A few years ago, The National Provisioner polled several plant engineers and operations managers in an effort to salute their contributions that keep the nation’s food-plant machinery and processing lines running smoothly. We gave credit where it had been long overdue — to those who mostly toil behind the scenes.

This month, we revisit the concept by probing the minds of the vice president of engineering and environmental affairs for poultry-powerhouse Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., and engineering manager for the innovative, custom-meat processor Ed Miniat Inc.

The following Q&As explore the daily lives of these important men, what challenges they face and what solutions they have to put into motion to solves those challenges.

On a daily basis, plant engineers and operations managers balance the need for efficient yet fast throughput with the need for a clean and safe processing environment. These plant executives are on the cutting edge of what their plants need — whether it be the next plant expansion or packaging or processing line, or weighing in on production throughput, automation, labor savings or sustainability — these men are the backbone of our industry’s processing operations.

Hats off to these men who make our processing plants tick!

Gregory K. Lisso

Title: Vice President, Engineering and Environmental Affairs
Company/location: Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Pittsburg, Texas.
Years at company: 12
Years in position: 8
Number of employees/plants reporting to you: Thirty-eight engineers, environmental engineers, project managers and support staff, as well as staff at Luker Inc., our metal fabrication business in Augusta, Ga. (Part of the Gold Kist acquisition in 2006). Our corporate engineering department supports all company assets, including facilities in 15 states, Mexico and Puerto Rico; 36 chicken processing plants, 12 prepared food plants, 35 feed mills, 48 hatcheries, and 26 distribution centers.
Background/training: Twenty-one years in engineering in the food industry following graduation from Texas A&M University with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering. Work experience includes The Quaker Oats Co., ConAgra Foods Inc., Seaboard Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp.

NP: What is your primary role as the senior engineering specialist in your company?
Lisso: To ensure cost-effective, state-of-the art engineering and technical resources are readily available to accommodate company asset management and growth.

NP: How do you successfully manager your company’s engineering/operations standards across multiple locations, plants and teams?
Lisso: We utilize a lean, relatively flat organizational structure to ensure policy and standards performance through three regional engineering centers. Engineering resources are utilized from the regional centers to provide minimal reaction time for emergency issues, minimize overhead costs and allow our partners to control required time away from home.

NP: Describe your processing plant in terms of production throughput.
Lisso: Pilgrim’s Pride has the capacity to process more than 45 million birds per week for a total of more than 9 billion pounds of chicken per year. In addition, the company produces more than 42 million dozen table eggs per year.

NP: Define automation at your plant: Does this include robotics? Is your plant fully automated?
Lisso: Pilgrim’s Pride has a wide variety of automation throughout our operations. Several of our cold-storage facilities utilize state-of-the art AS/RS (automated storage and retrieval systems), including robotic pallet loading and case handling. Product vision-grading systems, high-pressure computerized water-jet cutting systems, robotic palletizing and complex automated chicken deboning systems are just a few examples of complex automation commonly found throughout our operations.

NP: If applicable, how does European technology work into a plant’s redesign efforts? In your opinion, is U.S. technology behind other countries?
Lisso: Although many of the finest meat industry equipment systems are manufactured in Europe, U.S. technology remains competitive with the rest of the world. Many U.S. manufacturers and engineering design firms provide cutting-edge technology and design solutions for our industry. We utilize domestic engineering firms almost exclusively for technology solutions, equipment integration, refrigeration and food-plant design, water and wastewater treatment, and construction and cost-estimation services.

NP: How are you addressing labor savings at your plant?
Lisso: Pilgrim’s Pride is aggressively seeking automation solutions to provide labor savings in our plants. A shortage of skilled, qualified labor in our industry has put pressure on all poultry companies to automate to remain competitive and meet increasing customer requirements. Our company has installed high-speed automated deboning equipment in a number of plants this year to help alleviate labor shortages and improve efficiencies.

NP: With sustainable packaging top of mind in today’s world, do you have any plans to jump on board with new packaging lines?
Lisso: Pilgrim’s Pride rolled out a company-wide initiative, the EnviroPride Sustainable Progress initiative, with seeking better ways to achieve sustainable packaging as one of its primary goals. Other primary initiatives in the program include reduction of fossil fuels in transportation, utility usage reduction, waste- and byproducts-generation reduction, utilization of sustainability in facility design and construction, and water and wastewater generation and use reduction.

NP: What percentage of your company’s operating expenses is devoted to infrastructure, equipment purchases and plant-floor maintenance projects?
Lisso: Over the past three years, the portion of our capital expenditures budget devoted to maintenance and other projects has generally been in the $70- to $80-million range annually.

Kevin Antonelli

Title: Engineering Manager
Company/location: Ed Miniat Inc., Homewood, Ill.
Years at company: 2
Years in position: 18
Number of employees/plants reporting to you: 16
Background/training: Several certifications, journeyman, millwright, three years of college education, 29 years in the maintenance field and 18 years in plant engineering.

NP: What is your primary role as the senior engineering specialist in your company?
Antonelli: Engineering and maintenance.

NP: How do you successfully manage your company’s engineering/operations standards across multiple locations, plants and teams?
Antonelli: Develop a plan that meets the company’s objectives and then define goals to achieve those objectives in the timeline established.

NP: Describe your processing plant in terms of production throughput.
Antonelli: Raw material is delivered and then processed to a customer specification based on type of product, marination, cut and other ingredients. The product is cooked, packaged and either frozen or refrigerated, stored and shipped as “Ready To Eat.”

NP: Define automation at your plant: Does this include robotics? Is your plant fully automated?
Antonelli: Our plant is not fully automated; we have no robotics and are always researching products that will provide process improvement, improved quality and safety.

NP: If applicable, how does European technology work into a plant’s redesign efforts? In your opinion, is U.S. technology behind other countries?
Antonelli: There are different standards that need to be achieved in U.S. plants versus European plants. Redesign efforts in any facility should be with the latest technology, sanitation and processing methods. The United States — in certain food markets — is behind in technology. In my industry, the European technology has surpassed that of U.S. companies.

NP: How are you addressing labor savings at your plant?
Antonelli: By looking at ergonomics, time and motion with process flow and integrating technology.

NP: With sustainable packaging top of mind in today’s world, do you have any plans to jump on board with new packaging lines?
Antonelli: We will wait and see what issues arise with this new packaging structure and follow suit within the industry.

NP: With bioterrorism also among the top concerns in today’s world, how are you responding in terms of plant security?
Antonelli: We recently redesigned our property to control incoming and outbound traffic, installing card access with additional security cameras and perimeter fencing.

NP: What percentage of your company’s operating expenses is devoted to infrastructure, equipment purchases and plant-floor maintenance projects? What specific capital improvements did you oversee in the past year?
Antonelli: Infrastructure is 2 percent (facility is only 12 years old and well-maintained), equipment purchases 7 percent, and maintenance projects 2 percent. I have supervised facility and campus expansions and installation of several new process lines.

NP: Describe how your company handles the supplier/processor relationship as it concerns technology upgrades and maintenance issues?
Antonelli: We always review standardization as a focal point for availability, quality and cost-control. Secondly, we need to have these vendor relationships because they are the people keeping us in touch with new technology, whether it is in equipment or products.

NP: In a world of increased food safety and security requirements, how do you balance the need for those factors with high-production requirements? How do you engineer food safety into the operation?
Antonelli: It’s simple — there are no short cuts. Food safety is a team effort and all departments involved in approving a new process or evaluating an existing process have input. Positive and negative critiques of our process design and flow help identify strengths and weaknesses; this also allows us to manage continuous improvements for product handling and potential exposure.

NP: Describe a project that you nurtured from concept to completion. What were the particular challenges? What was the source of the greatest satisfaction from this project? What would you change in hindsight? If nothing, why not?
Antonelli: When I first started, there was a new automated system that was to be installed and had a very short deadline. When I began reviewing the project, it was determined that the line would not fit in the space that was allocated. Secondly, we had to move a large continuous from-and-fill bagger in and out of place due to different operations, and a track system was designed that allowed the weakest person to move this several-thousand-pound machine in and out of position.

The line was installed by our internal maintenance crew several weeks behind the original schedule with all the improvements that were required. We shut down our operation, installed the line and [reached] full operation in five days rather than the expected four weeks. This was my first large project achievement which placed much confidence in my abilities with a then-new employer.

The only part that has changed for every project since I started with this company is our ownership and involvement. We design it or are part of the team, we install it or are part of the team and we own it when the job is completed.