When it comes to war, some decisions need to be made by troops on the ground. In the fast-paced environment of the battle zone, “in the moment” judgement of well-trained men and women is the best decision-making. The same methodology is that of our workers in America’s food factories. These troops on the ground in our food manufacturing atmosphere are acutely aware of the challenges facing the next product orders, plant intricacies, and workforce capabilities.
Industry Changes That Challenge Food Safety
The American food industry has faced consolidation and globalization. Corporate engineers oversee more and more factories, a responsibility that once belonged to the plant engineer or plant manager. America’s food factories are full of technology, innovation, and very profitable. However, as the food factory has increased in technology and complexity, it has also slowly lost its ability to determine its own destiny for food safety. Control of capital expenditures has been usurped to the corporate headquarters. Acquiring funding at the plant level to make necessary improvements or routine maintenance performances which seems like an exercise in red-tape.
A leaner than ever team of corporate engineers and supply chain professionals are tasked with overseeing capital spending for a portfolio of factories that is diverse in terms of geography and products. When food contamination and recalls are announced, the effects are very far reaching because we have a very fast-paced national distribution network. The effects of a breakout in food safety can be catastrophic by making members of the public ill. Particularly vulnerable are children and the elderly. Food producers face product recalls, closed restaurants, extermination of livestock, and damage to the public’s confidence in their brands.
Technology Impacts on Food Factories
The American food manufacturing environment has changed rapidly over the last 30 years. There was a time when the average worker in food manufacturing retired in their current position or as a supervisor overseeing that position. Today’s manufacturing environment faces a much higher challenge related to turnover of employees and talent. Automation is on the rise as machinery becomes more affordable and reliable. Yesterday’s plant workers performed manual jobs, where today machines are controlled by advanced computers. Is it any wonder that most packaging machines bear the name of a task once performed by human hands (labeler, check-weigher, case erector, etc.)? This is not a bad thing for the food industry; the laborer has been replaced by the technician, the driver by the mechanic.
Knowledge of machines and IT systems is now the most prized skill set in the food factory workforce. Overall this influx of technology has been positive for food safety. The average customer of food and beverages may evaluate the calorie or nutritional content, but seldom do they ask themselves, “If I eat this, will I become ill?” This speaks volumes for the safety of our food producers and manufacturers; ultimately it’s a reflection on the skill of the people who labor to produce the food.
Citizens of developing nations do not enjoy the same confidence in their food supplies.
The “Power of People” Enhances Food Safety
It all starts with empowerment. First, we have to recognize the knowledge and expertise of our local plant employees. Facility plant engineers and operations staff should have a portion of their annual capital allocation in discretionary funds dedicated to enhancing product quality, sustainability, employee safety, and product safety. The plants can then implement the best solutions they can find locally.
Corporate engineers should study and evaluate the use of these discretionary funds from plant to plant and create a network of innovation. The effects then need to be communicated to all of the company’s factories. Creating this feedback loop is how we prevent empowerment from becoming abandonment. One thing we see a lot of food producers do is ask the engineering community, “What are others doing that we should be doing?” It seems that a lot of food producers don’t stop to ask themselves, “What are we doing well somewhere that we should be doing well everywhere?” That is the definition of best practice.
The Economy is Driven by Entrepreneurs and Innovators. Unleash Human Potential in the Food Factory
Our food factories are natural incubators for innovation and entrepreneurialism. The skill level of employees in our food factories is rising. Technology is increasing. The consumer’s knowledge and consciousness about nutrition, freshness, and quality is evolving, which is in turn challenging food producers to create better products. Intrinsic motivators are the most critical when needing the most from our food factory employees.
Leaders of food producing companies and food factories should be purposeful, efficient, creators ,and impactful in their approach to employee management.
MATTHEW CHANG, PE
Market Sector Leader Food, Beverage & Consumer Products
Managing Director, Solution Engineering and Project Management CO., LTD