage processing. But a much more bullish outlook is taking hold, as responses to Food Processing’s 13th Annual Manufacturing Trends Survey suggest, making the outlook for 2014 the most upbeat since the pre-recession years.

In fact, fully two-thirds of food professionals participating in the web-based survey indicate they are optimistic as their organizations prepare to meet challenges in the New Year. However, the upbeat assessment may have less to do with production increases or workforce expansions than with personal pocketbooks.

Only two-fifths of last year’s respondents expected their salaries to increase in 2013. But 51 percent ended up getting 2013 salary bumps, according to this year's respondents, and only a shade more than 1 percent saw salaries dip, a third of the number who anticipated reductions. For the year ahead, 44 percent anticipate higher pay, and less than 1 percent are concerned about payroll deflation. Uncertainty about compensation prospects declined fourfold.

Expectations for capital expenditures also show a small improvement, with most of those with growing budgets anticipating spending increases in the high single digits or double digits. More tellingly, only one in 13 respondents say their firms will reduce capital spending, a marked improvement over last year, when economic uncertainty was frequently cited as a reason for delaying or canceling projects.

Processing professionals are upbeat about their own facilities’ asset utilization, with three-quarters anticipating throughput growth this year. The majority of those plants are on track for double-digit production increases. That helps explain why capacity constraints are frequently mentioned as a key manufacturing issue in 2014, along with regulatory challenges, equipment reliability and logistics.

Food safety is like motherhood and virtue, so it’s unsurprising that respondents overwhelmingly ranked food safety as 2014’s most important manufacturing issue, far and away the top priority in a list of 11 that readers were asked to rank (see chart). Cost control received the second-highest ranking scores, followed by labor, inspections and certifications, sourcing and materials issues and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

You can agree with the concept of food safety without supporting the framework for improving outcomes, as readers indicated. Describing the vital manufacturing issues of 2014, one respondent grumped, “Over-regulation from FDA (FSMA), OSHA and EPA, as well as the growing requirements for certifications.” That last complaint is a swipe at industry self-regulation, notably the third-party certification programs endorsed by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Almost two-fifths of respondents’ facilities have been certified under one of the GFSI standards, and an additional 7 percent have received certification by outside auditors not affiliated with GFSI.

Validation of a plant’s food safety practices is a desirable assurance for customers, but it contributes little to actual food safety and sanitation practices. Employee training is the key to continuous improvement in safe outcomes, and seven in 10 survey participants say their companies are investing in training. Half are either developing or upgrading their HACCP plans, and about a third are acquiring more equipment for sanitation, improving the sanitary design of production equipment and/or improving their pest-control programs.

HACCP plans are a fundamental requirement of FSMA, and while only USDA facilities and juice manufacturers previously were required to have a plan, customer expectations have made HACCP a condition for doing business for many food companies. Past surveys consistently found about 85 percent of food manufacturers had initiated HACCP.

The rigor of those programs and whether they will pass muster with FDA is another matter, and 10 percent of respondents indicate there is concern within their organizations that existing plans are not sufficiently grounded in the science-based evaluations FDA will require. More than a quarter of readers say their firms are evaluating their HACCP programs, and others are reviewing the accessibility of their records and current GMPs and prerequisite programs. Not everyone is concerned: One in eight say they have yet to assess the impact of FSMA on their operations.

Capital priorities

More than a third (37 percent) of respondents say their companies will increase capital spending this year, and half of those firms are budgeting double-digit increases. Given the number of new lines and new facilities either being planned or commissioned, some of those increases likely will stretch into triple digits.

Automation projects ranging from the addition of a robotic palletizer to automating entire lines are frequently cited priorities, along with replacement of obsolete computers and other equipment. One participant put CapEx in the context of core competencies, writing, “We may do more contracting out (and) do what we are great at and have others … do what they are great at.” Another managed to blame Washington for a dearth of financing, grousing, “Obamacare took care of that budget.”

Some of the spending will be linked to sustainability objectives. More than a third say green manufacturing will take on added importance in 2014, with only 15 percent suggesting sustainability is of little or declining importance. One green denier wrote, “Most green is high cost and fraud. Major loss of money, with no actual impact on environment.”

A more prevalent view is that green manufacturing implies an attack on waste, and waste is a cost that erodes a business’s bottom line. Lighting upgrades are an example: Many manufacturers realized fast paybacks in recent years by converting to T-5 and T-8 fluorescent lighting from metal halide and other antiquated technologies, and now they are eyeing LED. “We just added automatic lights in several areas to reduce electricity waste,” one wrote. “Automatic light switches, LED light bulbs,” another offered.

Some costly projects are planned, such as boiler and compressor upgrades, but recycling programs and other efforts to attain zero waste, be it less trash to landfills or turning off machines that aren’t producing, were the most frequently cited green initiatives. Water savings and personnel behavior modification also rated numerous mentions.

Energy management is a component of green manufacturing, and interest in trimming energy consumption is growing. In their rankings of 2014 manufacturing priorities, 9 percent of survey respondents ranked energy concerns No. 1, double the ratio of a year ago. More than one-quarter indicate their firms are conducting energy audits, matching the number who feel energy management is not a pressing need. Almost half are engaged in energy conservation efforts, and almost a quarter are interested in co-generation and other energy re-use opportunities. Some continue to pursue alternative energy options, particularly solar arrays.

“We are LEED Gold certified,” a professional wrote, “with solar panels, solar hot water, collected grey water, etc. We will continue to cut energy consumption where we find (opportunities).”

Getting better all the time

The corporate financial officer doesn’t have to sign off on efficiency improvements that involve human capital, and virtually every food manufacturer is interested in boosting efficiency through continuous improvement. Half of survey respondents indicate staff suggestions are encouraged, but no formal program is in place. For the others, multiple formalized approaches are being leveraged.

Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and other programs often coexist within a facility, and some companies mix and match elements to come up with a method that works best for their operations. Balance scorecards, centralized programs executed by plant-level engineers and monthly meetings where past actions are reviewed and new initiatives are plotted were some of the other approaches mentioned.

The subject turned one participant philosophic. “Mapping more, as if it is a journey with destinations,” he wrote. “Everything starts from a rough rock, and its ending is a perfect rock -- see Michelangelo.”

Altering processes and procedures can produce big gains in efficiency, but technology also has a role. To support the automation systems being implemented, manufacturers must recruit and retain workers with higher skills. Three-quarters of survey respondents indicate their companies are addressing this need with a variety of approaches.

A third of respondents’ companies are recruiting maintenance technicians and expanding in-house technical training to keep advanced machinery running, and 28 percent are beefing up their in-house engineering support. Other tactics include adding line operators to perform semi-automated tasks (14 percent) and outsourcing more job functions (13 percent). One in 10 companies are working with trade schools, community colleges and other educators to develop electromechanical curricula.

Safeguarding those skilled and semi-skilled employees puts a greater premium on workplace safety, but reductions in on-the-job injuries in U.S. manufacturing have not occurred in recent years. Seven in 10 survey participants indicate worker safety is a top priority of senior management at their firms, with active machine-guarding initiatives in place at 56 percent of facilities. Almost half of employers are recording near-miss events and reviewing them for remedial changes and actions. Another strategy is peer-to-peer observations of how people perform their jobs, with direct feedback of at-risk activities observed.

Those and other efforts to modify behavior and increase safety are having a positive impact. Two out of five respondents say reportable injuries are steadily declining at their workplace. On the other hand, that leaves three out of five facilities where injury rates are either static or rising, causing some food professionals to look outside the organization for help. Singling out vital manufacturing issues in 2014, one respondent cited “the NLRB being without legal members to make any actual ruling.”

This year’s survey involved 150 Food Processing readers who responded to an invitation to complete the web-based questionnaire in late November and early December. They represent a wide spectrum of processing categories, with the greatest concentration (12 percent) in the meat/poultry/seafood segment and 7 percent each from baked goods, dairy and further processed & specialty foods. One in eight work at facilities with headcounts of more than 500, with the rest evenly split between plants with 101-500 workers and those with 100 or fewer.

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