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Food Processing Plant Remodel Brings Promises and Pitfalls

To move beyond capacity shortcomings, a renovation of your facility might be in order. Engineering firms discuss the best ways to get around some of the challenges you might face along the way.

This warehouse was converted into a nutritional supplement processing plant.
This warehouse was converted into a nutritional supplement processing plant.

For food and beverage processors, the crunch is on. According to the Federal Reserve Board, plants in the U.S. that make non-durable goods were producing 82.1% of their maximum output in September. That is the highest mark for the capacity utilization rate since 1998. Swings in demand, supply chain issues, and varying workforce availability add to the pressure.

In response, manufacturers are adding capacity that often includes greater automation and control. When they do, they can build something new or add onto existing facilities. The latter often poses a fundamental challenge.

“You’re typically working on an existing facility while they’re in production. You’ve got to really navigate their schedules,” says Timothy Gibbons, vice president of design services at ESI Group USA. The company specializes in designing and building food processing and food distribution facilities.

Health and safety, product mix, building changes, and how to bring everything together at the right time are some of the issues that arise when renovating. Design and build companies as well as machine makers use planning and technology to deal with these concerns.

A food processing facility addition can increase capacity in an existing plant.A food processing facility addition can increase capacity in an existing plant.TXDrone and ESI Group

For food and beverage production, renovation involves health and safety. Goods are perishable, requiring processing be finished within a fixed time limit. Even if not rendered unfit for consumption, delaying manufacturing could result in product changing texture, flavor, or other aspects important to consumers. Inserting a new machine or machines into the production flow can also lead to the introduction of pathogens or other issues, even when the introduction of machinery causes no production hiccup.

“You need to avoid any cross-contamination, and don’t affect operations, to the best of your ability,” sums up Forrest McNabb, president of national food and beverage group at Big-D Construction. The company is a design-build contractor that got its start in the dairy industry.

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McNabb compares upgrading a food or beverage processing facility to renovating a bathroom while the homeowner takes a shower. Both require intimate knowledge, and both take place with only a flimsy barrier separating things.

The discovery process

On the knowledge front, the design-build process usually begins with finding out where the plant owner wants to end up and where they are starting from, using such metrics as how many pounds of product are produced per worker hour. Meetings then follow to hash out plans on how to move from one state to another while continuing to make product. Design-build firms and machine makers then use simulations to see how proposed solutions will work.

Part of this activity involves developing the information used as a basis of design, says Ben Rucker, marketing team leader and director at CRB. The design-build firm specializes in food and beverage, life sciences, and pharmaceutical facilities. 

CRB gives its clients a questionnaire to get the necessary answers. On the architectural front, one question is the purpose of the renovation. Is it merely to get more production? Is there a need to be able to walk clients through the plant floor as well? If that’s the case, would see-through windows serve that purpose?

Planning for the future

Beyond that, the questionnaire dives into process-related issues. In doing renovations, an important point to keep in mind is that product mix can change, Rucker notes. A good example comes from the making of salad dressing, with this issue coming up in a project CRB did for a food processor. The project included a year-by-year plan of what process equipment to add and when.

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But ranch and Italian salad dressings are two very different products, with the first being thick and full of particulates, while the second is 80% water, which makes for a much less viscous product. Thus, the two dressings require different processing equipment. But predicting the product mix, especially years out, is difficult. Plant renovation choices will impact what products can be made and sold, influencing how a plant owner can respond to future demand swings.

“You can’t be all things to all people,” Rucker says of the processing capabilities of a plant undergoing renovation. “You need to find a baseline, a happy medium, and that requires a lot of communication.”

Coordination, communication, planning, and a willingness to work nights and weekends are all important in plant renovations, according to Dan Sambrooks, president of Diligent Innovation Fabrication & Machine. The company builds equipment for the meat industry by designing, engineering, and making conveyors that move product, machines that package and box it, and systems that harvest animals. About 60% of the company’s business is in plant renovations, with the remaining 40% going into new construction.

The increased uncertainty about workforce availability and the tight labor market of the past few years have introduced a new reason to renovate, Sambrooks notes. Food and beverage processors are looking not only to get more capacity but also to increase productivity. “Everybody’s looking to automate now because people and human resources are so hard to find,” he says.

Floor managers also want to measure all they can, Sambrooks adds. This means gathering as much information as possible, and that desire leads to putting in sensors and other instrumentation.

Raise the roof

The insertion of robotics and automation requires installing network cabling and power, if not already present. Oftentimes, these and other utilities go above subceilings installed over the process floor, with the needed power, water, air, and network connections coming down next to the machine. This approach of changing the building’s interior in order to run utilities overhead makes positioning of the machines in a line easier. It also makes future changes and additions simpler. 

One problem with this technique that Sambrooks has seen is that older buildings—those built in the 1980s and earlier—tend to have limited headroom. Consequently, there might not be enough room to put in a subceiling with the required space above it. 

Raising the roof is a solution to a low ceiling, but roof changes might also be needed for other reasons during a plant renovation. Tying in a building expansion to an existing building, for instance, could involve roof line changes. But such alterations to the shell that surrounds a food or beverage processing floor require considerations to health and safety aspects, McNabb notes. “How do you accommodate a roof line transition without creating moisture problems into the building through water infiltration?” he asks.

Changes to a building’s interior or exterior bring in other considerations, depending on the locale, McNabb adds. New equipment could require a change in the sub-floor or new openings in walls for tanks, valves, or access points. If a processing plant is in California, though, any structural modifications need to meet seismic zone standards. In Minnesota, on the other hand, a building must satisfy snow load requirements. In such areas or in places with high winds, what’s done to one building must not only meet the regulatory requirements for that building, it also must not cause a problem for other buildings. A change to building A, for instance, cannot increase the amount of snow or the force of the wind on building B so much as to create issues.

Final thoughts on a food processing plant remodel 

A final major area of concern during food and beverage processing plant renovation is logistics. An obvious one is the food processing chain, which must keep moving. This supply line includes upstream producers that feed a plant and downstream vendors who eventually get the product to the consumer. 

Unlike some other products, though, food and beverages involve animals and plants, living things that are not static. Chickens, for instance, grow, but a processing plant that handles chickens is designed for animals of a certain size, Gibbons comments. A delay in movement through the pipeline because a line or plant is down for renovation means staging chickens at prior points, where they will continue to grow. Too long a delay could mean the chickens might end up too large for the machinery.

To minimize delays, companies take special steps, Gibbons notes. “We have to scramble. We’ll shut it down on a Friday, move all the equipment and get it up and running by Monday,” he says. “That usually, depending on the process, must be done over a weekend. If it takes longer, a week, two weeks—that’s a problem.”

During renovation, carrying out this sequence brings in another set of logistics—that of the processing equipment itself. Before shutting down a plant, any added equipment going in as part of a renovation needs to be on hand. With chip and other equipment shortages, knowing with certainty when a system will be available can be tricky. When new equipment leadtimes balloon from six to 12 months, that creates havoc with renovation timeline schedules. Design and build firms have had to become experts in equipment production schedules because of the impact these timelines have on plant renovations, McNabb says.

Planning, planning, planning

To tackle such issues, extensive planning is essential, McNabb adds. Process equipment has in general gotten smaller, he says, but getting a piece of machinery into a plant might still require lifts and cranes, along with moving along busy roads or past power lines.

Such considerations are particularly important during renovation because plants undergoing upgrades are typically older. When first constructed, they might have been in an undeveloped area with plenty of free space around them. Over the years, though, industrial and residential construction might have put buildings, traffic, and people nearby, making the task of putting equipment into a plant more difficult.

Planning also must accommodate utility impacts, Rucker points out. Adding equipment will increase electrical loads, for example, and that could mean upgrading a building’s main or subsidiary electrical panels. Since such actions take time, they must be accounted for, and it could be the case that what looks like an ideal renovation project isn’t.

Warehouses often have plenty of headroom and an open layout. Getting equipment in might not be a problem. But such structures might not have the electrical, plumbing, wastewater, and other infrastructure needed to support a food or beverage processing operation. In that case, the solution could involve tearing up the slab. “You’re looking at some major, major infrastructure expenses,” Rucker says.

Flexibility is also essential

Part of the plan should include flexibility, Gibbons says. The renovation design and construction process takes years—often three or more—from start to finish. During that time, there could be changes in technology or the market that result in alterations or modifications of the initial plan. What’s more, in older plants, just as in remodeling older homes, what lies behind a wall might be a surprise that’s revealed only when the wall is opened up or comes down—another reason for flexibility.

An important part of a plan needs to include the staff, Sambrooks adds. They are the ones who will use the renovated plant to make product, and so their buy-in as well as knowledge is important. Also, as Gibbons points out, the workforce cannot simply be sent home for months during an upgrade. What to do with workers while renovation is underway must be considered.

For any food processing plant remodel, there is a competing approach: building an entirely new plant. Doing so, though, requires duplicating machines, workforce, and some management staff, along with securing land, obtaining permits, and dealing with other issues. For food and beverage processors up against their manufacturing utilization limit, such a greenfield approach might not make the most sense.

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