Facility Operations: More Than a Wall
Temperature control and energy savings are critical whenever material handling has anything to do with food. That’s why decision makers in the food distribution arena constantly reconfigure warehouse, cooler and freezer spaces.
On the downside, facility makeovers often mean costly, time-consuming construction projects involving permanent walls or rigid panelized systems.
However, there’s another option: flexible fabric curtain walls. The name says it all. These versatile structures can be used for just about any purpose. Here are 11 of the most common applications.
1. Create temperature-controlled rooms. Flexible, insulated fabric walls can be mounted to existing ceiling structures or built with a framework. They provide a cost-effective and relatively fast way to create temperature-controlled rooms for separating raw ingredients or end products and storing them in proper environmental conditions.
2. Subdivide freezer and cooler space. Install insulated fabric walls to store product at the proper temperature in walk-in coolers and freezers. One section of a freezer can be partitioned off to keep ice cream at -20°F, while other frozen products can be stored separately at higher temperatures. Importantly, the freezer doesn’t have to work overtime to keep only one product at an ultra-low temperature. That results in significant energy savings. Some flexible fabric wall systems offer 40°F temperature separation, allowing certain items to be stored at 45°F on one side and frozen products at 5°F on the other side.
3. Make an entryway. Cold-storage facilities often struggle with frost buildup at door openings. Insulated fabric walls create entryways from one side of a door opening to the other. The vestibule allows for gradual temperature changes, eliminating drastic fluctuations that create frost.
4. Contain odors. Install flexible fabric walls to prevent unwanted odors from one ingredient or finished product from penetrating another. This practice also adds to employee comfort; the walls keep harsh odors from reaching people working in production and/or storage areas.
5. Gain control over food dust. Effectively seal off processes that involve food dust, whether from flours, cocoas, cereal ingredients or the like. Flexible fabric curtain walls limit the potential for food dust to travel, which is beneficial for a host of reasons, including safety, quality assurance and production machinery maintenance.
6. Control the environment at the loading dock. Enclose a standard dock area to stop the rapid, uncomfortable influx of cold or hot air and humidity from entering the rest of the facility every time the dock door is opened. This also helps keep unwanted vermin out, which makes for happy inspectors. Or, set apart an inside dock from the rest of the warehouse for energy savings and employee comfort. Another idea is to use heavy-duty, sliding curtain walls to turn an open-air loading dock into an interior dock.
7. Isolate washdowns. There’s no need to halt production in one area due to a washdown on another production line or process area. Instead, use movable, sliding fabric curtain walls to isolate the production line/area for cleaning, while other areas remain fully operational. Flexible fabric curtains can be constructed to USDA requirements and withstand detergent or chemical washdowns.
8. Free up valuable space. Flexible fabric walls take up less floor space than permanent walls or insulated metal panel (IPM) systems. Here’s how it works: It’s not uncommon for a permanent wall or IPM system to be as wide as 24 inches because of the need for a concrete curb on both sides of the structure to protect against lift truck impacts. Flexible fabric walls, however, are able to withstand most lift truck impacts without the catastrophic damage that occurs with permanent structures. A smaller footprint equates to more usable floor space, increased rack slots and a smaller building envelope—all of which contribute to the bottom line.
9. Better manage seasonal products. The food industry is heavily influenced by seasons, whether in terms of availability of raw ingredients or end products produced only on occasion. That’s where flexible fabric walls can be useful. They can be quickly removed and stored or moved and reconfigured as needed. That means it’s easy to alter an existing space in virtually any way for a short period and change it back again to match seasonal fluctuations.
10. Blanket door openings. Sometimes, door openings remain open when they shouldn’t. Examples include power outages and door maintenance. It’s a major problem for temperature- and humidity-sensitive operations, and direct and indirect costs are often astronomical in the food industry. The problem can be solved with flexible fabric walls, which can quickly cover an opening to maintain critical environmental controls.
11. Keep trade secrets. Yes, flexible fabric walls can keep proprietary products or processes under wraps. It’s often better to reveal them to inquisitive employees and visitors when the time is right.
Kyle Justice is a food industry specialist at Zoneworks, a sister company of Frommelt Products Corp. He has extensive experience helping companies address environmental control and product/process separation issues.