The Fine Balance Between Footprint and Flexibility


Two of the top questions we hear from customers are “How big are your machines?” and “How many different products can your machines process?”

These two questions encapsulate two of the main challenges facing food processors today: the need to reduce their equipment footprint while at the same time increasing flexibility. Both of these challenges are being driven by broader industry trends:

  • A huge rise in the variety of products on the market. The days of a plant processing the same product 24/7 are in the past.
  • Need for higher throughput. The food industry continues to grow, meaning processors must meet ever-higher consumer demands.
  • Expensive industrial real estate. From processing plants to warehouses, real estate is expensive. In addition, consumers increasingly value local products, which means the facilities need to be where the people are.

Here are three strategies to help you strike the fine balance between footprint and flexibility.

Design with the goals in mind

In many cases, both flexibility and a smaller footprint can be achieved by using a modular design. This allows processors to move components in and out of processing lines as needed for different products.

It also requires careful space planning. For example, Harlan Vandeschulp, the president of Gleeson Constructors & Engineers, notes how important the location of columns is for flexibility.

“In a flexible plant where quick disconnects are used, we really look to minimize the number of columns. Column location is very important, as is the placement of light fixtures. Manufacturers are now offering more concealed light fixtures.”

The point here is simply that your plant design often determines what you can do, so if your goal is to be flexible, make sure those goals are built in from the beginning.

Select equipment that can process a variety of products

In the past, many food processing machines were like unitasker kitchen gadgets, which Alton Brown defines as: “devices that are created for one job, and one job only. You buy these items, you use them, and then they simply pile up until you have to tear down your house and buy a new one.”

Today, that just won’t fly. Processors can’t afford to buy three single-product machines when they can cook three products in one machine.

For example, our spiral oven is very popular for bacon (if you were at PROCESS EXPO 2015, you might have sampled some). But you can also use it for many other meat products, vegetables, and prepared foods. Similarly, you can use our sous vide cooker for proteins, vegetables, and even pasta and rice.

Choose equipment that will scale as you grow

Finally, make sure that the vendor and equipment choices you make now will continue to support you as your business grows.

For small processors and companies just moving from batch to continuous processing, our micro line of thermal processing solutions can handle 300 to 500 pounds an hour. When you’re ready to expand, the next step up is the mini line, which can process 1000 to 2000 pounds an hour. The advantage of a graduated equipment line is that you can scale up without having to change your processes or learn how to use new equipment. The system is already in place — just install the new machines and you’re ready to go.

Unitherm’s thermal processing solutions are designed with flexibility and a small footprint in mind. Visit a Solution Center to see the machines in action and even test them out for yourself.

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