What is GEA Food Solutions doing in food processing to prepare for the future?

Ann Cuylaerts: If you look at some of the biggest challenges we have ahead of us as a business unit – coinciding with the strategy that we derive from our overall company vision and mission – the primary one is in speeding up the innovation that really matters to our customers and can bring value to them in areas such as sustainability and digitalization.

That requires us to have shorter innovation cycles, so we need smaller teams that can work in a really dedicated, agile and focused way in order to bring innovation more quickly to the market.

So, we have started a pilot project where we work according to the principles of a ‘Squad’. These Squads are small teams featuring members of different disciplines with different skillsets. They get a clear mandate and take on full responsibility, working on a very ambitious goal to bring a new innovation to the market within approximately one year. We get them to really focus on performance rather than ‘what we normally do’ within the different process steps of an innovation project.

The Squad approach has been used very successfully by advanced digital technology companies, such as Spotify who, like us, focus on the speed of innovation. Digitally-focused agile teams working with, perhaps a little bit more freedom from that of a traditional organization, can think outside of the box. That can lead to significant benefits to our customers.

What are the most significant challenges the industry is facing and how are they affecting your customers?

Ann Cuylaerts: The biggest challenge customers across the whole of the industry have ahead is: ‘How can we become more sustainable?’ Most of our customers are significantly active in the meat industry, where sustainability is a huge topic. As a supplier to them, we need to help them to become more sustainable. Their challenge is also our challenge.

GEA’s division for Corporate Responsibility and Quality, Health, Safety & Environment (QHSE) has announced some ambitious targets to reduce the company’s CO2 footprint by 50% by 2040. So, we need to respond quickly, knowing that the machinery we manufacture is made of stainless steel – a finite resource – and can consume a lot of energy. The topic of sustainability has come into a clear focus for everyone and must be addressed.

What are the major headwinds facing the food industry globally in light of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Ann Cuylaerts: If we look at the industry as a total, we see a mixed picture. Covid-19 challenged our customers. A large part of our customers-base is very dependent on the foodservice sector, so they were heavily affected by the pandemic, because a lot of business and industry work canteens and fast-food restaurants were closed for almost a year, worldwide. That side of the industry suffered significantly, but the other part of the business we serve supplies the retail market and that aspect still did well during the pandemic.

We saw some of our Greenfield projects [a completely new project that is executed from scratch] related to the foodservice sector impacted, because our customers were struggling, but that impact has all been related to the relative sentiment in the market. In November 2020, our order intake soared after the first vaccines were approved and the whole market exploded again with the euphoria of restaurants re-opening when people started to get mass-vaccinated globally after April 2021. We had to speed up our supply chain very rapidly to execute the tsunami of order intake we received. We are also not immune to the market challenge everyone is facing of sourcing materials, such as stainless steel, semiconductors, rubber, plastics and even wood for some of the packaging in end-products. These are just some of the extreme challenges the whole industry faced in the past 18 months.

How can more innovative food processing solutions help to mitigate against those specific challenges?

Ann Cuylaerts: We can support our customers in solving challenges – such as a scarcity in the labor market – with automation. GEA operates primarily in the further processing aspect of the industry, which is typically less labor intensive and requires a different level of workforce in the factories than the primary processing side of the market, which is very labor-intensive, but it is still a topic that keeps us busy as we focus on increasingly automizing our complete process solutions.

We can also contribute by supporting our customers in reducing and preventing waste and the usage of raw materials. For example, through the use of sensors we can get more accurate measurements and use data to optimize processes in the way we operate our machines. That’s an important step because we can use these measurements and data to reduce energy consumption.

We can also help our customers to reduce their oil usage. One of our products is the GEA EasyFry, a modular fryer used for frying chicken nuggets or other coated food products, which offers increased belt speed, enhanced food safety, improved sanitation and has highly effective sediment removal. It simplifies the operation and gives users an extremely fast change-over time. This product, in combination with GEA’s oil management system, enables our customers to prolong the use of their oil and reduce waste, which also helps with their sustainability efforts.

How are the latest food processing technologies from GEA able to help your customers to ‘future-proof’ their operations?

Ann Cuylaerts: By collecting more data and self-optimizing our machines with more digital applications for our customers we can support their challenge to reduce energy use and waste.

For example, we can automate certain functions in the new CookStar 1000 Gen 3 industrial spiral oven, the latest model of GEA’s CookStar – the only industrial spiral oven that can dry, steam, cook, roast or smoke products in one machine. We achieved that by looking much more intuitively at the production process and seeing how we can you minimize waste, energy usage and optimize the results.

How are GEA’s Technology Centers being used by potential customers to develop and scale up new products?

Ann Cuylaerts: We consider our Technology Centers to be one of our best sales tools. If you look at the number of customers using them and the type of tests we are doing, there is already a big shift away from traditional chicken, pork and fish products towards meat replacement products. I would estimate that one third of the tests we are conducting with new foods at the Technology Centers are with meat replacement products.

We can also add value for our customers through the Centers. Firstly, because we have very experienced food technologists who can support customers to work on their recipes, but we also work together with companies who specialize in delivering food ingredients to help prepare the mixes and optimize the taste and the structure. So, it’s a powerful tool for our customers to test all of the possibilities of their products, our machines and their combination together.

If you look at the countries who make the most use of our tests Centers, they have the highest market penetration. It’s as simple as that. In using the Centers, there’s a really one-on-one relationship when experimenting together with our customers. And it’s not only our customers that learn from using the Centers, of course. We also get smarter from the experience, the more we try things together.

Even during the pandemic, we have been very busy at the Technology Centers, performing remote testing for our customers. We found a formula for remote testing that achieved great results for customers.

Finally, our US Technology Center in Frisco, Texas, is also being updated, with the work on that being completed before the end of the year.

How do you foster a culture of innovation at GEA Food Solutions?

Ann Cuylaerts: We are really gearing the organization up to put innovation even closer to the center of what we do. Why? Because we think the challenges ahead are really substantial and that speed of innovation will make a difference.

If we look at, for example, alternative ways in which heat can be generated in a cooker: if we can find an alternative way for doing that, which can help our customer save 30 or 40% energy, then that could be so powerful – a gamechanger in the industry. So, that is why we’re investing in more development engineering – not only mechanical, but also automation, digitalization and sensoring engineering. All of these disciplines will be of utmost importance for the industry in the coming years – and decades.

The organization is increasingly looking to attract a new type of engineering profile and a new way thinking from employees, compared to, say, 10 years ago. We are no longer focusing only on mechanical engineering. We need much more than that.

What great innovation strides do you think will be made in the next five years?

Ann Cuylaerts: I am certainly positive for the future of food processing. Of course, our industry has challenges in areas such as the reduction of meat consumption and various sustainability topics. On the other hand, we are also seeing a lot of Greenfield investment being done in meat alternatives, which, as a supplier, gives us an opportunity to grow together with that market segment. We are adjusting our machines so they can cope with these new products.

The main drivers of change in the coming five years are really in how we can reduce energy consumption in heating, frying and grinding products. All these materials use a lot of electricity and gas, so a lot of innovation will take place around these areas.

GEA’s inline smoking solutions are also a great example of innovation that can help our customers to reduce space and increase the health and safety conditions for their employees. Instead of the traditional batch process, with GEA’s SuperHeatSmoke, customers can smoke inline faster, cleaner, healthier and in an automated, continuous way. The latest innovations on the third-generation GEA CookStars enable our customers to smoke chicken, bacon, spare ribs or smoked fish inline, on an industrial scale.

Where do you see synergies between food processing and food packaging technology within GEA?

Ann Cuylaerts: Customers can have everything in one offering with GEA. For example, today we are already selling complete process lines for chicken nuggets –all the way through the processing, to freezing and packaging. We can offer everything in one hand. For certain customers, especially those in emerging markets and for Greenfield sites, this is a major plus.

Further information: gea.com