Planning a construction project in the food industry is an intricate undertaking, especially for companies with older facilities, systems, and infrastructure. We spoke with Tom Wiersma, Director of Marketing and Business Development at C2AE Architecture & Engineering, to learn about some of the developments that are simplifying and speeding up these projects.

With about 130 employees in offices in the Midwest, Michigan, and New York, C2AE provides architecture and engineering services to a variety of industries. In food manufacturing, C2AE partners with a broad range of companies, whether they have many plants or only a few plants. 

Breaking down the complexity of plant design is C2AE’s strong suit — from repurposing buildings to reformatting production lines, installing new equipment in the middle of a plant or  updating infrastructure while minimizing plant and systems downtime, to all of the front-end planning and budgeting that comes with those projects. To ensure they’re always meeting client expectations, C2AE strives to bring these five aspects to every project:

  1. Enterprise-level design thinking
  2. Productivity culture 
  3. Inter-functional disciplines 
  4. Aggressive collaboration 
  5. Architecture and infrastructure congruity

There are two other things about the way that C2AE does business in this space that are especially important. First, they have all of the primary project management, commercial and technical talent in-house, including all of the key engineering disciplines (structural, civil, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, etc.) as well as architecture and interior design. They also have a deep and rigorously pre-qualified array of sub-consultants. “This approach’” says Wiersma, “allows and equips us to always bring deep expertise to bear on the issues that might delay or derail a complex renovation.”

Renovating aging facilities

In terms of engineering and design projects, Wiersma says that the growth of automation and the heightened focus on food safety and sanitation due to FSMA expectations have begun to normalize. Taking their place is a growing interest in upgrading processing, facility, and utility infrastructure.

“Most food processing plants of any scale are usually handling raw materials and RTE foods simultaneously that typically demand both physical as well as HVAC separation to prevent migration of allergens and other contaminants,” he says. “Most are making multiple products also demanding separation, and most are seeing various packaging and packing materials. There are cookstands and fillers and packaging and conveying and freezing and casing and warehousing and shipping operations all taking place in the same plant. It’s a demanding environment alongside water and wastewater treatment, ammonia, and CIP functionality in the best of cases.”

This inherent complexity is further compounded when the building shell and plant infrastructure are over 20 years old. “Older plants have often been bought and sold more than once,” Wiersma notes. “And they’ve often been expanded and repurposed multiple times — lines have been added, reformatted, or removed to accommodate line extensions, new recipes, new products, and revised regulatory issues.”

Wiersma says that designing renovations like these are more challenging than greenfield projects. That’s because “systems and infrastructure and structural components all have to be accounted for and moved, supported, or replaced,” he says. “A large-scale complex renovation is complicated and time-consuming, and there are a lot of things that can go sideways if you're not careful. It’s in these older plants where C2AE’s complex renovation engineering and architecture experience, leadership, and best practices are most valued.”

Harnessing the power of breakthrough technologies

Advancements in technology are also accelerating and strengthening the design process. 

One of these is building information modeling (BIM) software. BIM is a tool for creating and refining detailed 3D building designs; sharing project schedules, documents, and workflows; and fostering collaboration among stakeholders. Essentially, it’s a centralized solution for managing every stage from design to build and visualizing and avoiding potential clashes. It also tracks expenses along the way, so clients have routine access to a current and accurate budget.

BIM’s greatest strength is its ability to integrate with emerging tools and technologies, like Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which adds geographic and geospatial data to BIM software, allowing designers to add informational layers like topography, infrastructure, and code requirements. “We now can plot important pieces of equipment or technology on a GIS database,” Wiersma says. “And the plant owner can access real-time information as a way of optimizing maintenance.”

Another technology that merges well with BIM is laser scanning, which captures detailed dimensions in 3D that can then be integrated into a BIM model. This approach augments old shop drawings and undermanaged P&ID’s and replaces most of the time-consuming process of collecting measurements of existing equipment and structures by hand, especially when the original plant drawings are no longer accurate after multiple renovations. 

“Laser scanning gives us exponentially improved dimensions within the plants,” Wiersma says. “Now we know where every trench drain is, every piece of equipment, column, MCC, conveyor, freezer, and more. For example, installing a new freezer in a large plant where the existing operation is going on involves a complex series of phases and action items.” Laser scanning helps simplify that process.

As part of the design process, C2AE uses these various technologies in what they call an Integrated Design Workshop (IDW). IDW brings together representatives from C2AE, the client company, sub-consultants, and the construction firm for a few hours or a few days to review and discuss the BIM model.

“Depending on the scale and timeline of the project, every stakeholder from operations to production to plant engineering to supply chain and HR are a part of the solution,” Wiersma says. “We’ll spend the day going through the design division-by-division when it's nearing completion, making sure we iron out all of the clashes, problems, and potential bottlenecks. The result is a much faster, seamless, and more economical solution.”

Seeking versatility, speed, expertise in the design process

In the interest of launching new products quickly as consumer demands evolve, food manufacturers are striving to use the same processing equipment for various products. “As orders come in,” Wiersma says, “they want to be able to respond and use their equipment flexibly.” 

To make that changeover as fast as possible, processors are also looking to speed up the strict sanitation process in between runs. As a result, part of the design process is ensuring efficient use of available floor space, especially when it comes to flexibility, “so that as their product lines change or their customer expectations change, the factory can accommodate them.”

And in order to keep up with their competitors, who are also racing to release new products, plants are looking for contractors who can provide fast turnaround times. So, to speed up renovation products, some of the initial design and build work can be done off-site with prefabrication and modularization. For example, “instead of building an HVAC system on-site, we might work with contractors who have the capability to pre-build portions of some infrastructure before integrating it on-site,” Wiersma says.

Lastly, there’s an advantage to working with engineering and architecture companies that can offer the expertise and experience that comes from working on a variety of projects in the field. That includes knowing how to rebuild and upgrade in a way that boosts overall plant efficiency without compromising the immediate and long-term goals of the larger enterprise.

“Existing plant equipment — conveyors, freezers, boilers, air handlers, chillers, and plumbing — have typically all been in place for a long time,” Wiersma says. “When we’re reformatting a production line, the tendency is to move those things. But the truth is that when we move them, we also make them more efficient. If we spend time optimizing systems as we are rebuilding a portion of the plant, the plant owner can realize improved margins that, in fact, are bonus margins.” 

C2AE is returning to PROCESS EXPO this year because of the positive experiences they’ve had at previous shows. “I appreciate how well the show is promoted to decision-makers around North America, and the world for that matter,” Wiersma says. “They get the right people there so that substantive conversations can take place.”

To discuss your next construction or renovation project, or to learn about the technologies transforming the process, you can find C2AE Architecture & Engineering at Booth #3871 at PROCESS EXPO.