Food Engineering

Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference Report

June 1, 2009
Best practices and benchmarking, innovation and execution, sustainability and cost reduction-conferees tackled today’s key manufacturing issues.

Engineers and other food professionals meet at happy hour to unwind and discuss the day’s presentations. Networking with peers is a benefit of the conference.


Hosting a conference in a sun-worshippers’ playground peppered with world-class golf courses would be a mistake with most professionals, but engineers and plant managers are not most professionals. The food and beverage producers at Sarasota’s Ritz-Carlton in April came to hear from industry leaders, exchange ideas with their peers and engage in lively dialogue.

The economy dampened turnout slightly, but not participation and networking, at Food Engineering’s seventh annual Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference. Randy Darcy, recently retired executive vice president, worldwide technology & operations at General Mills Inc., kick-started the event by describing how a culture that values process innovation can generate huge profitability for a food company. Darcy also touched on best practices, benchmarking and other themes that would resurface during the three-day event. The elephant in the room during all 17 conference sessions was sustainability, a topic touched on by several speakers and the focus of a special forum that approached the issue from a variety of angles (see related story on page 74).

Keynote speaker Randy Darcy describes a best-practices project from his days as executive vice president of technology at General Mills Inc.

“Holistic margin management” produced double-digit savings in all but one year from 2003-2008, contributing more than $1 billion in margin improvements for General Mills over 20 years, keynoter Darcy said. “The relentless drive for innovation” helped, but “flawless execution” sustained the improvements. “Many times, a very small, minor thing can occur, and the whole (initiative) collapses,” he said.

Ten years ago, the Minneapolis manufacturer began benchmarking against world-class organizations outside the food industry. For one project, seven operators and maintenance crew members were sent to Charlotte, NC, to study NASCAR pit crews to learn and then apply lessons of fast changeover at General Mills’ Lodi, CA, facility.

Five high-speed lines in Lodi produced Hamburger Helper for the West Coast. Line extensions were killing production rates because changeovers took up to three hours. Shooting from the hip, Darcy suggested a target of 13 minutes per changeover. With the help of five cameras and lessons learned in Charlotte, the goal was met “within months,” he related. “They applied those concepts to startups and a lot of other things across the plant,” Darcy added.

Sheboygan, WI-based Johnsonville Sausage uses the KAI test to identify people best-suited to lead innovation initiatives. Vice President Dale Arnold echoed Darcy’s suggestion to look outside the industry for viable ideas. He also addressed the issue of project failure. To avoid squelching future innovation, “when a project fails, I ask, ‘How much more (funding) do you need?’” to make it work, Arnold said.

He urged peers to attend conferences, expositions and other events not directly related to their field to harvest ideas. His out-of-the-box recommendation was amplified by Bill Wallisch, a retired US Air Force Academy professor who has arranged several interactions between food companies and military units for benchmarking, best-practice study and team-building exercises. Debriefing is standard protocol at the conclusion of a military exercise, and food processors also should engage in a critical evaluation at the conclusion of a project. “Rankless discussion” is the rule for a frank talk about a project’s successes and shortcomings, Wallisch said. “We can have some hard things to say,” he added. “The debrief is so very important.”

Consultant Bill Wallisch makes a point during the best practices and benchmarking session. Flanking him are Luis Viso of Coca-Cola North America and Kraft Foods’ Diane Wolf.

Wallisch was the only non-food professional on an expert panel focusing on best practices and benchmarking. If a practice is specific to the organization, involvement by people from multiple areas is essential for success, speakers agreed. Safety and maintenance managers were asked to set best practices for sustainability at Keystone Foods, according to Ed Delate, vice president-corporate engineering. The goals they set became part of their incentive plans. The project led to Keystone’s involvement in a sustainability exchange with nonfood companies, Delate said.

When partnering with an outside firm, make sure the company is a viable business, cautioned Diane Wolf, an engineering vice president at Kraft Foods. Kraft forged an ultimately successful partnership for the construction and operation of anaerobic digesters to harvest methane from whey, but the early years were marred by the partner’s tenuous financial status. Successful implementation of the technology would not have been possible if Kraft had not guaranteed the partner’s bonds.

Benchmarking data is available from a wide array of trade groups, research firms and others, panelists agreed, and manufacturers can always start their own forums. When benchmarking with another food company, “be prepared to give your best to someone else,” advised Luis Viso, vice president-supply chain for Coca-Cola North America. An exercise with Anheuser-Busch in which Coke shared details of its quality management program and A-B provided insight into reliability maintenance would not have worked, he said, if both parties were not open in discussing the details of their own strengths.

The Gulf of Mexico provides a natural backdrop to dinner on the beach for conference attendees.

Technology-driven innovation

Technology received its due at sessions focusing on high pressure processing (HPP), robotics and ultrafiltration. Fresherized Foods pioneered HPP technology, a fact that means nothing to consumers, noted Marcia Walker, vice president-food technology & microbiology. The guacamole, pasteurized avocado and salsa the company produces are “unparalleled in flavor and aroma,” however, and that has made the firm a market leader.

“The hidden reason we use it is the food-safety benefits,” Walker said, and she predicted more ready-to-eat meat processors will migrate to HPP despite its cost because antimicrobial interventions are proving inadequate in preventing recalls. Reliability has improved dramatically since the firm purchased its first press in 1993, and guacamole batches of almost 500 lbs can be processed in a new 350-liter unit, boosting throughput. She expects additional innovations in loading and unloading systems will reduce cycle times.

While Fresherized adapted technology designed for metallurgy to food, Pepperidge Farm led adoption of automotive robotics in packaging, beginning with pick-and-place robots on cookie lines in 1987. The company now has more than 170 robotic arms working at its US bakeries, with a similar number at the Arnott’s division in Australia, according to Kevin Lambton, director of engineering-snacks. Pepperidge recently commissioned a cookie-capping system with 34 robots, including 20 vision-guided units.

Lambton provided a detailed approach to specifying and installing robotics in a food plant, with particular emphasis on the importance of factory acceptance testing. He also cautioned engineers about the technology’s limitations. “People get carried away with robots being ultraflexible, but they’re not,” said Lambton. “People are.”

Filtration technology has helped Select Milk Producers Inc. slash transportation costs and introduce “designer milk,” such as a new Athlete’s Honey Milk product that contains 26 g of protein and 26 g of carbs. In the process, the 15-year-old cooperative has built annual sales to $1 billion and turned its attention to slashing waste and enhancing its green credentials, said John Dunker, vice president-business development.

“Green is real,” he said, “and being green doesn’t have to cost us. It can save money and help our bottom line.” Pressure from retailers and government will force food companies to reduce their carbon footprints, Dunker predicted. Based on in-house analysis of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Select has reduced GHG in every area from the farm to the store. A goal of 12% additional cuts in 10 years recently was bumped to 25%.

“Water is going to be the next petroleum,” he concluded, and because of recovery systems already in place, “we actually return more water to the land than we take out.” Not incidentally, those systems also are saving the processing division money.

Common ground for Coke and Pepsi

If members of the Coca-Cola and Pepsico organizations can share ideas on a topic, can it be considered a competitive issue?

Sustainability initiatives sometimes are cast in competitive terms, yet engineers from both soft drink manufacturers, as well as Tyson Foods and a Dean Foods partner, shared the podium at this year’s conference in a session on energy and sustainability solutions.  While they addressed different aspects, recurring themes included the huge potential returns on technical investments and the need for top-down commitment from everyone in the organization to effect lasting change.

“There’s money to be made in sustainability, particularly at the plant level,” insists Tim Carey, director-sustainability & technology at Pepsico Americas Beverages, where $28 million in resource-conservation initiatives are expected to generate returns of 25%-35% this year. A solar-energy project in Fullerton, CA, has turned into a profit center, Carey reports: HMI screens give real-time data on kilowatt generation from the rooftop array and facility power usage. Operators compete to alter consumption patterns to boost the amount of electricity sold back to the grid. By bumping HVAC set-points a couple of degrees, operators can increase the outflow at California’s guaranteed rate of 26 cents per kWh.

Altering personnel behavior can conserve at least 2.5% of energy and water use and as much as 40%, reports Mark Lee, Coca-Cola’s engineering, environmental and safety director of commercial products supply. Lee has integrated sustainability objectives in lean-manufacturing initiatives. A 2012 goal of 20% energy-use reductions had to be reset because it already has been exceeded, despite modest capital investments. “If the people don’t change, technology investments will produce diminishing returns,” Lee says.

As at Coke and Pepsi, Tyson’s CEO is committed to sustainability, and that has helped launch dormant projects. A wastewater pretreatment system at the Monett, MO, poultry plant had been talked about for 20 years before management made it a priority.  The facility will reclaim 180 million gallons of water to cool vacuum pumps and for other uses this year, according to Plant Manager David Young. The goal is to reduce overall consumption by 52 million gallons, provided USDA inspectors determine it doesn’t compromise sanitary standards.

A cardboard- and plastic-baling program has reduced solid waste by “easily 70%” and turned solid-waste into a revenue generator. Personnel are motivated to help the local community and “to change our process and make it something real that will be here 20 years from now,” explains Young.

Operating major heat-recovery systems falls outside the core competency of even large food companies, notes Shiva Subramanya, a mechanical engineer and cofounder of EPS Corp., which arranged third-party financing for cogeneration systems it operates at Dean Foods plants, including a 3.1 MW system at Alta Dena Dairy in City of Industry, CA. But gap analysis of energy use versus standards can generate substantial returns with more modest investment. At Alta Dena, annual electricity use was cut 4.5 million kWH in two years, or 16%, while natural gas was reduced 25%, saving  $340,000 a year and slashing 2,030 tons of CO2 emissions.

The techniques for achieving those savings are well known, Subramanya says, but staff engineers are committed to meeting production goals. If energy reduction is added to their to-do lists, goals are seldom met.