Automation, packaged refrigeration, packaging flexibility and new ideas in food safety design are among the trends in construction of production facilities for suppliers of grocery fresh perimeter items.

Producers of foods sold in the perimeter are striving to produce the highest quality product possible at a cost consumers consider a value, says Ed Wright, project executive of Cleveland-based design-build firm The Austin Co.

Because there are many different expectations regarding quality, depending on the consumer, producers can market the specific quality level that meets a given customer’s individual requirements, Wright says.

That’s where having the right building becomes critical. To delivery quality product at a reasonable cost, processing facilities must be arranged and managed in a way that “facilitates the efficient flow of people and products through their respective facilities, all while maintaining a food-safe environment,” he says.

When Austin designs a food processing facility, the firm always starts with the design of the process and people flows. “We’re deliberate in how and where employees travel in relation to the path of the foodstuff,” Wright says. “We develop processing areas we call hygiene zones to differentiate between the sanitation levels of each step in a process.”

As raw materials are transformed into the foods consumers see in the grocery perimeter, the level of hygiene of the people and the processing spaces continuously needs to increase to maximize the prevention of bacteriological contamination, Wright says. In each of the hygiene zones, employees and the environment they’re working in are carefully managed to ensure the maximization of the desired product quality. It's only at that stage that Austin will “wrap walls around the processes,” he says.

Department-specific needs

The majority of fresh perimeter foods are refrigerated products, so it’s critical that these facilities have adequate temperature control to optimize shelf life and to minimize any potential for contamination, says Todd Allsup, vice president of sales, food group, for Jacksonville, Florida-based design-build firm Stellar.

Needs of processors can vary widely depending on what fresh-perimeter product is being produced in the facility, Allsup says. Take fresh produce. As soon as it’s harvested, it becomes a dying product. It’s a race against the clock to get that product to the consumer and maximize its shelf life.

“There is increased pressure on processors to get fresh produce through the plant as quickly as possible,” Allsup says. “Newcomers to this space — and existing companies looking to build new plants — need to consider the entire supply chain and how they want to lay out their facilities to increase speed to market and compete in the marketplace.”

Companies that shortchange this factor in their facility design will pay for it in lower profits, Allsup says. The longer the shelf life, the less spoilage and the more profit.

Poultry and seafood processing facilities, on the other hand, have a different set of needs, Allsup says. Poultry facilities use a lot of water for washdown, so it’s important to design systems correctly to manage the flow of washdown and clean-up. “Downtime spent on cleaning is time not spent producing revenue, so it’s important to plan these cycles efficiently,” he says.

There is currently an increased focus on automation in the poultry and seafood segments, Allsup says. Historically, these products have been manually intensive, requiring substantial personnel on the plant floor to facilitate processing. But given the current economy and unemployment rate, there’s a noticeable labor shortage, particularly when it comes to finding employees to work in these harsh, refrigerated environments.

“This trend, coupled with the decreasing cost of automation and robotics, is driving investment in these technologies where it makes sense,” he says.

Packaging flexibility

Another trend becoming more prominent in new food production facilities is packaging flexibility, Allsup says.

“There needs to be a focus on designing flexibility into a facility so producers can easily accommodate ever-changing consumer demand,” Allsup says. “In today’s marketplace of niche segments and specialty products, it’s no longer just about producing a particular SKU as quickly as possible. Manufacturers are also prioritizing fast changeovers and nimble processing.”

As a result, today’s facilities must be designed with enough space to adapt to growth and produce new SKUs quickly as market changes dictate. Clients tell Stellar that they want packaging flexibility to meet the needs of a variety of clients.

“They need to be able to package their products for individual retail, bulk wholesale clubs and foodservice clients,” Allsup says. “If you have greater packaging options, you have a wider spectrum of potential clients who have different packaging size needs.”

A new packaging segment is also emerging with the growth of online delivery and curbside pick-up for groceries. Packaging for these products is often a lot simpler (and cheaper) since manufacturers don’t have to attract the eye of a shopper perusing in-store shelves, Allsup says.

Food safety

To ensure the highest food safety standards are met, Austin has food scientists on staff — one of only a few companies to do so, Wright says. “The Austin Co. has been a leader in food-safe design for many years,” he says. “We have been designing facilities that meet the new FSMA requirements for years.”

Food safety drives everything. For instance, Austin facilities implement automation where possible — but only, Wright says, if it “serves the process in a food-safe manner.”

One area of food safety that Stellar has been focused on more recently is bringing food safety design into what Allsup calls “employee welfare areas.” A few examples:


·          Secure entrances — Food safety begins the moment employees step into the building, not just the production floor. Some facilities opt to have a security guard and/or turnstile at the entrance to control access to the facility and set a serious tone. Stellar also recommends controlling access to areas by requiring a card swipe, especially to restrict employees who work on the raw side of the facility from accessing the ready-to-eat side, and vice-versa.


·          Break rooms and bathrooms — Employees who work on the raw side and ready-to-eat side should have their own separate break rooms and bathrooms. Stellar also design facilities with consideration for trash flows from these rooms to the dumpster in order to minimize potential contamination to the plant floor.


·          Plant visitors — Visitors to the facility are a crucial consideration, especially because these guests are likely not familiar with the food safety routines and standards required in a food plant. For some clients, Stellar has designed a holding area or vestibule where visitors can wait while an employee leaves the working zone, de-gowns and sanitizes before meeting them. Many facilities also include an area for training (whether live instruction or a video) to explain the rules to visitors and what they will be wearing to ensure food safety is maintained.


Packaged refrigeration

Packaged refrigeration is one of the biggest trends in food plant production, says Todd Allsup, vice president of sales, food group, for Jacksonville, Florida-based design-build firm Stellar.

Unlike traditional systems that are built within the facility, with packaged refrigeration, modular equipment is built off site, mounted on a structural steel base, then delivered to the plant as a self-contained, “plug-and-play” system, Allsup says.

“Not only are these systems safer than their traditional counterparts, but they also come with advantages in terms of installation, field labor savings and schedule savings,” he says.

Since you don’t have to send a refrigeration team to a job site to construct the system, opting for a packaged refrigeration system can save an owner 25 to 30 percent in labor costs, Allsup says. And the process of assembling a packaged refrigeration system is faster and more efficient than traditional methods, which can reduce the overall project timeline.

The packaged refrigeration option is especially attractive for companies looking to retrofit an existing building rather than build a new one, Allsup says. And if they ever decide to lease the building, they have the flexibility to take the modular refrigeration system with them when they move.