How to Ensure Your Plant’s Equipment Is Geared for Success
Any given day presents multiple challenges for food processors. Aside from the obvious task of getting raw materials through processing and out the door as finished, packaged products, processors must also be constantly mindful of food safety as well as opportunities to improve operational efficiency. From equipment design to construction materials to maintenance, the modern food processor’s work is never-ending.
To delve more deeply into what food processors can do to ensure their equipment efficiently produces safe, quality products, we sat down with two experts from Gray Solutions, a Gray company: Amanda Flowers, manager, operations integration; and Adam Richards, food safety engineer.
Put Safety First
Long before unit operations begin, materials for constructing equipment factor into aspects of food safety such as compatibility with chemicals, environmental needs, and sanitation standards.
“When specifying equipment for food handling operations, it is imperative to understand the sanitation requirements and related infrastructure for the space, such as clearance above, below, and on each side of the equipment,” stressed Flowers. The equipment itself must be made of compatible materials with durability and sanitary design in mind.
Common equipment design standards include the capability to clean equipment to a microbiological level, the ability to access critical components for cleaning and maintenance needs, the avoidance of crevices and hollow areas, and the use of sloped, hydrodynamic design that sheds water.
Flowers continued, “At Gray, we rely heavily on the sanitary design principles provided by NAMI, CBA, NSF, EHEDG, and/or 3-A to ensure that we have adequately captured and addressed the risk associated with food processing, regardless of the end-product.”
When selecting materials for equipment, stainless steel (AISI 300 series or better) is preferred due to its durability and resistance to corrosion. However, depending on the process, there are other metals and non-metals that may be utilized.
To keep operations safe over a long period, equipment and parts must be easily accessible. The ability to access equipment for cleaning, inspection, and preventive maintenance is a vital consideration regarding downtime and the efficiency of the plant’s operations and its sanitation program.
“As a rule,” Flowers stated, “the recommendation for clearances is no less than 30 inches from overhead structures, 36 inches from the nearest stationary object, 18 inches of floor clearance for food contact areas or conveyor paths, and no less than 12 inches of clearance to the floor.” For equipment with Clean-out-of-Place (COP) requirements, Flowers said consideration should be given to the location of parts washers and wash tanks in the space to minimize turnaround times. “Ideally, equipment should be designed to minimize the number of tools required to disassemble and reassemble for inspection, cleaning, and maintenance.”
Think Through Installation
In addition to equipment composition, installation also impacts food safety integrity. For example, if using a hollow tube construction framework, it’s important to ensure the frame is fully sealed with continuous welds and that fastener penetrations are avoided Leg adjustments should be external and cleanable (avoiding threaded bolts); otherwise, legs should be grouted and detailed to shed water.
When mounting cable tray or conduit, the best practice is to avoid creating unnecessary surface area. For equipment, Flowers stressed, ensure when procuring spare parts that they mimic the original components’ corrosion resistance and compatibility with the operation’s hygiene requirements; equipment and supporting structures should be on a preventive-maintenance program that reflects a cadence for risk avoidance to the process.
It’s vital to ensure that your equipment’s actual performance does not contribute to unsanitary conditions such as allowing product build-up that can harbor bacterial growth. “Sanitary performance during operations is critical in avoiding product contamination events.,” said Flowers.
Other essential practices include the separation of product contact and non-product contact surfaces to prevent cross contamination. Proactive engineers and designers recognize that surfaces adjacent to product contact surfaces should be designed to mimic product contact surfaces in materials of construction and hygienic design to promote unobstructed operations and runoff during cleaning cycles. Additionally, designers should provide appropriate air filtration systems in areas where airborne pathogens could be deposited on product contact surfaces.
Keep It Clean
Food equipment designers and manufacturers must build equipment that not only performs its primary processing function, but can also be effectively, efficiently, and regularly cleaned over the course of its operational life. Proper cleanings prevent the propagation of viruses and bacteria, , inhibit the growth of mold and mildew, and wash away chemicals, allergens, and other foreign materials.
“Food equipment should be constructed with materials that will be compatible with the products, cleaning chemicals, and overall processing environment,” stated Richards. He explained that the equipment framework should be solid in design, avoiding hollow tubing to prevent any opportunities for pest harborage or microbial growth. Joints and lap seams should use end-to-end-welding to avoid growth niches. Simply put, said Richards: leave no opportunity for microbial penetration.
Equipment should also be self-draining to avoid the collection of water, chemicals, and dust on food contact surfaces. Material handling equipment should be designed to meet the needs of each process and be easily accessible for cleaning and inspection, he continued.
But it’s not only food handling equipment that should be designed with sanitation and food safety in mind. Maintenance enclosures and human-machine interfaces (push buttons, valve handles, switches, touchscreens, etc.) must also contribute to a safe environment for people and products. When sourcing equipment, manufacturers must fully understand the processes for which the equipment will be used. “There are waterproof HMI screens available that are sealed for a watertight enclosure that’s compatible for washdown,” said Richards.
Richards stressed that stainless-steel maintenance panels in wet areas should be constructed with a grade of steel that’s resistant to corrosion from chemical and chlorides, such as 316-grade stainless steel. Panels in dry areas should be completely sealed and cleaned with an alcohol-based sanitizer and microfiber towel. Push buttons, valve handles, and switches should be inspected for growth niches before installing, he cautioned.
Get Smart (Tech Solutions)
To optimize food safety, it’s imperative to keep tabs on products from start to finish. A Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) is another tool for processors that offers numerous benefits for large operations and is seen by many in the industry as the future of food safety.
With robust internal tracking and tracing, processors facing a contamination event can zero in on a particular production stage or timeline, making product recalls more precise and smaller in scale. An April 2023 article in Food Engineering stated that “internal inspection equipment, labeling machines, RFID equipment, real-time locating systems, optical code reading systems, and software help to reduce the damage from recalls by making it possible to track product in smaller quantity lot numbers—so when a recall is necessary, less product has to be recalled.”
An effective CMMS fulfills this functional need with smart manufacturing technology that can track and trace product through every stage of the operation, from supplier receipts to customer shipments,” said FE.
Quality management systems (QMS), moreover, can provide track-and-trace capabilities for lots. A QMS can rapidly trace lots from source to destination or vice versa. QMS often integrate with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES). An MES is a comprehensive software systems that monitors, tracks, documents, and controls the process of manufacturing goods from raw materials to finished products. Use of both systems can help tie together data from across enterprise operations.
A food processor must be cognizant of many aspects of equipment design, installation, maintenance, and inspection to ensure the integrity and safety of a food processing plant. Technological solutions abound as well; they can be integrated into a facility to help with tracing, tracking, documenting, and monitoring the product. Taking advantage of such breakthroughs in design and technology is not only smart—it’s the new standard.