In Food Manufacturing, Throughput Is King

Feb 7, 2019 | Food Processing & Packaging

Throughput, throughput, throughput. It’s the food industry’s version of “location, location, location.”

If you look at the big trends in food manufacturing today — like automation, digitalization, and efficiency improvements — you’ll see that they’re ultimately ways to increase throughput.

We’re not just saying this because we believe throughput is the most important metric for assessing the quality of your production line. Industry research backs it up. Let’s look briefly at the last five years of results of Food Engineering’s State of Food Manufacturing Survey to see how the drive toward increasing throughput has been steadily building — and how processors are accomplishing this goal.

State of Food Manufacturing 2014

Wow, that feels like a long time ago!

Production has always been important, but prior to 2014, the industry was widely focused on food safety and meeting the requirements of FSMA. In 2014, that balance started to shift back to increasing productivity.

In his article summarizing the results, Wayne Labs wrote: “Assuming processors have a handle on food safety, the next challenge is getting high-quality products out the door faster than competitors, which becomes more difficult as equipment ages. Consequently, processors are concentrating on automation and lean manufacturing to meet rapidly shifting consumer demands.”

That year, 58% of processors expected to increase their single-location throughput an average of 14.4%, thanks to:

  • Increased sales
  • More new product offerings
  • Business growth
  • Increased demand
  • New, higher-throughput equipment

Keeping up with — or gaining an edge over — the competition was a major theme as well. Processors noted that production problems often lead to increased demand for a competitors’ products.

State of Food Manufacturing 2015

In 2015, throughput unapologetically took center stage. It’s even in the summary article title: “The State of Food Manufacturing: It’s all about throughput.”

That year, processors reported needing increased throughput because of new products and lines. The number of processors expecting to increase their single-location throughput jumped to 71%, and on average they expected that increase to be 14%, with automation being the key force.

Factors driving higher throughput included:

  • Increase in consumer demand
  • Accompanying increase in sales
  • More and new customers
  • Equipment improvements
  • Increased efficiencies
  • More/better marketing
  • Expansions to accommodate additional demand
  • Picking up competitors’ customers

Notice the trends here, particularly that last one: when a company’s plants have problems, their customers seek out the competition.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of increasing throughput was not having enough space. Keep this in mind — we’ll come back to it later.

State of Food Manufacturing 2016

The subheading in 2016 was: “Good news: Sales are up. Bad news: That means more pressure from consumers, and increasing output.”

Sales continued to grow that year, as did new products and consumer demand. Demand in emerging markets and the growth of previously niche products (e.g., non-GMO, allergen-free) also led to the need to increase throughput. To meet these demands, processors expanded their plants to increase manufacturing space (thus removing the biggest obstacle of 2015) and also invested in more automation and new equipment.

While the percentage of processors expecting a single-location throughput increase was down from the year before (57% compared to 71%), it was still the majority. And, once again, their target increase was 14% on average.

State of Food Manufacturing 2017

In 2017, only 50% of processors expected their single-location throughput to increase, but they were counting on a greater increase of 16%. Business growth, new products, and increasing consumer demand were the top drivers.

Once again, automation was the most influential trend. Processors were also looking to increase throughput via productivity initiatives, including:

  • Continuous improvement strategies —  including lean manufacturing
  • Opportunities to grow — i.e., equipment upgrades, skills training, better maintenance systems and supply chain management, and improving communication
  • Working with employees — improving training programs
  • Improving packaging operations — more than 40% of respondents sought to improve throughput in packaging, via upgrading equipment, and operator training, and faster changeovers

Overall, the results suggest that, in 2017, processors took a slightly different approach to increasing throughput. Instead of expanding plants and adding new lines, they sought to improve operations within their current footprint.

State of Food Manufacturing 2018

So, where are we now?

In the 2018 survey, which assessed expectations for 2019, 61% of processors said they anticipate single-location throughput growth, and more than half expect that growth to be more than 10%.

Once again, the most common reason is increased sales, followed by consumer demand, new products, efficiency, and location expansion.

And, once again, automation is the key trend processors are relying on to drive this increase. More than half (55%) of processors think automation/robotics/AI will have the most impact on manufacturing operations over the next 5 years. The next closest is efficiency/maintenance/new equipment, which came in at a distant 15%.


Overall, the results of the past five years show that throughput is where it’s at. Demand continues to grow, and as it does, food manufacturers need to increase their throughput or risk having their customers stolen by the competition. At the same time, expansion isn’t always possible, and companies are starting to look more closely at how to increase production within their current facilities.

One underutilized tool for doing exactly that is accumulation. Essentially, accumulation means adding buffers around the constraints in your production line so that when one machine goes down, it doesn’t take the whole line down with it.

Not only can this instantly increase your throughput, but the results can be huge. Forget the 14-16% improvements processors were looking for in the surveys — we routinely see gains of 20-30%, and up to 60% is not unheard of. Think what a difference that would make for your location! Best of all, our accumulators come in many shapes and sizes, so you can realize these gains without having to expand your footprint.

To learn more about how accumulation can boost your throughput, watch this short video. To discover how much you can save in your facility, request a free line analysis or use our online line efficiency calculator.