Food Manufacturing Facilities Design for Flexibility

Smaller, more nimble food processing plants offer something different.

By David Phillips, Plant Operations Editor

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The decision to build a new food plant is typically made with one or more broad company goals in mind. Chief among them are increased capacity, strategic location, utilization of advanced technologies and the quest for bottom-line efficiencies. Before plant design can begin however, a food company must have a clear vision of whether the plant will lend itself to high throughput or flexibility.

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Large food processors with dozens of plants will certainly have a mix of old and new and large and small facilities. But those kinds of companies are the most likely to also have one or two mega-plants in the portfolio, says Harlan Vandeschulp, president of Gleeson Constructors & Engineers LLC (, Sioux City, Iowa.

Those mega-plants are designed with just a few production lines built to run a limited number of SKUs at high speeds for days on end. Smaller, more nimble plants offer something different.

“Smaller or medium-sized companies might have several customers demanding different kinds of orders,” Vandeschulp says. “Those medium-sized plants that run several different kinds of products (and shorter runs) need more flexibility.”

Undoubtedly, flex plants strive for efficiencies, and even larger plants leave the door open a crack to some flexibility, but trying to get one to act too much like the other can be a recipe for failure. Line flexibility has come a long way in recent decades, spurred by strategic concerns and new technologies, yet it still butts heads with not only throughput efficiency but LEED and green priorities, which are sometimes two sides of the same coin.

The drive for flexibility in food processing can be attributed primarily to a couple of related factors: increased specification demands from large retail customers and consumer appetite for greater variety. Flexibility has become more commonplace in the last 20 years, and the strategies and

Flex or fly
When a major food company with a leading brand of an everyday product (such as coffee or cookies) decides to build a new facility, it does so in the context of a larger strategy. The main goal might be keeping shelves from coast to coast (and perhaps around the world) filled with products of consistent quality. That said, production and distribution efficiency is still very important to the continued success of that leading brand, and to the bottom line of the company.

Bill Sokolowsky, regional global practice manager for the process and industrial group at Burns & McDonnell (, Kansas City, Mo., says this is where the company has to decide what kind of new plant to add to the mix: a nimble plant or one that can fill warehouses.

“It is really a multi-variable equation to determine what product you will put in most plants, and how many product lines you will put in one plant,” Sokolowsky says “Even with a product that you sell every day, all day long, you may not want to put all your eggs in one plant. There might be labor issues or material supply issues due to weather.” In other words, flexible lines have their place, even for the billion-dollar brand.

Deciding which parts of a production line will need to lend themselves to flexibility is another important consideration; and again, one that needs to be worked out well before the architect puts pencil to blueprint.

“What we are seeing, in the fish industry for instance, is that companies need the flexibility for moving equipment in and out of place at the front of the line as well as the back of the line,” says Gerry Gomolka, vice president of business development for food and beverage at Stellar (, Jacksonville, Fla.

“A manufacturer might want to be able to do quick changes in the stamping and cutting of the fish pieces, and other changes on the packaging line,” he says. “What stays constant are the fryer and the freezer.” Those central components are still focused on efficiency, but the flexibility takes place around them, he says.

Flexible equipment, flexible rooms
What enables flexibility in prep and packaging includes a couple of features coming from different vendors. Equipment manufacturers continue to offer new models designed for clean-in-place, quick connect and disconnect, and mobility. One of the challenges for the A&E firms is to design plants where movement is easy, and where components can be stored out of the way and kept in ready-condition.

Sokolowsky says this can lead to the inclusion of separate cleaning rooms and storage areas, but in other cases, it might simply require a larger processing floor with a logically located space for standby equipment.

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