Extreme Makeovers for Processing Plants

Need to give your plant a facelift? Start with materials and designs that spell safety, cleanliness and a spankin’ new look.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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No question, the times have changed. “You used to be able to go into an operational food plant without facing many issues,” recollects an executive at one architectural-engineering-construction (AEC) firm. “But with concerns today over contamination and food safety and, of course, September 11, things have changed.”

Indeed they have. Rarely today are construction projects conducted alongside processing operations due to concern over spreading molds, dust and other contaminants. Plant renovation projects often are fitted to production schedules to minimize downtime and protect against equipment and product contamination.

“We’re learning to be a lot more flexible,” says Forrest McNabb, senior vice president of Big-D Construction Corp. (www.big-d.com), based in Salt Lake City. “We may conduct our projects on holidays or after hours. Labor Day weekend is our biggest event. More restrictions on construction within operating plants have been the biggest factor in our business over the past four years… Our goal is no lost product and no lost time for our customer.”

Extreme makeover: Plant edition -- BigD-Oak Farms pic
Plant additions or expansions are perfect opportunities for getting ideal designs right from the start. Photo: Big-D Construction.

“In general, we’re doing as much pre-planning and prefabrication to minimize downtime and the overall effect on the process,” notes Earl Opperman, chief engineer for Shambaugh & Son (www.shambaugh.com), a design-build firm located in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“We are using 3-D modeling and going to modular construction,” adds president Mark Shambaugh. “With tight or near-nonexistent construction windows, we sometimes have no choice but to do this. We had one case recently with a plant in New Mexico where it was almost ‘plug and play.’ Also, this approach costs less. A processor can take at least 40 percent of installation cost to the bank.”

Another trend is consolidation – fitting more into the existing plant space. Opperman notes increased use of alternating tread ladders. “They are cost-efficient and space-efficient – a good solution to tight situations and preferable to conventional ladder staircases.”

Energy and “dry cleaning”

Properly sized motors and variable frequency drives should be early key considerations for any plant renovation. Most equipment makers have tried to lower the energy requirements of their processing and packaging equipment. All assessments of capital projects today need to consider life cycle costs of equipment and make a priority of purchasing and modifying equipment to deliver maximum quality with minimal energy usage.

McNabb recommends processors talk seriously to utility providers about incentive programs for certain kinds of upgrades. “Utility companies want some of their power back so that they can ‘create’ capacity in their utility system. One company offered Lofthouse Foods (Ogden, Utah) $150,000 in incentives for its upgrade and lowered a projected $30,000 monthly utility bill to $13,000-18,000 per month.”

With 60 percent of U.S. industrial energy use going to power electric motors, it’s folly to disregard this huge potential for savings. Adjustable frequency drives can reduce electricity use by 40 percent or more. High-efficiency motors can pay for themselves in less than 20 months, according to figures from Baldor Electric Co. (www.baldor.com), Fort Smith, Ark.

Extreme makeover: Plant edition -- electric motors (Baldor)
Electric motors account for 60 percent of U.S. industrial energy use, so they should be considered during a modernization. Photo: Baldor Electric.

Another interesting trend in plant renovations over the past two to three years has been “dry clean-up.”

“We have been pushed in a few plants to ‘dry out’ the packaging area,” says John Gunst, packaging engineering manager of Power Engineers, Boise, Idaho, identifying dairy and frozen food processors among those clamoring for dry cleaning. “The processors want no drains or sloped floors in order to avoid any possibility of introducing listeria or other microbes that could grow in drains. The goal is not to spill anything and to use as little water as possible in that area of the plant.”

“When we do find water, we mop it up right away,” one plant manager notes. “We want no place for the bacteria to grow. You don’t want hub drains in the floor or moisture-laden areas that will support bad bugs.”

Beneath your feet

Mothers used to tell their boys, “You can tell a man by the shine in his shoes.” True or not, there’s at least faint wisdom in the notion that you can tell something about the hygienic character of a food plant by its flooring.

Food plants across the nation pour millions into maintenance and upgrades each year. Their improvements run the gamut from equipment to processing equipment to automation. But perhaps no area receives such consistent attention as plant flooring.

The nation’s 15,510 food and beverage plants invest an average of $16,250 each year on floors and floor coatings, according to Rust-Oleum Industrial Brands. Of the $227 million spent on average each year by food plants, meat processing owns a whopping 26 percent share.

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