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Bringing Home the (Fancy Italian) Bacon: How to Build a Next-Gen Food Plant

An Italian company wanted to put its first U.S. cured-meats factory in a Missouri college town. Stellar designed and built them a technologically advanced, highly automated facility that prioritizes employee wellbeing—and did most of the job during COVID.
By Grace Calengor
August 2, 2023
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A new Italian meats factory has opened in the United States, and from start to finish, it was a stellar project—both figuratively and literally. From design to build to ribbon cutting, the Florida-based construction group Stellar was hands-on during every aspect of this $200-million, 310,000-square-foot facility for Principe Foods, an operating company within the newly rebranded Swift Prepared Foods—whose legal name is Plumrose USA—which was acquired by JBS USA in 2017.

As a company that specializes in design-build work, Stellar had already completed several other food plant projects in the past. That made Principe’s food-processing plant in Columbia, Missouri, a particularly good fit. “Many years ago, we had done work for Plumrose, which is now owned by JBS,” says Mike Davis Jr., Stellar’s senior vice president of construction for food and beverage. “We have also worked for other entities that JBS owns. We have worked in Missouri in the past—Joplin, Springfield and, five years prior to this project, Columbia.”

But Davis and his team had never worked for JBS in Missouri during a global pandemic.

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

Principe started in Italy before expanding to Japan and Australia and then setting its sights on the United States, where Columbia isn’t as random a site selection as it might seem. “Columbia, Missouri, was chosen for the new facility for numerous reasons,” says Janelle Higgins, vice president of marketing and communications for Missouri Partnership, a public–private economic development organization, “including its strategic location, business-friendly environment and an ability to easily access raw materials and leverage synergies with the city’s existing assets. Columbia also houses the state’s flagship college, University of Missouri, giving Swift Prepared Foods access to top-tier talent.”

The Show-Me State is already home to a Swift Prepared Foods bacon manufacturing facility, which opened in nearby Moberly, Missouri, in 2021. Together, the two factories have created more than 400 jobs for the area. Following a land search for the site of the Principe factory conducted in August 2020, Swift issued a request for proposal, to which Stellar responded quickly. The conceptual design process began in August 2020, with the physical building design process kicking off in January 2021; Stellar broke ground on the project that May.

It was a challenging time to be launching such an ambitious job. “We started off with Swift’s schedule goals in place, and shortly after, the supply chain and COVID-19 were affecting lead times on many things, like steel,” Davis says. “Supply-chain issues hit harder in 2022, and we had to push the end back about two months because of critical infrastructure—like electrical—delays from overseas.” While the Stellar team had previously completed other projects during the pandemic and overcome certain challenging aspects of COVID-19, Davis says they still had “to react to and overcome challenges you would normally have during a project."

There were challenges to overcome on the civic side of the project as well. “Coordination and communication between local, regional and state officials in an economic development project are always crucial to the project’s success,” Higgins says. “Our collaborative approach to every project in Missouri maximizes the company’s potential and fosters a unified effort toward economic growth and development.”

FACTORY OF DREAMS

In a facility of just over 300,000 square feet, Stellar’s design team had lots of space to work with—but every square foot of it was meticulously planned out to optimize productivity and employee experience. The pepperoni, prosciutto, salami and other dried meats that the Principe factory would produce require a lot of time and attention. That’s why the facility would be equipped with 27 drying and salting rooms; several fermenting rooms; multiple utilities, including refrigeration and steam; state-of-the-art technology, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and gantry robots; and specially designed areas for employees.

“This project is quite elaborate in an interstitial space,” says Stellar project executive Jim Oko. “It took a lot of planning. We designed, modeled and coordinated all process and building aspects in 3D. Principe procured curing and drying technology from Germany, which we incorporated into our design. We pre-planned and incorporated steel rails into the structural design to allow us to hoist and transport the components of the 27 drying and salting rooms into position. We thought ahead and had a plan in place. We overcame all budget and timeline issues. We successfully navigated and executed the project by overcommunicating and being transparent regarding all costs and adversity that we faced. It was a pure collaborative effort to give the customer the design and operation they were looking for.”

With a design intended to both leverage technology and cater to its employees, the Principe factory’s meat-drying harmonizes human and machine like this: Once raw food materials are received, inspected and loaded into stainless-steel containers, the system is automated—analyzing what the different raw materials are inline prior to pre-grinding and blending. The final recipe exits the blending operation and continues its automated path to the stuffing, forming and inline final grinding processes. The products are then transferred to a robotic gantry system, where they are automatically picked and hung on various levels of 17-foot-high racks. The gantry system is able to load numerous rack positions at a time utilizing vertical space. From there, AGVs engage the racks of meat products and transport them to fermenting rooms prior to salting and/or drying rooms, where the product will complete the dry-curing process. AGVs eliminate the need for manually operated forklifts; their control system tracks each rack and its position throughout the entire process and uploads the information to Principe’s shop-floor systems.

After curing, the meats are manually or automatically peeled and either packaged straightaway or transported as work in progress (WIP) to the automated slicing and packaging lines. “What you’ll see in many traditional plants is that their process lines are disconnected, whereas we designed this facility and its processes to be interconnected and flow seamlessly,” Oko says. “We worked to make sure products move throughout the plant efficiently, from manufacturing to packaging, using strategic equipment layout and technology, including AGVs, gantry robots and conveyor belts. To support the facility’s inventory control, we also incorporated a refrigerated ‘work in progress’ step between peeling, slicing and packaging.”

Oko continues: “The system is automated from the point you bring the raw materials in until the point they are peeled. There are machine operators, of course, and machine checks they have to run. Meat products will always have an element of human factor because of the nature of the product, but it is vastly reduced by the automation we have installed.”

While the facility does use technology to eliminate a certain amount of manual labor, it also prioritizes the wellbeing of human workers. “The owner wanted to place a lot of value on employees—ergonomics, comfort and anything that would benefit the wellness of employees while working in refrigerated facilities,” Davis says. “It was important to Swift to provide nice break areas throughout the facility that were warm and didn’t require a lot of walking.”

Stellar designed and constructed two distinct employee welfare areas, strategically placed on opposite sides of the facility. This deliberate separation effectively ensured a clear demarcation between personnel working on the raw materials side and those involved in the production of ready-to-eat (RTE) products on the west side of the building.

The plant’s design also includes space for a 50,000 square-foot expansion, which likely won’t happen until at least 2024. With room for more lines that Principe can grow into, plus an additional building that would be fitted with more fermenting, drying and slicing capabilities, the plant is poised to introduce Principe to the refrigerators, pantries and charcuterie boards of America. “We planned it for an expansion, but the entire design was pioneered by Principe as a ‘Field of Dreams’—build it and they will come,” Oko says. “It was their strategic plan to grow the customer and product base.”

Part of Principe’s plan to grow its U.S. customer base is an Italian café–inspired show kitchen—located within the RTE employee welfare area—where consumers, business partners, chefs, food scientists and other visitors can taste-test the company’s meats. “We worked with Principe to create a space to bring in new clients and test out their products, generate new ideas and showcase the ones they have,” Davis says. “To include the show kitchen was Principe’s ideas, then we designed it with flexibility for them to use the space however they want. It is completed with a bar area, a conference area and plenty of comfortable seating.”

PAST IS PROLOGUE

With so many components requiring so much attention to detail, all in the midst of a global pandemic, the Stellar team was all-hands-on-deck for the duration of the project. Nearly 100 people—from designers to engineers to managers to marketers—worked to bring the facility to fruition.

From the beginning design stages to the factory’s official grand opening on April 6, 2023, there were many memorable moments. Davis recalls those early phases as some of his favorite. “I always like completion,” he says, “but the early stages of stepping onto a site with rolling hills and nothing there and you think about what is going to be there in 20 months, it is humbling.”

Oko similarly reminisces on the early days, but really basks in the project’s punctuation. “I like starting with the team from a white piece of paper in the creation of the design, but I love the whole thing,” Oko says. “I do like when it all comes together and you see the dream come true and the first product comes off the line. I get a rush doing that, seeing that, being a part of it. It is very rewarding. A true team effort.”

And the rewards will continue to abound throughout Missouri. Projects like this not only encourage a competitive construction market and create new jobs, but they also highlight great places to build, work and live. “Principe Foods’ competitive salaries will attract top-tier talent to the Columbia community, while also helping native Missourians continue to build a life here in our state,” Higgins says. “This new facility will further strengthen Missouri’s position as a national leader in the food and agricultural sector. With more and more respected companies like Swift Prepared Foods choosing to invest in Missouri, we anticipate companies from around the world will continue to see the benefits of doing business here. Boone County is one of our fastest-growing counties, and thanks to its highly skilled workforce and proximity to top-tier colleges and universities, we anticipate more new jobs and projects to come down the pipeline.”

While it is not the largest, this project stands as one of the larger and more unique installations undertaken by the design-build group, solidifying Stellar’s position for even grander jobs ahead. “We are very honored and proud to work for Swift and Principe,” Davis says, “and look forward to doing more work with them in the future.”

by Grace Calengor
Grace Calengor is associate editor of Construction Executive.

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