Uncovering it, grabbing it and implementing changes will lead to the game-changing innovation and manufacturing efficiencies our industry so desires.

This month inFood Engineering, we present our 33rd Annual Plant Construction Survey. While it’s no surprise to see plant projects are down 6 percent in this sluggish economy, I’m happy to report operations professionals are continuing to harvest low-hanging fruit and making the best of equipment on hand. Today, it’s all about intelligent asset utilization.

But there’s a dichotomy.

A year ago, when we polled our readers about asset management systems, only half responded they even had one. And of the half who do, 50 percent are unsure if they are getting any return on investment from it. At the time, I viewed this as a truly missed opportunity for overall equipment efficiency and the quest for continuous improvement that’s essential to successful manufacturing operations today.

Fast forward to 2010. It’s a different world with a changed manufacturing landscape.

According to the engineering firms interviewed for this cover story, industry consolidation and excess manufacturing capacity have caused processors to metamorphose their operations, leading to more facility renovations, conversions and expansions. To make better use of existing assets, processors have relocated production lines, sometimes completely closing sites that no longer make sense.

Food makers are becoming smarter about ways to save a buck in operational matters. In this economic climate where consumers continue to clip coupons and eat more meals at home, manufacturers continue to invest in existing assets instead of building a new plant. In many cases, it’s not only necessary for the bottom line, it can be good for the planet, too.

Yes, there’s still some low-hanging fruit out there in sustainability, operational efficiencies, changeover time, machinery flexibility, round the clock operations and supply chains. And uncovering it, grabbing it and implementing modifications will lead to the game-changing innovation and manufacturing efficiencies our industry so desires.