There is nothing like a pandemic to test a company’s limitations. While food producers received official designation as “essential” businesses as the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the American food industry, continuing operations during the pandemic did not equate to business as usual. Multiple variables within snack and bakery production, including aspects related to overall operations and food safety, required a fresh look in order to maintain—and often increase—production levels to meet consumer demand. Also, companies looking to begin new facility construction have some renewed perspectives to consider in the wake of the pandemic.


Pandemic preparedness

Greg Janzow, director, food safety, Gray, Lexington, KY, cites the following as top facility considerations that have arisen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Evaluation of site segmentation—the ability to isolate one area of the facility from another
  • Ease of cleaning and sanitizing high-traffic areas
  • Increased employee hygiene solutions including “touchless” elements
  • Environmental control such as air filtration
  • Use of high-volume temperature scanning

The main concern instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic is maintaining the health of the workforce, says Andrew Atwell, project manager, CRB, Kansas City, MO. “Manufacturing facilities and equipment vendors are making a greater effort to screen nonessential personnel attempting to visit. This can make small capital projects more difficult to coordinate.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also given the industry the opportunity to enforce the regulations of FSMA, says Atwell. This involves line segregation and environmental controls like zoning maps, pressurization, personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols, hygiene, etc. “The main considerations have been the well-being of employees, controlling who comes into the plant, social distancing when possible, and a more-strict enforcement of PPE and personal hygiene.”

The initial response to COVID-19 from many food facility operators, beyond that of temperature checks and greater usage of PPE, was to implement some form of separation barriers for workers, says Brian King, owner and president, A M King, Charlotte, NC. “This included the installation of physical barriers along the production lines. As we have learned more about the virus and how it spreads, food facilities are increasingly considering two additional responses: the reconfiguration of facilities to allow for greater separation among workers, and the increased usage of automation. Both responses are more long-term in approach and will involve a higher level of planning and capital investment, but they could also provide the greatest level of protection against the negative impacts of COVID-19 and future virus pandemics.”

The need for effective and safe social distancing now impacts workstation design, employee access, and the need for more separation between employees when performing their jobs. Says David Watson, The Austin Co., bakery and snacks engineering SME, Cleveland. “This includes Plexiglas partitions between employees who work close together, automated temperature checks of employees when they enter a facility, additional handwashing stations in key areas, and improved ventilation systems that increase the number of air changes.”


Essential considerations

When embarking on a new bakery or snack facility construction project, food processors should have a clear understanding of process, employees, ingredients, packaging, and finished product flow, says Janzow. “Next-level considerations could involve separation between raw and finished product, allergen management from storage through operations, fit and finish options based on level of sanitation, and ergonomic evaluation of the production process.”

Food safety, including requirements put forth by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), as well as new COVID-19 guidelines, need to be top of mind, says Watson. “Companies need to consider how to plan for separation and safe social distancing of the employees, and how to lay out the production lines so that equipment can be cleaned efficiently and effectively between production runs. Are drains and hose stations in the correct locations to allow for water-based cleanup methods? Are floors properly sloped to allow for good drainage and to minimize ponding of water? In addition, proper airflow, air filter design, and building pressurization are important design elements in eliminating the potential for insects, mold, odors, and humidity from entering the building.”

Air quality and humidity control are critical, says Stuart Jernigan, preconstruction director, A M King. “Proper ventilation to aid with dust control and properly maintaining the correct pressures in different product zones becomes very important. This can include both physical zoning as well as mechanical. Of course, employee distancing will become a norm with both physical barriers as well as line ‘stretching’ and equipment innovations.”

Air quality must also face scrutiny in facilities producing fried snacks, like chips, puffs, etc. “Proper air quality related to frying and cooking areas are essential,” says Jernigan. “Combustion air coupled with proper exhaust techniques to maintain the correct differential pressure in relation to adjacent zones is tricky. In addition, the prevalence of oils becomes a personnel safety issue, and correct non-skid, yet cleanable and oil-resistant, flooring materials are a must.”

The ability to effectively and efficiently clean equipment between production runs is critical, says Watson. “A key focus for salty snack facility design is proper ventilation around the frying equipment and/or ovens. Wastewater treatment is also a critical area of design focus, due to the high levels of oil and grease in the discharge stream. Ventilation systems need to have appropriate filtration for filtering out the oils from the exhaust air stream. Improper filtration leads to oil and grease buildup on the roof of the facility, which can lead to accelerated deterioration of the roof membrane, as well as an area for mold and insects to accumulate.”

Energy usage, environmental controls, and sustainability are also critical areas to focus on in the design of a facility, says Watson. “It is far easier to build these systems into the initial design than to try to retrofit them later. Roofing systems that reflect sunlight, charging stations for electric vehicles, and solar design elements are just a few areas to consider.”

COVID-19 is also forcing companies to address facility entry protocols. “The potential use of digital, non-contact employee entry methods may also become more prevalent,” says Jernigan. “This could include retina scanning and temperature monitors tied in with entry gates/doors.”

Food safety is a top consideration, says Atwell. “FSMA was signed into law in February 2011, bringing with it a shift of focus from reporting failures around food safety to proactive prevention of incidents through robust food safety systems. The bakery industry is adapting to the current times and food safety regulation updates.” With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, he notes, the rate of adaptation has accelerated.

“Preventive controls are dependent on raw materials, processing, final product, and special requirements such as allergens, organic, or vegan,” says Atwell. “There are many components to food safety with varying levels of complexity used in conjunction with each other. The most basic component requiring lower capital expenditure is strict personnel hygiene and PPE. Another component that requires additional cost is segregation of areas and personnel within a plant to prevent cross-contamination and simplify the flow of materials. Compliance is made easier by planning the layout of a line with food safety in mind.”


Automated and robotic solutions

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the snack and bakery industry faced ongoing challenges related to workforce development. Producing during a pandemic that poses potential threats to worker health only exacerbates those challenges, increasing the attractiveness of an investment in automation and/or robotics to streamline throughput with fewer workers on the line.

“Smart scenario planning—based on a well-engineered production system mass and energy balance and, where practical, incremental investments in computer-simulation efforts—will allow food processors to develop easily scalable design options that can be implemented in a phased approach to meet future demand forecasts, capital expenditure investment cycles, or hiring limitations,” says Drew Goodall, director of process, Gray Solutions, a Gray company, Lexington, KY. “When built correctly, these tools can be incrementally adjusted to factor numerous scenarios and provide the operations and project leadership teams all the information required to account for equipment investment, space planning, utility system design, and planning/logistics systems integration.”

There are many benefits of automation—as well as associated costs to consider, says Atwell. “Often, automation can increase throughputs and reduce operator count, which allows for easier social distancing. Once appropriately tuned, automation can help produce more-consistent product and maintain tighter tolerances. A large benefit to the staff is reducing repetitive and dangerous tasks that can lead to employee injury over time.”

The main concern in planning for automation is typically the upfront capital cost, says Atwell. “If it is uncertain whether to invest in automation, a suitable payback period should be set and compared to a model of operating cost reduction or increased production.” Other important considerations include the need for higher-skilled maintenance staff, continuous training of personnel, and footprint space of equipment.

“The reconfiguration of a food facility to incorporate greater worker separation and/or increased usage of automation is a complicated process and requires a high degree of design and planning,” says King. “When undertaking a reconfiguration, food facility owners should not only consider the safety protections required, but also the long-term goals of the facility, including future production growth, future product changes, and flexibility for production changes.”

After considering these variables, facility owners should commission a team to properly plan, design, and implement the facility changes, says King. “This team should include individuals from the facility operations, equipment manufacturers, and a design-build partner with significant experience in food facility design and construction.”

Snack and bakery companies considering a new facility or expansion of an existing facility should provide space in the design to allow for automation and robotics systems, especially in the packaging area, says Watson. “Space in older facilities is typically limited, making it very difficult to install automated systems within the existing building footprint.” For bakeries, automated pan systems that utilize automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) for pan storage and basket/tray systems that automate the handling and loading of finished products all require adequate space for effective operation, he says. “The packaging area is probably the primary area that will require additional space in the design. E-commerce, the proliferation of multiple pack sizes, multi-packs, and specialty packaging runs require adequate space—whether automated or not.”

The shipping and dock area is another section of the facility that will require additional space, suggests Watson. “Logistics automation systems typically require additional dock space versus manual handing of finished product. This needs to be kept in mind during the design phase of a new facility. In addition, the ability to create mixed pallets may be a consideration as more club and specialty stores require this type of delivery.”

The design of new facilities requires a lot of thought, since many variables can affect the final design, concludes Watson. “Food safety, personnel safety, environmental and sustainability requirements, people, and product flow, as well as future automaton requirements, all must be top of mind. You only have one chance to get it right, as new facility construction should last 25 years or more. Some design misses or modifications can be retrofitted in the future. But a poorly designed facility will have a negative cost impact for years, if the ability to clean, operate, and maintain the equipment is not properly built into the final design of the facility.”