A renewed focus on sanitary design and cleanability, especially for allergens, is among the dominant trends in the design and construction of commissaries, central kitchens and other food production facilities.

Cleaning between production runs has always been important, but food safety has become a critical area of concern, as the number of recalls has remained high, said Dave Watson, food, bakery and snacks engineering SME for Cleveland-based design-and-build specialist The Austin Co.

According to the USDA, 21 products were recalled in 2021, amounting to 15.5 million pounds of recalled product.

“Good sanitary design practices include the use of insulated metal panels (IMP) for walls and ceilings, epoxy-coated flooring in washdown areas, improved filtration for HVAC systems, and an increased number of air changes in conditioned spaces,” Watson said.

Also trending: LED and other energy-efficient lighting and energy-efficient motors, as companies get back on track with their sustainability goals after many were forced to put those programs on hold during the pandemic.

High-tech leads the way

Brad Knab of consultancy Storemasters puts energy efficiency No. 1 on his list of design trends for food production facilities.

“For smaller operations it can be as simple as energy star rated equipment, or LED lighting replacement facility-wide,” he said. “For large scale operations, it’s preserving energy going off-grid by installing solar generators that can run a whole store, or a part of a food manufactures facility.”

Coming in a close second and third, Knab said, are technology advancements and advancements in automation and robotics.

 Better software and high-performance inventory systems are reducing the need for warehouse space and shelf space due to their accuracy and on demand reports, he said.  Grocers avoid overstocking and can expand their storage of other crucial supplies that support food production without moving bricks and mortar.

Advancements in automation and robotics, meanwhile, are revolutionizing how grocery products are getting to the shopper’s basket, car, and home, Knab said.

“The struggle for retailers and food manufacturers to maintain a consistent workforce with efficiency is continually a challenge.  Larger corporations are developing fulfillment centers right at their distribution centers using conveyors, elevators, and tracks allowing products to be prepicked in bins without ever needing to be placed on a shelf.”

Test kitchens to the fore

More emphasis is also being placed on buildings that have offer testing and product development, Watson said.

“Kitchens are developing products specific to grocery store chains and showcasing their products to prospective clients. These kitchens require refrigerated storage areas as well.”

Some of the grocery-specific trends The Austin Co. is tracking include a focus on hygienic zoning within the facility to ensure that food safety is appropriately managed and controlled.

That process includes analyzing the food safety risks of each area of the facility and creating zones to control the transfer of any hazards in or out of the area, which often leads to physical separation and can be actively or passively managed.

Active controls, Watson said, include boot wash systems, handwash and hairnet stations for employees; passive controls include floor markings for access control.

Automated temperature check stations for COVID are also more commonplace in the food production facilities being built today, Watson said, and workstation design that allows for appropriate space between employees has become more important.

“Refrigerated storage areas and central refrigeration systems that service these areas continue to be an important focus, as is energy-efficient lighting,” he added.

In commissaries in particular, the increased use of IMP panels, with their sanitation and the ability to clean and sanitize efficiently and effectively, is an important trend, Watson said.

In addition, workstation design, breakroom design, and enhanced employee service areas are gaining interest with many companies. Those efforts can include the ability to better manage how employees enter and exit facilities, including when and where uniforms are changed.

Another area seeing significant change, Watson said, is the design of break rooms that allow for increased air changes and more room for social distancing.

“With the increasing importance of allergens to a large section of the population, many food companies are providing isolated production spaces for allergen and non-allergen products,” he said. “This is needed so products can be labeled ‘produced in an allergen-free environment.’ ”

Pandemic effects

COVID has definitely had an impact on the design of food plants, Watson said.

There is, for instance, a heavier focus on sanitation, security, social distancing, the number of air changes in a space, and employee amenities.

And the ability to attract, hire and retain a workforce is more challenging than ever, which has led to a renewed focus on working conditions, employee services, work hours and workstation design.

Companies are air conditioning spaces that were once only ventilated, Watson cited as an example. In the past, during the summer months, many areas that were not airconditioned were hot, humid, and uncomfortable.

“Investment in systems to provide improved working conditions are now an important trend,” he said. “And automation is key as the competition for labor continues. Returns on investment that were once in the 2-3-year payback range have been increased, meaning longer payback periods are acceptable, due to this worker shortage.”

COVID has made its mark on food production facilities in several ways, according to Storemasters’ Knab. 

The need to keep production up, for instance, has required smaller production preps to reorganize space to keep distancing.  Kitchens and prep spaces in stores have diversified production, split tasks, and utilized dormant preps throughout the day to supplement food preparation efforts. 

And, he added, cross-functional tasks are yielding more diverse kitchens to handle a variety of tasks centrally located to control fresh food contact with only staff preparing, packaging or cooking food.

Looking ahead, the design and construction of food production facilities will continue to evolve with technology and with challenges that arise in the industries that The Austin Co. services, Watson said.

Automation will be an important focus for many companies, with the number of robot systems increasing throughout the industry. Collaborative robots, or cobots, will take the place of many human tasks, he said, and sensor technologies will provide real-time information to plant leadership for reporting and downtime management.

“The food industry continues to evolve, and sanitary design is now a top focus for most food companies,” Watson said. “The main driver now is on the ability to clean between production runs efficiently and the use of materials of construction that are better suited for regular washdown. It’s also exciting to see the advancements in robot technology and other automation solutions over the past few years, including AI.”

Those technologies will continue to advance and replace many tasks now performed by humans, Watson added. They will have the ability to learn, adapt, and make decisions, and they’re critical to the industry’s survival as worker shortages and labor cost increases continue to grow.