Perhaps no industry must adapt as quickly to the changing tastes of consumers as the food and beverage business. Producers — and their supporting supply chain — compete in a dynamic environment, and food trends drive the operational priorities at food and beverage manufacturing sites. Failure to create nimble but reliably safe processes can:
- Produce less-than-optimal profit from predictable seasonal buying patterns.
- Keep a food and beverage company from realizing a potential windfall from emerging consumer tastes.
- Introduce the risk of food safety issues and recalls.
Industry-wide, food and beverage veterans have long planned for and executed shifts in plant operations to take advantage of seasonal purchasing of everything from Easter chocolates to Thanksgiving turkeys to Christmas eggnog.
Fast forward to the present day: Product strategies must be designed to meet not just predictable seasons but also changing consumer trends. Consumers expect off-the-shelf food and beverage products to provide variety for a just-for-me customized experience. Oils must be produced from every known plant seed. Yogurt and beverages are expected in every conceivable flavor combination. Ditto for rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, chips, meats and just about everything else. The have-it-your-way commodity list is endless.
At the same time, due to changes driven by the pandemic, pantry cooking has become a family priority. Consumers still crave restaurant-style foods, yet they want to make them themselves in record time. To meet these needs, food and beverage companies must offer more ready-to-serve sauces and spreads, global foods incorporating spices from different regions and cultures, and freshness innovation to prevent food waste and enable longer product shelf life.
Of course, all the above foods also must be offered in versions to meet myriad health goals: low carb, high protein, fat-free, organic, sugar-free, low sodium, gluten-free, immune defense, meat alternative, CBD ingredients and more.
As producers alter and enhance production to rapidly multiply and alternate their product lines, the risks of temperature control and other contamination issues increase. And, with real-time news spreading instantaneously across hand-held devices, the impact of contamination or other food safety issues and product recalls immediately hits the radars of regulators, investors, distribution channels and, of course, consumers — with simultaneous, costly fallout.
All these demands mean producers are now operating in a constant state of change as the new normal. To reduce the risks and stresses on operations and personnel, they need predictability in their temperature control processes. Due to these increased demands, plant operators often turn to rental heat exchangers as they adapt and maintain their production lines.
When selecting rented equipment or a rental supplier, plant maintenance and planning teams can make an informed choice — and better protect their assets — by asking 10 questions of each prospective provider.
Consider limiting rental equipment to that which is food-grade by design and only used for food and beverage applications. Photos courtesy of Aggreko Process Solutions
1. Is the Equipment Food-Grade?
Listen intently to the answer. Fast-talking salespeople may energetically launch into a speech about their cleaning protocols for food applications when asked this direct question. Be clear that cleaning a piece of equipment that has been used in a pharmaceutical plant last week and a petrochemical plant last month does not make it food-grade equipment.
2. Do You Have Dedicated Food and Beverage Personnel?
True food-grade heat exchangers are designed for their purpose. Some rental companies reserve that equipment as a specialty fleet for food and beverage applications and pair it with a dedicated team.
3. Do You Provide Documented Traceability?
A rental heat exchanger reserved for food and beverage applications should have a verifiable system for traceability that shows its history of use. If the unit has any instance of use in a non-food-grade environment, you must use greater due diligence to ensure that contaminants do not enter your production stream.
Plant operators often turn to rental heat exchangers as they adapt and maintain their production lines. Photos courtesy of Aggreko Process Solutions
4. Do You Provide Cleanliness Certification?
Equipment that is cleaned by an independent third-party cleaning service with dedicated food and beverage cleaning processes can provide documented cleanliness certification. This is important if an unplanned event occurs, and you must provide a paper trail proving that no contaminants were present in the equipment.
5. Is the Equipment New or Refurbished?
New food-grade-by-design equipment, purchased for rental to the food and beverage industry, reduces your risk. Refurbished equipment might make a rental company look more price competitive, but as previously mentioned, you may not know where the refurbished equipment was used before its acquisition and refurbishment.
6. Do You Provide Engineered Solutions or Equipment Only?
Some rental companies approach their business as a solutions provider and will offer engineering services that some food and beverage companies do not have on-site. These engineering professionals can serve as an extension of your plant’s processes and business strategy team. Such an approach contributes to more cost-effective approaches for adaptive temperature control.
In particular, reliable temperature control supports consistency in food processes and product taste and texture, which is important to brand-loyal consumers.
Deployed by trained engineers, a rented food-grade heat exchanger can be used in food and beverage manufacturing operations for more than periodic maintenance support. Photos courtesy of Aggreko Process Solutions
7. How Do You Support Planned Maintenance and System Upgrades?
Rental equipment often is deployed in times of unplanned downtime, which can affect fleet availability and pricing. When consulting with the rental equipment company, ask how they work with customers for planned maintenance, plant upgrades and expansions. How far out can you reserve a food-grade heat exchanger? Will you be standing in line among those whose food or beverage plant was affected by a hurricane or wildfire? Will planned maintenance rental prices be stable, or will cost fluctuate in periods of high demand? You want a trusted partner you can rely on for both planned and unplanned events.
Case in point: When one producer of a popular ready-to-eat product ran short of its stored, frozen-fresh ingredients and was forced to switch to fresh produce, its standard processes had to be changed. The new process required that the fresh ingredients be cooled from 60 to 40°F (15.6 to 4.4°C) because their systems were not designed to operate at higher temperatures. Adding temporary rental equipment allowed the food processor to maintain production.
8. How Quickly Can Your Equipment Be Deployed?
Technology and real-time information flow have accelerated the rate of change in consumer expectations, thereby forcing food producers to adapt to a near-constant rhythm of start-stop-change to win over loyal taste buds. Speed is more important than ever. When considering an equipment rental supplier, ask about delivery times, and ask how they distribute their fleet geographically. Is the equipment centrally located to support several of your plant locations? Do they have service centers in numerous locations with at-the-ready technicians experienced in installation?
Case in point: For one food manufacturer, the production volume needed to double overnight due to pandemic-induced, increased demand for its product. The plant team turned to a rental equipment provider to give them the ability to act faster than the company’s internal capital cycle allowed. This allowed the food processor to take delivery of an engineered temperature control package of food-grade equipment to cool an essential ingredient: water.
9. What Is Your Emergency Response Experience?
Regardless of how stellar your plant maintenance is, there will come a time when your permanent heat exchanger fails, or a severe weather event threatens production volumes and uptime targets. Probe your supplier for examples of their responses to disasters and unexpected operational disruptions.
Even a five-year-old heat exchanger can fail from a high pressure event or because it is dirty or clogged. Once taken out of service, a temporary solution is needed. Often, maintenance teams may discover more damage and need an extended rental. Ask if your rental provider offers predictive modeling and modeling software that is not a part of a food and beverage manufacturer’s day-to-day work or expertise.
10. Will You Rent Food-Grade Heat Exchangers Long Term?
Waiting six to nine months for capital expenditure budget approval makes it nearly impossible for plant managers to meet C-suite demands for timely strategic shifts in product types, volumes and quality. Long-term rentals may fill the breach. Ask any potential supplier how long “temporary” can be.
Also, be careful not to be overly prescriptive. On one project, the rental equipment team was tasked to help reduce CO2 gas usage during summer shortages. The customer established a goal to cool water from 70 to 50°F (21 to 10°C) but was surprised when the rental solutions technical team showed the plant crew they could achieve better. In just two weeks, the rental solutions team cooled water to offset freezing and CO2 use, delivering water at 40°F (4.4°C). The solution, which remains in place, meant the customer did not have to shut down the plant or stop production.
In conclusion, a rented food-grade heat exchanger, when deployed by trained engineers, can deliver more to a food and beverage manufacturing business than periodic maintenance support. Evaluating prospective suppliers before you need one may better position you for success.