Moving from Batch to Continuous Processing: 4 Considerations for Small Food Processors

Bbq Meat

Competition in the food industry has always been hot. But, lately, it’s really heating up! And — more importantly — it’s changing.

A recent survey by A.T. Kearney and The Hartman Group found that, since 2012, small and medium-sized food companies have been edging out large manufacturers. In fact, food SMEs have grown their revenue a whopping 11% to 15%, compared to only 1.8% for the top 25 food manufacturers in the United States.

That’s a huge difference! It shows that small and medium-sized companies are really stepping up their game to provide the products that consumers want to purchase. And as they do that, they’re looking for ways to increase capacity. For many smaller companies, that means moving from a batch process to a continuous process.

Transitioning from batching to continuous processing provides many well-known benefits, including better efficiency, higher product quality, and increased safety. If you’re a smaller company thinking about making the move, here are four things to consider as you evaluate the available solutions.

Flexibility

Flexibility is perhaps the greatest challenge for smaller processors. Large companies may have thousands of pounds of a single product running through their lines every day, but smaller companies need to be able to do quick changeovers. For example, a ready-meal producer may need to cook rice, chicken, and vegetables all in the same oven over the course of the same day.

As you assess continuous processing equipment, make sure that it will provide the flexibility you need to support your full range of operations.

Cleanability

Flexibility is related to cleanability. If you’re going to process multiple products on a piece of equipment in a single day, you need to be able to clean that equipment quickly and effectively between products, while adhering to the highest standards of safety.

Take the time to review the 10 Principles of Sanitary Design, originally crafted by the American Meat Institute, and 3-A Sanitary Standards, originally designed for the dairy industry. Today, both of these standards provide guidance used across the food and beverage industry.

As you shop for new equipment, make sure that the machines meet and exceed all applicable standards for cleanability and sanitary design. A single recall is enough to tank a small company, so it’s best to not even take the chance.

Automation

Continuous production is, almost by definition, more automated than batch cooking.

For example, consider chicken breasts. In a batch process, a person would be employed to move racks of product into and out of a rack oven or perhaps hand-turn the meat on a grill. In a continuous process, the products would move automatically through a flame grill and into a micro or mini spiral oven, each piece traveling the same path through the system and coming out both consistent and on target.

Removing the person from the equation has obvious benefits for safety, efficiency, and consistency. But it has it’s challenges as well, specifically related to increased automation.

In a Control Global article, engineer Dan Hebert identified several automation requirements of continuous processing. Here are a few of them:

  • More precise measurement and control
  • On-line quality measurement
  • Tight control systems integration of each process step
  • Extensive personnel training, particularly for operators

As you make plans to move from batch to continuous processing, don’t forget about the broader context of automation that goes along with it. Make sure to choose equipment that can provide high-level control and a supplier that can provide training and support.

Scalability

Finally, continuous processing can lead to rapid growth. If you do a quick review of the literature, you’ll find companies reporting throughput increases of 100% or more after going continuous.

When evaluating systems, don’t just think about your immediate future. Consider what your company and your processes might look like 5 or 10 years down the road.

You don’t want to buy equipment now that you’ll soon outgrow. Instead, choose a supplier that can support your growth now and into the future by providing systems that scale up as you do. That way, you can continue to benefit from your investment and won’t have to relearn new systems as your operations expand.

Want to learn more about how Unitherm can help you increase capacity safely and efficiently? Read “Ramping Up Production with Continuous Systems.”

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