2015 Manufacturing Trends Survey: Better Days Ahead

With the worst of the Great Recession behind them, food production professionals entered the New Year with fewer questions and more answers about their companies’ and personal paths forward.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Manufacturing 2015Greater confidence and certainty about the future -- for both their own and their organizations’ prospects -- characterizes food professionals’ attitudes as they look forward to 2015, according to feedback from Food Processing’s 14th Annual Manufacturing Trends Survey.

Four out of five survey participants expect staffing at their locations to increase or be maintained at current levels, up more than 9 percentage points from a year ago. Three-quarters are optimistic or very optimistic as they head into the new year, up from two-thirds a year ago. And fewer than one in 20 anticipate a reduction in production at their plants, down 11 percent from last year’s level.

Results are based on our online survey of 177 Food Processing readers who received email invitations to complete a questionnaire that provides a snapshot of trends in production and investment, continuous improvement, energy policies, worker safety and other areas. Responses came over a three-week period ending Nov. 20.

Most respondents work for U.S. food and beverage companies, though a subset of production professionals from outside the U.S. provided feedback. Food safety is the most important of 11 manufacturing issues presented to both groups, and rankings were consistent for several other issues, as well.

However, foreign workers rated automation as the third most important issue, while U.S. workers scored it ninth, ahead of only energy concerns and wastewater & solid-waste management. Conversely, worker safety and labor issues are a bigger concern among U.S. professionals, ranking second and sixth, respectively. Their non-U.S. counterparts rated worker safety fourth overall, and labor issues were 10th. U.S. workers also are more concerned with cost control.

Many survey participants went beyond the 11 listed manufacturing issues to volunteer thoughts on other pressing concerns. Training was the most frequently cited need across multiple staffing levels. Supply chain issues, energy costs and capacity constraints also garnered multiple mentions.

“A top concern for us is the new food labeling regulations,” wrote Teresa Kloch. A food technologist with a regional ice cream manufacturer, she notes, “This will create a lot of formula revisions for many.”

Food production continues to trend upward, with seven of 10 surveyed anticipating increased throughput at their facilities this year. They should get the tools needed to realize an increase: Almost three-fifths indicate capital budgets will increase this year, including two-fifths who say CapEx will be up at least 5 percent. Only one in eight is dealing with capital belt-tightening.

Paydays should be a bit brighter, with half the participants expecting salaries to increase in 2015, up four points from a year ago. The most striking change in salary expectations is the drop in uncertainty: A quarter of last year’s sample pleaded ignorance about their companies’ payroll plans, almost double this year’s ratio. Staffing plans also are clearer, with half as many in the dark about 2015 staffing plans as a year ago.

Consolidation remains a reality in food manufacturing, and the ratio of professionals who expect their organizations to consolidate production this year nudged up to 16.5 percent, from 11.3 percent. A slightly smaller ratio of food professionals expects production to expand at their facilities. On the other hand, this might be a reflection of a more stable and predictable future: Only 7.1 percent indicated they don’t know their employer’s plans, down from 10.7 percent.

Automation may be a ho-hum issue in the U.S., but there will be no shortage of projects this year. Seven in 10 respondents say there are plans to automate portions of production or the entire line, up from only half a year ago. Packaging automation will see almost as much activity, with 54 percent reporting scheduled spending in some packaging areas or entire secondary packaging systems. Maintenance, repair and operations will receive attention at about one-quarter of plants.

Muddled priorities

Worker safety and continuous improvement are priorities for most food companies, but the survey paints a mixed bag of approaches. While two-thirds say senior management makes worker safety a top concern and tries to make it part of the company culture, there is less attention being paid to near-miss events, machine guarding and peer observations and feedback on at-risk behavior. Perhaps consequently, the proportion of respondents saying reportable injuries are steadily declining at their facilities dropped to 36 percent from 41 percent.

A slight majority (55 percent) indicate their plants have a safety committee that regularly reviews performance and recommends changes.

About half of the manufacturing sites represented in this year’s sample have instituted formal programs for continuous improvement, similar to last year’s results. However, there was a drop off in the proportions using specific approaches (the exception is total quality management, which is now used in three out of 10 plants).

Not every organization embraces continuous improvement, even when a formal program exists. “This is not important to us,” one baked-goods manager wrote. “(We) just lie about what rate we run so that our numbers look better to corporate.”

Implementation of MLO (maintenance line optimization) two years ago at an Ohio shrimp processing plant is paying big dividends in reduced downtime and faster start-up, according to food professional Bea Quintanilla. Besides triggering a root-cause analysis whenever a machine goes down, the program helps involve line workers in continuous improvement. “Engagement is greatly improved because people feel valued and appreciated,” she says.

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