The food and beverage industry faces its fair share of challenges. As the articles in this interview series demonstrate, processors are relying heavily on their suppliers to help meet today’s challenges while also planning for the future.
Stainless Fabrication has a wealth of experience in the kind of advisory role processors require from their suppliers. The company has been building stainless steel tanks, vessels, and other processing equipment since 1985. Their primary focus areas are food, beverage, pharmaceutical, and chemical, including industries like pet foods and medicines, personal care products, and a variety of others. To learn more about how OEMs are helping processors respond to current pressures, we spoke with Keith Mizell, who’s been with the company almost since the beginning.
Mizell started out 28 years ago as a welder and grinder, building tanks in the shop and also traveling to customer facilities to build equipment on site. Later, he joined the engineering department, where he worked on equipment design and layout. In 2000, he moved into sales, and today he’s the company’s sales manager. “I’ve done just about everything relating to the tanks and equipment we build,” he says.
Over his nearly three decades in the industry, Mizell has seen trends and challenges come and go. The top issues he sees impacting the industry today are new regulations surrounding worker safety and food safety, as well as consumer demand for a wider variety of products.
Worker safety: Falls on the rise
“There are new regulations that affect our customers’, as well as our, day-to-day business,” Mizell says, “with the main topic on everyone's mind being safety.”
Stainless Fabrication makes tanks ranging in size from 10 to 650,000 gallons. In facilities with tanks on the large end of the spectrum, workers frequently have to climb ladders to look into the vessel or service the equipment. That opens the door for what Mizell calls “the biggest current topic of discussion: fall protection.”
A Bureau of Labor Statistics Study published earlier this year found that fatal work-related falls to a lower level increased by 26% between 2010 and 2016. So, it’s no surprise that Fall Protection has been #1 on OSHA’s list of Top 10 most frequently cited worker safety violations for the past several years.
To better protect people working at heights, OSHA recently passed an update to its Fall Protection Standard. Two of the provisions regarding personal fall arrest and ladder safety systems are set to become effective on November 19, 2018. (Ladders have also been on OSHA’s Top 10 list for the past several years.)
A big challenge for processors is understanding the rules so they can implement the necessary changes and remain compliant. That’s where OEMs like Stainless Fabrication come in. “The OSHA rules pertaining to fall protection are complex,” Mizell says. “Our goal is to ensure our customers are aware of the changes so they can make appropriate decisions about their equipment. That’s part of what we do as a custom manufacturer — provide the information and offer the best possible solutions. One example is that after November 19, all new tanks over a certain height must have a fall arrest system for workers using ladders for tank access. No longer will a caged ladder alone be acceptable.”
Food safety: Preventing contamination
Also very important to everyone is food safety. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires food manufacturers to focus on preventing contamination. That means using higher quality equipment that can be easily sanitized.
“More and more companies are asking for higher-quality cleanability,” Mizell says. “Our customers want vessels that can be easily and completely cleaned, inside and out. We see these stricter requirements in all industry segments where their products are ingested by humans or animals.”
For stainless steel tanks and vessels, higher-quality cleanability comes from a high-quality polished finish, typically specified as a roughness average number (Ra) for all material and weld surfaces. “The lower the Ra, the smoother the finish will be, resulting in a more sanitary piece of equipment,” Mizell says. “Today, food and beverage companies typically look for an Ra of 35 to 30, which is getting close to the 20 to 15 Ra, mirror-like surface, required by the pharmaceutical industry.”
Keeping up with consumer demands: Product line diversification
While the safety pressures come from regulatory agencies, food and beverage manufacturers continue to expand their offerings in response to the consumers’ growing demand for new products and flavors. Beverage companies in particular are doing this by diversifying their product lines.
Mizell explains: “In the past, they might have had Product A and Product B, but now they have Products A1, A2, A3 and Products B1, B2, and B3. Each variation has a slightly different scent, flavor, color, or texture from the original product. We see this on a wide scale in alcoholic beverages.”
This trend provides an excellent opportunity for Stainless Fabrication to serve their customers by helping them select the right equipment. “Many of our customers need more storage, mixing and batching capabilities,” Mizell says. “We help ensure the equipment is compatible with their application. For example, most customers come to us with a tank designed for a specific purpose. SFI engineers take it a step further, making sure material thicknesses, tank supports, agitator supports, etc. are sized correctly for the loads and pressures created during operation. We are able to offer efficiency and money-saving suggestions that a process engineer may not initially specify. SFI is ASME certified and regularly builds tanks from 300 series stainless steel. We also have weld procedures in place to work with other nickel-based materials such as AL6XN or 2205 duplex, which may be required due to the corrosive nature of the product in the tank.”
Industry-wide challenges: Workforce, technology, and competition
Mizell also touched on a few of the challenges affecting processors and their suppliers alike. He stated that many workers are retiring and the younger generation is not prepared to take their place. Stainless Fabrication took a proactive approach to rebuilding the workforce by partnering with a local technical college to start an apprenticeship program. “Through the program, the apprentices take courses to learn welding and grinding, and from us they get hands-on experience,” Mizell says. “This has been tremendously successful and I think we will see more companies taking this approach.”
He also mentioned the increased integration of technology. “The industry as a whole is relying more on technology. We’re automating our fabrication capabilities including welding, grinding, and CNC machining equipment because it’s highly efficient and requires less manual work with consistent high-quality results.
Finally, Mizell commented on the challenges of competition and what companies can do to differentiate themselves. For their part, Stainless Fabrication takes a customer-centric approach. “There are other companies that manufacture stainless steel tanks,” he says. “What makes us stand out is our exceptional service and our commitment to always making it right for the customer.” In an increasingly competitive market, that’s the best kind of differentiator.