Custom Food & Beverage Equipment in High Demand as Competition Heats Up
A sure sign of a strong and growing economy is new investment by manufacturers in more sophisticated technology and equipment to streamline processes and increase efficiencies and output. The country’s food and beverage producers are among those that are taking advantage of a robust U.S. economy, investing more in customized equipment to introduce new products and stay ahead of the competition. This has driven food and beverage equipment manufacturers to ramp up to meet the growing demand for more advanced food processing, production and packaging equipment.
Food Engineering magazine released the results of its annual State of Manufacturing survey late last year, which found that food and beverage producers made increasing productivity through automation a top priority in 2014, edging out other priorities of years past. With more capital to invest in new product development, the ability to deliver high-quality products to market in record time is more important than ever, and yesterday’s equipment is just not cutting it for many food and beverage producers.
Trends in Food and Beverage
The study clearly showed that producers are, in fact, investing more in equipment, as well as software and professional services. Almost half of respondents—who indicated their budgets for equipment have increased—have seen increases in excess of 25 percent.
And equipment manufacturers are clearly up to the challenge of providing new and innovative solutions for food and beverage producers. Survey respondents cited new, more sophisticated processing and packaging equipment as a key reason throughputs are improving, and noted that equipment suppliers are also making significant investments in research and development of customized equipment to meet their growing and rapidly changing needs. This is certainly true for Wenger Manufacturing, the world’s leading supplier of process systems for the food, feed and industrial grain processing industries. According to Stuart Carrico, technical sales engineer for Wenger’s Food & Industrial Products Division, the company’s Technical Center is used for study and experimentation not only by Wenger, but by its customers for research and development of ingredients, processing configurations, small product runs and basic demonstrations of extruder and dryer processing.
“Wenger believes strongly in our own research and development, and we invest heavily in exploring new extrusion and drying technologies,” he said. And it seems this investment is paying off. Carrico says that in 2014, Wenger experienced its best year in the history of the company.
“Orders were strong in the human food group and the companion animal group,” he said. “And, over the past three years, the international aquaculture industry has shown exceptionally strong growth.”
Carrico says within the last year, Wenger has seen an increase in the demand for customized, highly technical products, like twin screw extruders capable of processing soy and fresh meat inclusion products.
“For many Wenger clients, the extrusion process can include the main piece of processing equipment for determining plant configuration, and for return on the overall investment,” he said. “For this reason, interfacing with our clients on a long-term basis is integral to our success. While Wenger systems are based on standard design, each system is customized for the process, and for the customer.”
Food and Beverage Automation Expanding
Today’s food and beverage producers are also investing heavily in automation. Some 34 percent of Food Engineering’s survey respondents said their company’s budgets for manufacturing automation and control hardware and software increased in 2014 by over 26 percent—double 2013’s average increase of 13 percent. One of the biggest challenges in the food and beverage processing industry, according to the survey, is bottlenecks during the packaging phase, from filling to sealing and cartoning to palletizing. Respondents clearly indicated the need for more sophisticated packaging automation to streamline these processes and improve delivery times. Some 52 percent of survey respondents indicated upgrading packaging equipment as the number one way to improve packaging operations. As a leading provider of automated material handling systems for plants, warehouses and distribution centers, Westfalia Technologies, Inc. follows trends in the food and beverage industry closely and is keenly aware of the packaging challenges producers face.
“SKU proliferation is the largest change in the food and beverage industry within the last decade,” said Staci Cretu, marketing and communications manager for Westfalia, which specializes in combining software development with automated equipment manufacturing. “Due to increased growth in this sector, coupled with the need for distribution centers to be located close to major metropolitan areas where tracts of land are typically scarce and expensive, warehouse footprints have expanded and become more complex. This, in turn, has increased tasks for warehouse staff and has made customer orders more complex—more SKUs must be accounted for; the number of total storage positions has increased; inventory levels have become more dynamic; manual pick areas have grown larger and more complex; and replenishment tasks have placed a bigger burden on warehouses. All of these tasks have increased demand for warehouse automation via automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) to keep ahead of the impacts to our customers’ bottom lines.”
While upgrades to AS/RS systems are important, Cretu says a well-designed, properly maintained system should have a relatively quick return-on investment (ROI) and a long lifespan.
“A high-tech AS/RS combined with a warehouse execution system (WES) offers companies the ultimate combination: a 20-25+ year lifespan with ROI achieved in five years or less,” she said. “Warehouse automation via AS/RS and WES offers companies many years of cost savings and profit potential.” Cretu expects the integration of WES systems to become more and more common as automation becomes more widespread.
“The future of warehouse automation will involve increased modernization of existing systems, while also trying new approaches. An AS/RS can last a lifetime with the proper maintenance so it’s about expanding on the core backbone of your product and enhancing it to stand the test of time. WES systems provide another level of automated data visibility to many warehouses that they did not have before.”