e-commerce operational challenges in legacy food and beverage plants

The e-commerce effect on food processors: Turn operational challenges into functional improvements

Today’s consumers want it all—transparency, innovation, portability, convenience and better-for-you ingredients. And, they want it all now.

While this seems like a good problem to have for companies wanting to capitalize on increasing demand, couple this with the influx of e-commerce and the need to deliver product to market faster, and food and beverage processors are tasked with learning to be all things to all consumers.

Preparing an existing facility to churn out more product or more variety of products faster is the real challenge this e-commerce boom poses.

Rapid growth without careful planning can lead to compromising quality, risking product safety or experiencing supply chain inefficiencies.

For instance, quick changes to keep pace with the market may create personnel travel paths that cost time and/or affect the throughput of product. There might also be product exposure risks in material flow paths or even open processes put into inappropriate spaces. Fortunately, it’s not too late to correct these issues.

In fact, with enhanced food safety regulations and new advances like hygienically designed equipment, now is the perfect time for food and beverage processors to re-evaluate their facilities and processes to improve their products and enhance their business.

Here’s how manufacturers can adapt—and succeed—in the e-commerce world, and how today’s design-build firms can help manufacturing facilities operate in the most functional manner possible.

How to improve existing space to maximize efficiency and product quality

Responding quickly to the ever-changing food and beverage market means working with what’s already there. Especially if modifications have already been made in an attempt to improve the facility and the process, slowing down to examine the existing space is essential.

Many manufacturers assume that improving product quality or consistency starts with adjusting or replacing processing equipment. But sometimes the impact of the surrounding manufacturing environment should be considered first. Even the flow of raw materials and utility dependability can enhance the quality of product.

Consider various aspects of the existing space. How does the temperature, humidity and airflow in the processing environment affect the quality and consistency of the product itself? Is the consistency of the raw material and ingredient delivery streams dependable? Can a higher level of cleanliness be achieved, and if so, would it impact the product?

Facility environmental concerns can create problems beyond product quality. If a legacy plant hasn’t been modified, it may not meet current food safety requirements, especially as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) takes hold.

Existing facilities that aren’t conducive to these requirements need to address the following:

  • Hygienic concerns, including making revisions to process equipment and process space to ensure cleanability,
  • Developing a comprehensive food safety plan that includes the addition of instrumentation to validate and verify preventive controls,
  • Updating allergen controls, and
  • Updating record keeping.

Food and beverage processors may also need to improve access control to production areas, which could require modifications to the existing facility as well as the operational procedures.

Here are steps to take to improve a legacy plant quickly in the face of growing e-commerce popularity, changing consumer demands and increased regulatory scrutiny.

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1. Take off the blinders

Operators are often too close to the process to know what’s going wrong. Especially when “enhancements” and quick fixes have been cobbled together to increase speed, “blinders” prevent them from seeing what’s not working, what can be improved and how.

That’s when a third-party review is necessary.

A process specialist—processing and sometimes packaging engineers with industry knowledge and experience—will walk the facility, analyze the operations and reveal any gaps in the process or packaging systems that could be affecting the consistent output of quality product. The third-party consultant also works with operators to understand the process goals and identify holes in the operation to help develop a plan for resolution.

The benefit of working with an engineer from a design-build firm here is that there’s a seamless handoff from the consultation to other teams if the solution requires new design or construction. This helps speed the completion of changes and gets the facility operating optimally faster.

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2. Consider retrofitting to retain value

When time is in short supply, a small retrofit can be key to improving existing space.

But, where do you start? Is it the equipment that requires retrofitting? Or are there other parts of the plant that may need some extra attention?

This is where design-build firms act as a partner in your quest to become bigger and better. Design-build firms hold the knowledge and industry expertise to walk through a facility and understand where retrofitting a particular part of the plant can improve production.

They can also help enact change to the space and make knowledgeable suggestions for equipment updates.

Furthermore, as more and more of today’s food and beverage manufacturers expand into e-commerce and direct-to-consumer, they need to “retrofit” their processes in order to accommodate more SKUs and additional line changeovers. This is where design-build firms can help given their experience setting up facilities for expanded distribution networks and improving product movement throughout the facility.

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3. Increase throughput of the entire process

Increasing throughput is often at the top of any processor’s priority list. Adding another line or changing out equipment seem like obvious avenues to support growth, but what if space is limited? There are opportunities for real cost savings that exist by making existing processes more efficient.

While the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) is important, increasing throughput goes beyond OEE and considers the overall layout of the facility and process line, including logistics, materials and equipment for seizing cost-effective opportunities.

Consider the logistics of how materials—from raw materials to finished goods and packaging—travel through the facility. Do they ever cross each other? There are often wasted steps that have become part of the workflow.

Now, think about the materials used. For example, how often does the label machine fail because the adhesive is not conducive to the environmental conditions (too hot, cold or wet)? Maybe operators need to re-evaluate material thicknesses. Maybe there are more cost-effective options that provide the same strength. Maybe there’s better technology that withstands the excessive hot and cold temperatures.

Minor equipment changes can sometimes be the low-hanging fruit. Has the process equipment moved beyond its useful life? Does it need tweaking or a thorough cleaning that may necessitate shutting the equipment down for an hour or two? Minor modifications to components or simply replacing sections of a line can improve throughput.

Transform core business needs into real solutions

There are often inherent problems in every legacy process that are difficult to uncover. That’s because companies continue to do things “the way they’ve always been done.” Or, facilities have learned to live with a process that evolved and gets the job done, even if there’s a better way. You may resist change because it requires employee training, documentation, testing and more.

But, challenges such as high-priced commodities, employee turnover, ever-changing food safety regulations and improved technologies (such as blockchain and Internet of Things) can also provide ideal opportunities for change—changing the processes, procedures, ways of doing business.

What does your company need to move forward in the industry? What are your competitors doing that you’re not? Outline some goals and create a plan of action to achieve them. Is it a company-wide goal, such as reducing the company’s energy footprint, or is it a departmental goal, like rehabbing the logistics side of your business?

Determine what your company needs to succeed, grow, excel and sustain. Then, discover facets of your operation that may correlate with these needs and work from there. Use what’s already in place. There are likely many existing opportunities for improvement within your facility and getting help from a design-build firm to identify and capitalize on these can make all the difference.

As the industry transforms, companies need to follow suit in order to maintain a spot in the industry. While it would have been best to strategically plan for growth, oftentimes companies can’t predict the changes required to respond to market demands. That includes the influx of e-commerce. That’s why food and beverage manufacturers must continue to revisit basic internal processes and facility design to optimize operations and position themselves to take advantage of future opportunities.

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