The Heart of the Matter


Process, Material Handling & Storage Considerations

For a Food Plant project to be successful, it must be planned from the inside out, beginning with a careful analysis and documentation of the processing, packaging, and storage operation requirements. The full range of products and their packaging to be produced must be identified along with a definition of the required capacity for each. Thorough documentation of this basic information is critical so that specialized technical and procurement personnel working on design and construction maintain contact with the essential areas of focus of the project.

The tools and data usually used to define the products and processes include:

    • Product Family and SKU Lists, including packaging requirements.

    • Raw material specifications and physical property data.

    • Packaging and Labeling materials specifications and physical data.

    • Finished Product data sheets, specifications, and physical property data.

    • Process Flow Diagrams and P&IDs in the case of automated processes.

    • Material Balances and line capacity calculations.

    • Peak week work schedules.

    • Equipment Lists, including utility requirements.

    • Staffing assignments by department, by shift, and by gender.

    • Preliminary or final HACCP and product quality specifications.

    • Preliminary Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs).

The planning activity must include many important operational factors to ensure a good outcome.

    • Seasonality of supply and demand.

    • Sensible inventory levels for raw materials, packaging materials, and finished products.

    • Flexibility to meet changing market conditions – especially with retail packaging.

    • Provisions for future expansion and potential automation.

    • Growth in requirements for food safety and security coming from customers and regulatory agencies.

    • Evaluation of options for mechanized material handling and automation.

    • Provisions for handling of allergens, special? materials, re-work, returns, and by-products.

    • Definition of environmental control requirements (air emissions, wastewater treatment).

    • Definition of Ergonomic and Worker Safety issues.

    • Determine the level of automation desired.

The design of physical spaces for processing, packaging, and storage operations must be based on an intimate knowledge of the manufacturing, quality, and food safety requirements. Many critical factors must be evaluated, including:

    • Environmental and sanitation requirements to determine appropriate materials for construction.

    • Isolation of incompatible activities.

    • Dividing the plant up into distinct “hygiene zones” and isolation process areas handling allergens.

    • Provisions for and segregation of traffic (people, raw materials, wheeled vehicles & carts, trash movements).

    • Control of airflow and room pressurization by hygiene zone and make-up air quality.

    • Ease of cleaning equipment and interior surfaces.

    • Ease of maintaining the equipment.

    • Installed equipment and services for sanitation, COP, and CIP.

When a plan for processing, materials handling, and storage is developed, the following documentation needs to be carefully reviewed and approved by management and critical operations, quality, and sanitation personnel to give the building and utility design professionals a well-defined starting point for facility design.

Master Equipment List

    • Equipment and room layouts for processing spaces.

    • Rack or stack layouts for storage spaces.

    • Processing areas room finish schedule.

    • Plant-wide traffic + workflow diagrams or layouts.

    • Plant-wide airflow diagrams.

    • Plant-wide Hygiene Zone definitions.

    • Criteria for welfare activities.

    • Criteria for support spaces (control rooms, labs, chemical storage, COP rooms, etc.)

Project Design – A Step-Wise Approach

In the Planning step of developing the design for what a new food processing facility will be, it is of critical importance to develop an initial project team comprised of management, production personnel, and engineering support staff to begin looking at the issues involved in developing an exemplary process flow, required equipment lists, warehousing needs, and square footage requirements.

Once the essential planning is completed, a Conceptual Design and Order of Magnitude Cost Estimate should be developed, typically with an accuracy range of 25-30%, where all major cost issues can be examined and discussed before moving forward with further design activities.  Once the Conceptual Design is approved, a Milestone Schedule should be developed and the entire project reviewed by the project team to ensure that the four critical areas of project control – Scope, Cost, Time, and Quality – have been addressed and performance guidelines established.

Based on the planning work and approval thereof, design and engineering can be advanced to the 30% to 50% range by discipline to support the development of a detailed cost estimate and a comprehensive project schedule before proceeding with the final design, engineering, equipment procurement, and construction.

Now that we’ve briefly discussed the “how” of a food plant design, let’s take some time to look at what goes on inside and some critical areas and issues that need to be considered:

Food processing facilities are generally designed to either process a grown or harvested product (such as a coffee roasting plant, dairy, or meat) or to assemble various ingredients from diverse sources into a “manufactured” food product (such as a confectionery, baking, or ready-meals plant). In most cases, plants will be designed to produce a single product or a group of related products.

As stated in our introduction, the U.S. food and beverage industry is one of the most regulated entities in the world. Its basis is legislation enacted as the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which provides for the regulation of all food and pharmaceuticals produced in the U.S. In addition to federal laws, many states and municipalities have additional requirements.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are the two federal agencies charged with regulating the food industry. The USDA oversees all meat and poultry-related operations, while the FDA looks out for everything else, including seafood. Recently these two governing agencies have been combined based on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Today, many additional (and not always coordinated) requirements or guidelines are overlaid on the US Government requirements by industry consensus, customers, or foreign trade protocols.

  • SQL2000.

  • Global Food Safety Initiative.

  • FDA or USDA Draft Guidance.

  • Typical Process Facility Areas

Depending on the food processed, a typical food manufacturing facility may contain many or all of the following functions, each with its particular requirements:


Raw materials are often received in large quantities and deposited into bulk storage. Materials received this way can include liquid ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and milk or solids such as meat, flour, or corn meal. In some instances, raw materials are received in the solid (bulk) form and then converted to liquid storage for use in the manufacturing process (such as milk chocolate). Some raw materials and most packaging materials arrive on pallets, while others may arrive in reusable totes and bulk containers.

Raw Material Holding

Occasionally, raw materials need to be segregated before being released into the manufacturing cycle, allowing the materials to be tested for bacteria or impurities before being processed. Fresh or frozen products must be segregated in refrigerated storage areas to prevent cross-contamination, especially raw materials such as meat products. Sometimes, tempering rooms, which allow frozen ingredients to thaw safely before processing, are necessary. Dry storage areas of adequate size are still needed for materials not requiring refrigeration.

Process Preparation – Grinding, Mixing, Batching, and Blending

Almost all raw materials will need some preparation before being utilized in the manufacturing process; a plant needs adequate space and flow to de-palletize, debag, sort, weigh and measure materials. Incoming raw materials may need to be cleaned, washed, or sanitized. These “holding areas” can also be used as a weighing and pre-batch area for “minor” ingredients (i.e., flavorings, colorants, etc.) which may need to be added to the product being manufactured.

Baking, Smoking, Cooking, and Cooling

Processes that can take place in these areas include an extensive array of thermal processes, including baking, cooking in kettles, frying, broilers, retorts, food processing ovens (batch and continuous linear), and sous vide cooking equipment. The product is almost always cooled, chilled, or frozen immediately after heating using mechanical or cryogenic cooling.  Some chilled products may be classified as “ready-to-eat” or “ready-to-cook” food products.


Products are packaged for retail or food service. The range of possibilities is extensive and ever-changing, including but not limited to horizontal roll stock, vertical form fill seal (VFFS), various tray loading, cartooning, aseptic, and flow wrapping, to name a few. Capabilities sometimes are needed for club packs and variety packs, which add complexity. Some products may be pasteurized after packaging, but many must be handled under strict hygienic conditions until hermetically sealed in packages. Collating packages and manually or automatically loaded into cases, case labeling, and manual or automated palletizing conclude this activity.


Although many products may be loaded directly into trucks, some plants will require storage areas for processed foods. One issue that all food processors deal with is that the longer a product stays in storage, the shorter its shelf life will be when arriving into commerce. Assumptions on the product mix and days of storage required for receiving, work-in-process, dry storage, and finished goods must be agreed upon at the beginning of the design. Some storage areas, such as those for ice cream, meat, and other perishables, need refrigeration. As regulations apply, employees may use the storage area to test finished products before distribution.


Loading onto rail cars or trucks is usually done via fork trucks or pallet jacks. In some instances, “pre-staging” of entire loads will take place at the shipping dock, with those loads then automatically transferred to the shipping vehicle.


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