From energy monitoring to confronting “audit fatigue,” food and beverage processing professionals discussed the industry’s most pressing issues.

The Gulf of Mexico provided a backdrop to a cocktail reception, one of several networking events during the program.

A late-April Gulf storm made reaching Tampa Bay an unexpected challenge, but attendees at this year’s Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference persevered. Their reward was three days of macro perspectives, sharing of hands-on manufacturing improvement experiences, and a rare opportunity to network with counterparts across the food and beverage spectrum to discuss common issues.

All manufacturing organizations are looking for a sustainable competitive advantage, suggested Keynote Speaker Wade Latz, vice president-global engineering operations at the Hershey Co., Hershey, PA. It requires coordination of the three legs of the manufacturing stool, he explained: the systems and procedures for making products; the combination of ingredients, materials and formulation of products; and the skills, knowledge, expertise and enthusiastic involvement of the people who make products. The difficulty is that the legs are constantly changing, sometimes radically, sometimes barely perceptively. Constant adjustment is necessary to maintain a sustainable advantage.

In the systems and equipment realm, energy use is changing rapidly. “What is the energy content in your product?” asks Latz. “Are there ways to minimize the energy content of your product?” Hershey is just beginning to measure and understand the energy inputs of its processes, and realizing net reductions. “Consumption-based thinking must be eliminated from our production systems,” he believes.

Hershey’s engineering head count had a net gain of five in 2009, reaching 95. Nurturing those professionals and other members of the staff is critical to success, and “knowing how to construct and lead high-performance teams includes [building] trust,” Latz added.

Joseph Brungardt of Schwan’s Inc., Gary Bollinger of Malt-O-Meal Co., Eric Bliss of Blommer Chocolate Co. and Don Adams of Keystone Foods LLC listened as fellow participants in the Three-Minute Drill session offered their engineering best practices.

Attention to the people part of the equation was a recurring theme throughout the program. Demonstrating concern for the staff isn’t a feel-good activity, a speaker from PepsiCo’s Quaker division underscored; it helps drive productivity improvements and reduces manufacturing disruptions. Tim Morris, manager-HSE programs for Quaker Foods & Snacks, outlined the results of kaizen events organized at nine plants in the first seven months of 2009. Facilitating the events was Risk Management Group, Brentwood, TN.

Ergonomic risk had been addressed by site teams for a decade, “but our process was getting a little stale,” said Morris. “Little things that could easily be improved were being overlooked” in favor of a few large projects. By staging three half-day kaizen events, the organization not only demonstrated concern for workers and reduced the likelihood of injuries, it boosted morale and eliminated many wasted motions that worked against productivity. Plants typically executed 44 projects at an average cost of $50, and the improvements were significant: the purchase of a right-angle, battery-powered wrench cut 30 minutes from changeovers for a pouch machine, for example.

Management always focuses on cost, “but no one complained they didn’t get a bang from their buck,” said Morris. “We could do events for another 10 years and never run out of ideas.”

Worker involvement and buy-in also are important for an effective corporate sustainability program, as panelists on the conference’s sustainable solutions roundtable made clear. At Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Food Engineering’s Sustainable Food Plant of the Year in 2009, educating both employees and suppliers and encouraging changes in their behavior is a major focus, according to Cheri Chastain, the brewery’s sustainability coordinator. Jeff Shuman, engineering director at Stonyfield Farm, seconded the thought, characterizing changes in employee behavior as “low-hanging fruit” with tremendous potential for reducing resource consumption.

“It feels strange, a meathead following two hippies,” joked the third panelist, David Townsend, assistant vice president-environmental affairs at Smithfield Foods. The pork producer has been criticized for its waste-handling, animal welfare and other practices. Smithfield is trying to rehabilitate its reputation, and in February, the position of chief sustainability officer was created. “This is the future, this is where everyone is headed,” said Townsend.

Production professionals gained exposure to the products and services of more than 50 suppliers on the Expo show floor.

What retailers want

Animal-welfare audits of suppliers have been instituted by Costco Wholesale Corp., noted Craig Wilson, assistant vice president, food safety and quality assurance at the Issaquah, WA-based club store. Describing supplier audits as “a huge area for growth,” Wilson said the retailer became more demanding in the wake of last year’s Peanut Corporation of America salmonella recalls, which involved 4,280 products. “Nobody knew where their ingredients were coming from,” a factor in the broad scale of the recall, he said. As a consequence, Costco now requires food suppliers to account for the source of all their ingredients in a given shipment. “Traceback, of course, is the key” to preventing massive recalls, Wilson suggested.

Like most major retailers, Costco supports the standardized food safety audits certified under the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), partly because the emphasis on documentation improves the likelihood any recalls can be targeted, rather than blanket actions. For manufacturers, “the real key [with GFSI] is to reduce the number of audits each year,” he said. “I can’t guarantee that is going to happen.”

Today’s food and beverage companies are afflicted with “audit fatigue,” an unintended side effect of heightened concerns over not only food safety but animal welfare, social responsibility, ethical sourcing and other issues, noted Denise Wooldridge, Kraft Foods’ director of sustainability. As both a buyer and seller of food products, Kraft supports efforts such as GFSI and Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, which sets buyer-defined and broadly accepted standards and expectations to relieve companies of redundant audits and let them “focus on the business at hand,” Wooldridge said.

Steve Kunkle, plant manager at Kraft’s Chicago bakery, devoted his remarks to packaging line optimization. Purportedly the world’s largest bakery, with 17 ovens and more than 1,400 workers, the plant produces about a third of all Nabisco cookies and crackers. “A plant of this size in the corporate backyard should stand out” in operational performance, but it didn’t when he became plant manager two years ago, Kunkle said. The goal was to become world class in operations, maintenance and continuous improvement, and the first step was to ensure the fundamentals of worker and food safety were addressed. “That’s the people side of the equation, but you really have to have it in place before you have the right to improve,” Kunkle said.

Automated data collection of machine downtime and maintenance actions was the starting point for an optimization effort that is adding $1 million a month to the facility’s productivity. Manual records were not reliable indicators of machine performance, making root-cause analysis of downtime futile. “In today’s world, a CMMS is very critical,” he told his fellow food professionals. The plant installed Zarpac Performance Index software.

Accurate data allowed maintenance to implement simple fixes and to drill down for more complex problems. A right-angle transfer on one packaging line was going down every 13 minutes, with downtime averaging 40 minutes each time. Analysis determined the problem was in the controls, so the Smart belt program was re-installed, lowering the number of incidents to three per shift and three minutes for each occurrence.

Monday evening’s barbecue on the beach gave conference attendees a chance to eat, relax and exchange notes.

Are you an innovation facilitator or roadblock?

Even engineers can use some help in honing their interpersonal skills, and this year’s conference included an interactive session in which attendees practiced leadership techniques to encourage innovation in their organizations.

The two-hour workshop was led by Christopher Miller, founder of Innovation Focus, and Sarah Finch, director of learning at Chicago’s Second City Communications, an arm of the improvisational comedy theater troupe. “In improv, listening is crucial,” Finch said, and the goal is to respond to what the other person is saying. Instead of listening, people often are formulating what they are going to say when the other person stops talking, and how they respond to a proposal is usually negative.

Instead, leaders in manufacturing should formulate “Yes, and …” responses to what their associates propose, she advised. “Yes, and …” is the affirmative cornerstone of improv, and where it leads is uncertain. But it liberates people to make suggestions, and the refinement and building upon those suggestions are the basis of innovation.

Miller drew on his work with Hershey Co. to illustrate how getting “the people part right” is indispensable in fostering product innovation. The technology to produce and wrap millions of Hershey’s Kisses every shift enabled the candy company to build a $125 million brand, but the inspiration to create Holiday Kisses, Hugs and Kisses with Almonds came from people who knew how to align with other areas in the organization. Overcoming objections to a new idea requires interpersonal skills, and training in creativity “goes back a long way” at Hershey, Miller said.

At one point, seven conferees took turns, striking a pose and waiting for another attendee to strike a complementary pose. The point was empathy training: People feel vulnerable when posing or suggesting. A good leader supports them and doesn’t leave them hanging.