When Tippin’s, Kansas City, Kan., started production in its new facility on March 2, 2020, no one could have predicted that in just a few short weeks, the bakery would be cut off from traditional forms of support suppliers often provided during a start-up. As the bakery started running its new equipment for entire shifts full of product, the typical kinks started to reveal themselves. 

“Everything was here and installed, but we hadn’t really shaken everything out yet,” said Mark Boyer, president of Tippin’s. “Had the pandemic not occurred, the suppliers would have been here the next day, but they locked down. You can’t really blame them. You don’t want to put someone in harm’s way, but it did create monumental challenges.”

With the company’s engineering staff tied up with other responsibilities, it was difficult to divert in-house resources to work out the wrinkles. Looking back, Mr. Boyer said if the bakery had started up in January instead of March, Tippin’s would have been able to settle in before the coronavirus (COVID-19) arrived in the United States, but hindsight is 20/20.

A year later, lessons have been learned and new protocols established to safely complete installations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The main challenge COVID-19 poses to equipment installations is obvious: Installations require outside crews onsite, increasing the risk to everyone to contract the virus. The bigger the installation, the more people who need to be involved, from both the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or third-party contractors. To minimize risk of an outbreak, some companies may delay less critical installations or move forward with those that are more essential to operations.

“Delaying the project can be a valid course,” said Rowdy Brixey, president and chief executive officer of Brixey Engineering.

Equipment that requires a large capital investment upfront and has a long life expectancy are pieces that bakers do not want to install without all the experts onsite, he said. If details like leveling and alignment are not given enough attention, bakers risk losing 5 to 10 years off the equipment’s life.

“You can’t afford to learn the hard way on something like that,” Mr. Brixey warned.

He recommended prioritizing unit installations, smaller pieces of equipment that the employees have more experience with themselves, and only if the installation is necessary to keep operations running. Otherwise, it’s hard to justify the immediate risk to employee health and impact to operations.

As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, OEMs may be more available to be onsite for installations. As Mr. Boyer has experienced, though, they may not be able to hop on a plane at a moment’s notice to troubleshoot as they once did. Plants must be prepared and equipped to troubleshoot on their own or through video conferencing.

The biggest risk doesn’t necessarily come from the OEM, argued Jim Kline, president, The ENSOL Group. Third-party crews, like millwrights and electricians, can bring the greatest challenge, especially if a bakery doesn’t have employees capable of doing the installation themselves.

“The remoteness of the supplier isn’t the most difficult part; the difficult part is physically getting the work done,” Mr. Kline explained. “And there’s no good solution to this. You have to have an established relationship with the third party providing the services so you can rely on them to have done their own safeguarding against the virus.”

If an installation is absolutely necessary, it’s going to require a lot of planning up front and some standard best practices.

This article is an excerpt from the March 2021 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on remote equipment fulfillment, click here.