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Selecting, Retrofitting, and Integrating Used Equipment
by Ed Gerken, PMP, LEED AP
Capital savings is a major driver of a food processor’s decision to purchase used equipment. The savings can be even greater if a processor can reuse idle assets from another plant. An equally strong driver is a fast-track project schedule because the reuse of immediately available equipment can shave off many months.
However, processors must select equipment that complies with their safety and quality criteria or select equipment that can be cost-effectively retrofitted as well as cost-effectively integrated with the other equipment on the processing line. To do so, consider the following questions.
How High is the Bar? Many food processors are raising the bar on their safety and quality criteria for equipment, including Category 3 safety circuits and guarding on rotating fillers. Components such as these were not in the equipment specifications even a few years ago. Many are adopting the Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000-Level 3 standards developed by the SQF Institute, and more stringent criteria for methods of construction to facilitate ease of cleaning, including well designed clean-in-place (CIP) systems. For this reason, it is important that the equipment selected be capable—through retrofitting if necessary—of meeting the safety standards set by the industry going forward.
How Old is the Equipment? Age and type are the primary factors in food processors’ selection of used equipment. For simple equipment, such as tanks and blending vessels, used equipment that is 10 to 15 years old usually meets current quality criteria, provided that the materials of construction meet the project needs and provided that there is no evidence of corrosion due to poor sanitation or attack on the welds by high-acid or high-sodium ingredients. Used cookers/retorts and fillers are often acceptable since, other than guarding, there have not been significant changes in technology in the last 20 years.
On the other hand, used computer-based equipment is often not a good candidate because it rapidly becomes obsolete—often within less than five years—as newer models are introduced with increased speed, capability, and functionality. Examples include personal computers, programmable logic controllers, and human-machine interfaces.
Does the Source Have a Track Record? To ensure quality with productivity, many companies have purchase agreements with preferred vendors, including used equipment dealers. Although they may be reluctant to add new vendors to their accounting system, it is critically important to assess the source in light of all project success criteria. The benefits to a fast-track project of obtaining good used equipment usually outweigh the effort needed to add a new vendor to the accounting database.
More Buying Questions.
- Does the used equipment already meet current quality design specifications, or can it be upgraded to current standards easily and cost-effectively?
- If it passes the quality hurdle, can the used equipment perform at the expected production throughput speed?
- Does the used equipment have a remaining life expectancy that meets the goals of the project?
Criteria for Success. Before a food processor can write specifications for the purchase of any equipment, the owner must define the criteria for safety, quality, productivity, and project schedule. This should be a team effort that includes quality operations and engineering managers, as well as subject matter experts for particular processes, such as packaging.
Each success criterion should have measurable attributes that can be used to assess used equipment. The criteria and attributes guide the owner when writing the request for a proposal. Top industry leaders use a Best Value Options Analysis to compare available equipment for safety, quality, reliability, and maintainability. Some companies have made their best practice guidelines available for purchase, such as vertical startup methodologies used by global manufacturing companies.
Evaluating for Retrofit Success. After locating suitable equipment, confirm that the retrofit will be economically viable and, following that, determine which party is best equipped to carry out equipment changes. The final steps include updating control panels as necessary and performance testing the retrofitted devices to ensure they conform to all standards and expectations originally specified.
Used equipment normally requires retrofitting to meet safety or quality criteria, or both. Determine whether the capital savings of purchasing the used equipment over purchasing new equipment will be sufficient to cover the upgrades needed to meet safety and quality standards.
In some cases, it’s adequate for the initial assessment to have the vendor send photos of the equipment under consideration. Other cases require sending a team or representative to the vendor’s site to assess equipment in person.
If the used equipment passes the first retrofit test, determine whether the seller can make the required upgrades. If not, the second alternative is to send a request for proposal to the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to refurbish/upgrade the used equipment to bring it up to the new standards. If the OEM has a new model of the equipment, request the specs on the new model and a quote for the cost of upgrading the used equipment to the standards based on success criteria. Once the OEM agrees to perform the upgrade, a warranty on the equipment should be provided. As a third alternative, an in-house group can refurbish the used equipment.
Used equipment must be integrated into an overall control scheme for the production. If the used equipment includes a control panel that is outdated or does not match the receiving plant’s standard brand, the upgrade can be expensive. The upgrade should also be one that can be maintained by the plant and one with an acceptable life expectancy.
As listed above, options for upgrading the control panel include having the upgrade performed by the seller, by the OEM (preferable), or by a control panel shop that can swap out the old controls for new. Lastly, equipment integration requires adapting overall line controls to manage the flow from one operation to another.
Many food processors are incorporating a CIP system into equipment to clean piping and tanks, whether for a new system or for a retrofit of an existing system. In this case, the retrofitted equipment must be cleanable with a CIP skid as opposed to hose and hand scrubbing. Modifications to tanks may be required to eliminate “shadows” created by agitators and pipe penetrations and nozzles that leave debris or film that would be missed by the spray balls. Moreover, open-top tanks need to have domed tops added to protect surfaces outside the tank from overspray.
Acceptance testing, the final step, sometimes gets overlooked in a fast-track project in the rush to get the line up and running. The best practice is a risk evaluation before the equipment is shipped to the plant. If it is a tank, ask the vendor to send photos. If it is a filler, be well advised to send production and maintenance teams to go through a factory acceptance test and require the vendor to run it at production conditions. If other factors don’t allow for performance testing at the vendor site, a site-acceptance test (running the test at production conditions) can still be performed in lieu of a factory-acceptance test.
Saving Time, Trouble, and Money. If you need help navigating this process, select a process engineering consultant that offers added value. Evaluate firms for their history with various OEMs and other vendors, and ability to leverage these relationships as the project team evaluates the option of used equipment versus new.
When considering used versus new equipment, a food processor must always balance total purchase price, delivery schedule, potential increased maintenance costs, and increased risk of purchasing. If the risks are properly managed, used equipment can yield significant savings in capital and time while still complying with current safety and quality criteria.
Gerken, a senior project manager at SSOE Group, has extensive manufacturing experience in project and plant management, with a strong background in the development of improved safety, quality, and cost-reduction programs. Reach him at Ed.Gerken@ssoe.com.