Food Manufacturing Facilities Design for Flexibility

June 5, 2012
Smaller, more nimble food processing plants offer something different.

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.

“Well, you do have the wet and dry areas in a plant, and you do not want people walking around the wet areas during washdown,” he says. “So you do want to isolate aspects of your operation from one another.

“In an area for quick change-over, you might remove one component and put a new one in place. Then the original piece goes into a cleaning and then maybe another room for routine maintenance and then storage, so that it is ready for the next changeover.”

That requires some space for movement, whether the components have their own casters or they need to be moved by a forklift.

“In a flexible plant were quick disconnects are used, we really look to minimize the number or columns,” says Gleeson’s Vandeschulp. “Column location is very important, as is the placement of light fixtures. Manufactures are now offering more concealed light fixtures.”

Where green initiatives are also considered, LED lighting and reflective tubular skylights can also play a role, Vandeschulp adds. He believes that suppliers have only scratched the surface in providing plant and production equipment that will offer green efficiencies.

“I think we will see a lot of really interesting technology coming out in the next few years,” he notes. “Just look at low-energy lighting, for instance. It has gone from being a neat idea to being a real money saver.”

And yet, green initiatives still sometime run afoul of flexibility, as frequent changeovers inevitably increase waste, says Burns & McDonnell’s Sokolowsky.

“People have been doing things for years to make their manufacturing lines more efficient,” he says. “From a flexibility standpoint, it really comes down to reducing your waste -- how do you make those frequent changeovers while minimizing the waste? It comes down to having a really strong continuous improvement process.” That requires diligence, but it should not be unattainable, Sokolowsky adds.

“If I set the efficiency of the previous run as a starting point, and I had been running at 98 percent when shut down, I should be able in theory to start up again at 98 percent,” he says. “But it all comes down to the efficiency of your changeover.”

Sokolosky has another take on flexibility, from the angle of sourcing raw materials – say, meat or potatoes.

“If you have a customer who wants French fries cut to 4 inches and another customer that wants them at 3 3/8, then you might have to source different-sized potatoes for each to avoid waste,” he says. It becomes even more important for companies producing organic potatoes, or sourcing grass-fed beef.

Stellar’s Gomolka says there are ways to make flexibility and efficiency work hand in hand, through proper coordination. He gives the example of a pizza manufacturer that maintains steady production of its basic product component — the crust — while utilizing quick changeovers to produce a mixture of topics and package configurations on the same shift.

“This adds a dimension of flexibility without giving up the efficiencies of the basic operation,” he says. This example came from a Stellar customer that increased productivity and reduced its workforce significantly after installing an additional spiral freezer and packaging equipment.

Facilities are also being designed so that services can easily be moved from above the ceiling and relocated to allow changes in configurations of production lines.

Still more ways to flex
Of course, varying the speed of the process is a key component of flexibility. Motors may be the biggest component of that change, as they control pieces of equipment that are common to many food manufacturing processes.

“Every system in the process – conveyors, pumps, mixers, blowers, packaging machines – that has a motor has the potential to change the process without pulling out and replacing equipment,” says Tim Albers, director of OEM marketing and product management for Nidec Motor Corp. (, St. Louis.

As products change, needs change. “Instead of half-gallon containers of milk, a dairy may need to fill gallon containers on the same line. The fillers are going to take twice as long to fill the bigger container, so the whole line has to be slowed,” he says. So it’s worthwhile to figure-in motor flexibility up front when systems are designed.

“Do you really think the motors on whatever piece of equipment will run at the same speed forever?” he asks. “Evaluate the long-term purpose and life expectancy of the systems and see if a variable speed motors will serve you well for future changes in production.”

Motors change line speed a number of ways. They’re usually connected to process systems by direct drive with a belt or by gearing. More and more processors are adopting variable speed concepts, particularly variable frequency drives. While variable speeds can be achieved with older mechanical systems, variable frequency drives provide truly electronic changes in speed by changing the frequency of the motor.

In your supply cabinet, flexibility can be synonymous with simplicity. Food-grade lubricants now have the flexibility to be used in many applications that they were unsuited for just a few years ago.

Switching to food-grade lubes for all your machines makes replacement simpler -- even unskilled employees cannot mistakenly use a conventional lube where a food-grade one is required. If a machine far away from processing blows a gasket and throws out a mist of oil, that could contaminate food if it's not food-grade oil; no problem if it is. And cutting down your stock numbers is always a good thing.

In the past, there were many applications where food-grade lubricants choices were limited. But they have proliferated and now offer more options, including synthetic products, says Ben Briseno, product manager of the Clarion brand for Citgo Petroleum (, Houston. So there probably is one available for all but the most exotic pieces of machinery.

Flexibility requires changes. But in a regulated environment, change must be controlled and carefully documented. IQity Solutions (, Wexford, Pa., provides web-based software solutions that can reduce manual inputs, eliminate paper records and allow for better predictability.

“All the redundant data can now go away,” says David Gustovich, president of IQity. This can leave room for a greater focus on efficiencies, even with flexible lines. He cites the example of a beef producer that had “168 inspectors manually routinely capturing 8 million-plus data points,” before adopting the company’s IQ-Fusion cloud-based system.

IQity says it has the ability to learn solutions and convert them into online tutorials that will help operators solve the same issue more quickly the next time it occurs. This reduced dependence on what Gustovich refers to as “tribal knowledge.” That is sometimes lost after a 20-year veteran employee moves on.

IQ-Fusion offers users a menu of modules and pods to deliver intuitive and interactive views. Grouped in functional modules, each pod delivers a production operations analysis that is correlated with real-time business outcomes and financial measures. The result is real-time operational information that manufacturers can use to take action on the spot to improve outcomes in production, cost, quality and service.

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