To meet consumers’ changing tastes and diversity demands, today’s food and beverage plants must be flexible.

Manual retort loading provides greater flexibility than an automated approach, an important advantage for copackers such as Truitt Brothers. Source: Truitt Brothers Inc.

Precise unit spacing can be essential, particularly when products move into high-speed packaging machines. Changing over to accommodate different unit sizes is simplified with servos. Source: Bosch Rexroth Inc.

A paradox of modern manufacturing is that two of its most powerful drivers-automation and flexibility-are contradictory forces. A single machine can replicate the throughput of 1,000 workers, but a single worker can perform more jobs than 10,000 machines.

Flexibility is impacted by a building’s infrastructure, design and utilities as well as the equipment that makes and moves product. The desirability of flex invariably runs smack against contradictory objectives, however. For example, A/E professionals advocate wide spans and an absence of columns to optimize facility flexibility. But isolation of allergenic ingredients may require separate processing and packaging areas, forcing plant managers to strike a balance.

Cuisine Solutions, an Alexandria, VA, producer of fully cooked, vacuum-sealed meats, poultry and other frozen products for foodservice and the military, implemented a track-and-trace system last year using on-demand software delivered over the Web by Plex Systems. “Tracking to the second really got people’s attention in the plant,” CFO Ron Zilkowski said at April’s Food Automation & Manufacturing (FAM) Conference, and the ability to isolate the raw materials in a batch and track them to the pouches they went into added “a lot more clarity to the operation.” In Cuisine’s case, raw material isolation also involves physical isolation. A warren of zigzagging rooms disrupts process flow and, Zilkowski admits, hamstrings smooth production.

Contrast Cuisine Solutions’ floor plan with New Britain, CT-based Celebration Foods, this year’s Plant of the Year (“The science and art of mass production,” Food Engineering, April 2009). A clear expanse of 43,000 sq. ft. facilitates the movement in and out of machinery as the company experiments with automation that doesn’t degrade the quality of its handmade ice cream cakes. A utility racking system rings the production floor, which can be expanded to 57,000 sq. ft. without adding any columns.

“We wanted to build in flexibility,” Engineering Director Bob Palczewski told FAM attendees. “We decided to keep a wide open production space to be able to turn 90-degrees if necessary.” Flexibility, along with product quality, was a factor in minimizing automation and robotics. “People as machines are often better” than mechanical systems, Celebration President Tim Shanley pointed out.

Celebration’s utility racking system is an unusual feature that lends great adaptability, notes Paul Hudale, a food & beverage specialist at Nutec Group, a York, PA-based A/E firm. Placing utilities and piping in an interstitial space above the processing area and below the roof delivers similar flexibility but at considerable cost. Pharmaceutical manufacturers pioneered this approach, Hudale says, and interstitial spaces are becoming popular features in new food plants. However, some food manufacturers have tried and rejected this approach because of the insect-infestation that can develop in out-of-sight places.

Air handling systems are at or near the top of A/E lists of critical components in facility flexibility. “Hygienic air has a lot to do with building pressurization,” observes Brian Kappele, vice president-food & beverage for Jacksonville, FL-based Stellar Inc. “It has to be engineered to push air out of a heartbeat production space and into packaging and finally out of the structure.”

A robust infrastructure and oversized utilities also impact the range of products a plant can produce. If steel supports are unable to bear the load of equipment needed for a new line, the line simply cannot be built. Likewise, if the refrigeration system doesn’t have enough reserve capacity to compensate for the heat generated by new processing equipment, flexibility is limited.

The economies of flexibility are driving changes in freezing technology choices. Ammonia is the most economical option for large systems, but some food manufacturers are opting for cryogenic systems instead. Liquid nitrogen results in an ongoing operating cost, but faster freezing means time savings and a greater product range. That can result in a cost-benefit advantage over ammonia. “It’s a flexibility issue,” summarizes Kappele.  

“It helps to have a robust plant,” adds David Dixon, executive vice president-food & beverage for Facility Group, Smyrna, GA. “In a larger sense, flexibility means the ability to expand your facility.” An oversized building and acres of vacant land are the anecdote to maxed-out production space. A number of manufacturers are purchasing oversized existing structures to modify them to meet current and future needs.

Modular conveyors with railings that can be adjusted with the touch of a button remove some of the inflexibility of automation in manufacturing. Source: Bosch Rexroth Inc.

Rural sprawl

The Warrell Corp., a contract manufacturer of confectionery products, converted a former fish processing plant in Spring Hill, PA, to handle a half-dozen different processes in a rambling 200,000 sq. ft. structure. Fort Worth, TX-based Five Star Custom Foods is modifying a former food distribution center in Nashville to accommodate production of its meat products and sauces for foodservice and branded products. And a former Gordon Food Service (GFS) distribution center in East Bernstadt, KY, helped Salem, OR’s Truitt Brothers Inc. accelerate start-up of its entry into contract manufacturing east of the Mississippi River.

A manufacturer and copacker of shelf-stable, low-acid products, Truitt runs a cannery that has operated in Oregon’s Willamette Valley for 92 years. The cannery’s continuous retorts epitomize 20th Century mass production. Seven years ago, the company acquired a former Agri-Pac facility in nearby West Salem to expand its production capacity in retorted flexible pouches and other semi-rigid containers. A 5,000-sq.-ft. freezer was added to the 140,000-sq.-ft. building for raw-material storage and tempering. It proved inadequate, and space was leased in an adjacent cold-storage locker.

The inefficiency of shuttling frozen goods between buildings made the 55,000 sq. ft. of freezer space in the former GFS building in East Bernstadt that much more appealing, according to Ron Davis, general manager of the Kentucky plant. “It’s a big U,” he says of the traffic pattern in the 240,000-sq.-ft. facility. “Production is semi-automated,” Davis explains. “Where we become less automated is in the retort area,” where daily changeovers dictate manual loading and unloading of the machines.

The load-bearing floors required to support racking make DCs good candidates for food-production conversions, Facility’s Dixon points out, and refrigeration often is part of the package. If pathogen control dictates aggressive washdown, a conversion can be complicated, though isolation zones within the structure are an option. “You can build an IMP (insulated metal panel) box inside for critical operations,” he says. Even at $600 a sq. ft., the economics are favorable compared to a greenfield project. Start-up occurs sooner, as well: Truitt commenced production in November, less than 12 months after acquiring the property.

The rotary water-immersion units at Truitt are one of the more costly batch-retort options, allows Scott Williams, vice president of Pro Mach Inc.’s Allpax division, but their versatility in sterilizing both pouches and rigid containers is particularly valuable in a contract manufacturing shop. The use of injection-molded trays that can handle a range of container sizes are more adaptable than traditional stainless-steel trays, adds Covington, LA-based Williams.

Shorter cycle times with pouches offset some of the throughput loss when food companies switch from cans, but quicker heat up and cool down means product quality is better. That erases an advantage aseptic systems enjoyed over in-container sterilization, he points out. The ability to handle a wide range of containers is another plus for retort. Manufacturers that might be willing to install aseptic lines despite their higher costs are reluctant to make the investment because of their inability to fill multiple container sizes, leading Williams to conclude, “for low acid with particulate, aseptic is not on the horizon.”

Automation systems built around human input are much more adaptable than systems built on data-analysis alone. Source: Truitt Brothers Inc.

Adaptable equipment

While there are many pasteurization and sterilization options to choose from, there are limited options when moving product from one production stage to another. All but the smallest food and beverage manufacturers incorporate conveyors at some or all transport stages, and that equipment epitomizes inflexibility. Once fabricated, rigid metal frames are not easily altered. “If you have to cut a rigid frame,” says Bosch Rexroth’s Amy Defayette, “it gets ugly real fast.”

Modular conveyors address that deficiency, and a number of fabricators are producing units with adjustable guides that can accommodate a range of product sizes. Most are built on an extruded aluminum platform, “and you see the concept being adapted to stainless steel, as well,” says Defayette, manager of the company’s Varioflow line in Buchanan, MI.

Electronic bells and whistles can reduce set-up and changeover time on modular conveyors. “Manufacturers have done a lot with linear actuators to make it easier to run different bottle diameters, instead of relying on one guy with an Allen wrench to adjust 700 brackets,” says Facility’s Dixon. The flexibility quotient goes up when sensors and feedback loops are integrated, adds Rick Rey, Defayette’s counterpart in Rexroth’s Hoffman Estates, IL-based packaging group.

“Candy companies are driven by marketing,” Rey says by way of example. If a new candy bar clicks, it won’t be long before marketing asks for a bite size or megabar version. That creates havoc when the new portions enter a flow wrapper. By integrating servo motors and robotic pickers, manufacturers can maintain consistent spacing at the infeed, says Rey. He terms the system “smart belt actuation.”

Sophisticated automation makes machines more adaptable, and data-acquisition programs point the way to greater production efficiencies. Before eliminating manual procedures though, Stellar’s Kappele cautions engineers and operations managers to solicit the input of people on the floor. “I’ve seen some of the best plant managers talking to their sanitation people at three in the morning to increase efficiency,” he says.

Operating a production facility that delivers high throughput while maintaining flexibility is like a delicate balancing act that requires careful consideration of the potential and limits of both man and machine. Like the flexibility obtained by yoga masters, the rewards can be immeasurable.

For more information:
Scott Williams, Allpax Inc., 414-427-6322,
Amy Defayette, Bosch Rexroth, Corp., 269-697-5304,
Rick Rey, Bosch Rexroth Corp., 847-645-3750,
David Dixon, Facility Group, 770-437-7155,
Paul Hudale, Nutec Group, 717-434-1532,
Brian Kappele, Stellar Inc., 904-608-2847,