Food process manufacturers find old, new ways to stay efficient

Security. RFID. Uptime and downtime, and maintenance and maintenance-free. For those in the manufacturing sector, these are just a few of the buzzwords that are dealt with daily. Here’s another one: margin. Food processors, in particular, face some hefty challenges – in both their processing and packaging operations – to keep their margins up and their machines operating.

By Kevin Campbell, Senior Editor August 1, 2006

Security. RFID. Uptime and downtime, and maintenance and maintenance-free. For those in the manufacturing sector, these are just a few of the buzzwords that are dealt with daily. Here’s another one: margin.

Food processors, in particular, face some hefty challenges — in both their processing and packaging operations — to keep their margins up and their machines operating. Those issues have implications for other manufacturers as well, especially in process manufacturing

“There are two major things,” said John Bloomer, director, SKF food and beverage business, Kulpsville, PA. “One issue falls under hazard analysis and critical control-point compliance for cleanliness, and the other falls under maintenance practices.”

Food processors must take every precaution to ensure that their products avoid contamination while meeting stringent FDA regulations. Bloomer noted that while food processors must introduce cleaning agents after each production cycle to keep machinery clean and to make sure no food particles remain that could contaminate the next batch, contamination can come from those same cleaning agents.

The second issue that Bloomer cites is one that any manufacturer can relate to: maintenance, and its related costs.

“You see a lot of equipment manufacturers that are now saying that their machinery is maintenance-free, meaning that it does not have to be taken apart and re-greased. It’s a lot simpler. Anything that I’ve seen suppliers do that makes it easier to maintain, easy to clean, is being welcomed in this industry,” Bloomer said.

The better machinery operates without maintenance, the less labor that is expended, Bloomer said, and the longer it can remain online and productive. A number of things are being done by machinery manufacturers to ease maintenance and make things easier for the plant manager.

makes it easy to clean is being
welcomed in this industry.”
John Bloomer , director,
SKF food and beverage business

Photo Courtesy of SKF

“It starts on a component level. Basically they’re sealing up anything that before required greasing or routine maintenance,” Bloomer continued. “It’s kind of like your car. Back in the 1950s, they’d grease the bearings in the car; they would play with the fuel injection system and all that. Now when you open up the hood, you couldn’t get into that car even with the wrenches in your garage. Everything’s sealed up.”

According to Bloomer, the trend is toward plug-and-play machinery. Manufacturers are thinking that if the machinery comes completely sealed, the only maintenance it should need is regular washdown.

“The concept around sealing things up, basically leaving the maintenance out of it as much as possible, is one of the biggest things I’m seeing in machinery,” Bloomer said.

Aseptic becoming the way to go

“In food processing, clearly I think the hottest trend is good-tasting, good-for-you, shelf-stable products,” said Danny Beard, vice president/director of sales for International Dispensing Corporation, Hanover, MD. “Generally the way that’s achieved is through aseptic processing.”

Used for industrial foodservice and other industrial applications since its development in the 1950s, aseptic processing has just recently become applicable for consumer products.

“A number of ways are available to make a shelf-stable product, the most widely used of which is retort can,” Beard said.

With retort, users put the product in the can and then cook it at a very high temperature while in the can. A suitable solution for products like green beans, chili and similar products, it’s less effective for products such as dairy and orange juice because it can sap nutrients and flavor.

“That’s the old-fashioned way of doing it,” Beard said. “With aseptic, you heat the product up very quickly in a pipe so it reaches a high-level temperature very quickly. Then you quench it and bring it back down to room temperature very quickly.”

It’s the brevity of the process that makes aseptic so attractive for consumer products. According to Beard, the entire heating and cooling process requires on average 20 to 30 seconds, depending on the product.

“You take it through a very short heat cycle, which maintains the nutrients, color and flavor of the product. It’s all the difference in the world,” he said. “There’s so much activity going on with that it’s unbelievable.”

“As our population continues to gray and we need to have the right amount of vitamins and minerals in our foods, the processing, and I come back to aseptic, is really going to become the emerging and the dominant process,” said Gary Allanson, CEO of IDC. “Why? We’re continuing to have to fortify our foods with vitamins and minerals that aren’t natural. This has to be addressed, and aseptic does it.”

Don’t forget the packaging side

While packaging is not a direct component of food processing, it can have a direct affect on margins. A change in just one component of the packaging process can have a significant impact.

“A typical label application could be as much as 5, 6 or 7 cents per case in cost,” said Rick Swearingen, general sales manager for Iconotech, a Clinton, CT-based manufacturer of digital case printers. “If you’re hand-applying the label, it could be potentially higher.”

In the case of one manufacturer, Swearingen said, they were dealing with bags of mixed products.

“Some of the options they were looking at were 9 cents-plus per bag. If I can print that for a penny-and-a-half, the savings would be pretty dramatic,” he said. “From a process standpoint, we haven’t done anything to how they make their mixes and what efficiencies they put in their plant, other than at the point where they have to bag the product and get it ready for distribution. That’s where we’ve had a tremendous impact on their process.”

And the bar code is not going away, either. While RFID is widely accepted as the heir-apparent to the bar code, the technology is not yet in place for it to become the dominant form used for inventory control and warehouse management.

“I think RFID is still very much in its infancy,” Swearingen said. “I’ve not seen much in the way of the implementation side, where RFID has taken bar codes out of the mix.”

What RFID is doing, however, is causing the bar code to adapt for new uses. In some warehousing, the bar code can be used to route product from place to place.

“That’s something we’re seeing a lot of. It’s been talked about a lot for the last 10, 15 years, but we’re seeing more use of bar code in that way,” Swearingen said.

The Bottom Line…

  • Issues such as cleanliness and maintenance-free machinery are high on the priority list of food processors.

  • Aseptic processing of food and beverages for consumer goods will continue to grow and become a dominant process

  • Even minute changes to the packaging side can have dramatic effects on the bottom line

  • There are many technologies deployed in process manufacturing — wireless and RFID for example — that have wider applications in all of manufacturing.

  • Safety, both for workers and for products, is a primary issue in process industries.

  • Other manufacturing sectors are taking a second look at some of the emerging technologies.

  • As manufacturing moves to an integrated management process, the use of technology to measure and track products and processes will increase.

    • FYIonline

      Senior Editor Kevin Campbell takes a more in-depth look at how one end user has implemented aseptic processing for cooking stocks.

      Material handling not the only use for RFID

      In his new role as director of marketing and business development for FKI Logistex Manufacturing Systems North America, Martin Clark is expanding the role he’s played with the company in developing its customer base in Mexico and Canada. In his new role, Clark will continue to focus on business development while overseeing marketing operations for the division. In a discussion with PLANT ENGINEERING editor Bob Vavra, Clark discussed RFID’s emergence beyond material handling and how engineering jobs could be migrating south.

      Q: RFID gets a lot of attention as a material handling technology, but it’s becoming more pervasive as a manufacturing solution as well. How do the two uses compare, and how are they different?

      Clark: RFID applications throughout the manufacturing sector have typically been driven by the mandates of the retail industry. In order to capture some internal benefits, manufacturers have also typically been deploying RFID solutions associated with supplying real-time information for demand manufacturing and just-in-time inventories. However, manufacturers are beginning to realize the financial and operating advantages of RFID technology in the following applications where it has the potential of having a more dramatic and direct impact on their business:

      Work in process — Data concerning the status, component materials and in-process assembly information can be recorded into the RFID tag and tracked as a product progresses through the assembly line. This information provides the ability to more efficiently control the shop floor, raw materials, equipment utilization and labor productivity.

      Product authenticity — Losses due to the counterfeiting of trademarked product is estimated to be approximately $200 billion per year. RFID tags can be used to authenticate product and identify counterfeits.

      Track and trace — RFID technology is being used to provide “chain of custody” by recording electronic records and electronic signatures through critical processes along the manufacturing line and supply chain. The pharmaceutical industry is leading track and trace solutions in order to satisfy Part 11 of the FDA’s Title 21 Code of Federal Regulations.

      Quality control — Using RFID, information exchanged among manufacturing equipment components and subsystems can enhance product purity and safety through critical processes where a variety of ingredients are added, mixed, etc.

      Q: You’ve been responsible for FKI Logistex’s products across the Americas. How are the different markets developing? Are there lessons you’re learning in Mexico, for example, that have applications in the U.S.?

      Clark: As one might expect with the lower labor costs in Latin America, cost justification of material handling projects to replace manual labor is harder to achieve and therefore, projects generally tend to be simpler in scope and lower in sophistication.

      Although certain Latin American cities have the population density to equal or exceed metropolitan areas within the U.S., the population of middle class consumers, as well as the historically fragmented distribution channels, result in much lower comparative product volumes than are seen within the U.S. This results in lower manufacturing and distribution rates and consequent reduction in control sophistication.

      Mexico has benefited from the Maquiladoras (foreign owned corporations assembling products for export), but as global attention has shifted to low cost manufacture in China, Mexico is experiencing some job losses in much the same way as the U.S. manufacturing base is being eroded.

      One trend to watch is the migration of technical and engineering design jobs to Latin America. Just as software development has migrated to India, the lower cost of technical personnel close to the U.S. has the potential to pull drafting and engineering jobs.

      Q: Material handling and warehousing is getting more attention from manufacturers looking to manage costs. What are the keys to success in implementing a sound material handling program? Can it be a driver of profitability?

      Clark: As bulk merchandisers continue to pressure a manufacturer’s profit margins, streamlining of the supply chain becomes paramount. Direct to store dictates are pushing the distribution process back into the Manufacturer’s lap. This in turn can result in a rapid increase in both quantity and complexity of orders to be fulfilled by the manufacturing facility if it is to maintain or increase profitability, where multiple products are manufactured by the same company at different locations.

      As with any project, the key to success is having a clear understanding between all parties as to what is to be expected and what is to be delivered. No surprises. At FKI Logistex, we employ a unique project management process that breaks projects down into more easily managed segments called stages. Each stage is bounded by gates, where each gate provides the opportunity for both customer and FKI Logistex to review progress and review against the project plan. This goes a long way to preventing unexpected surprises.

      Q: What’s the next trend plant managers and plant engineers should be looking for in material handling?

      Clark: This is a really difficult question to answer in a broad context of all plant managers and plant engineers in all types of operations. In a long term context, I can see a number of areas that could create trends:

      As more companies look to offshore manufacturing and start rewarding their purchasing groups for overseas sourcing of equipment, I foresee a backlash to greater emphasize local, after-sales support and service.

      RFID — As costs come down and the technology is more readily accepted, companies will have even more capability to generate data. How that data is actually used will separate the highly successful companies from those that are just complying with a customer’s requirements.

      Energy costs will continue to spiral. Greater emphasis will be placed not only on energy efficient products, but on control systems to monitor equipment performance and minimize power consumption.

      Any drive to more stringent ergonomic legislation in line with the EC directives will run counter to the mass merchandising packaging trends where bigger is better.