KANSAS CITY -- The decision to build a new dairy processing facility is an opportunity to design a plant suited to specific needs for a company. A well-designed plant must facilitate production operations, minimize material handling and maintain flexibility of the operation for alteration and expansion.

The requirement of utilities such as water, refrigeration, electricity, etc. is carefully estimated while planning a dairy plant. The design depends on capacity, product mix, size of equipment, workspace to be kept and future expansion requirements. There is no one blueprint for the design of a dairy processing facility; it varies from plant-to-plant.

“The first thing ... more than design and construction, is really the process,” said Forrest McNabb, president of the National Food and Beverage Group for Big-D Construction, Ogden, Utah. “All of the builds and design of plants solely revolve around the processing. So, until the processing is identified and laid out, everything else is secondary to that.”



The starting point for any facility is identifying what regulations and guidelines apply to the build, starting with the federal or government regulations. The key one being the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), but also include PMO, the pasteurized milk ordinates, and 3-A Sanitary Standards, among others. Producing dairy products that meet dairy and cheese standards with 3-A components and PMO-compliant practices are crucial for manufacturing safe and high-quality products. These regulations don’t layout how exactly to design a plant, but rather provide the guidelines.

“You want to make sure that you really keep track of the local and state guidelines,” said Greg Marconnet, vice president of the food and beverage group at Mead and Hunt, an architectural engineering company based in Madison, Wis., which designs food plants. “Some of them vary just a little bit, but it’s important to know that before you start designing your plant.”

Simply making the decision about where the site acquisition lies and how it affects the operation of the plant has an immediate impact on the future of the operation. 

A green field site gives a company the option to build a new facility on empty space. A brown field site, however, might already contain buildings on it making it necessary to work within the those parameters and try to take advantage of the setup, where possible. 

“The optimum build out of the project is what will the site accommodate, so the entire journey of the design and construction process has to be based on a master plan,” McNabb said. “What do you want this thing to look like five years down the road, 10 years down the road? You want to have the long-term approach to designing it.”

For example, when considering the size of the industrial fluid waste going out of a building – were the lines sized properly to accommodate all the future expansions, not just the current setup? If decisions are made properly by the entire team in those types of situations, they can move forward and not have to go backwards before considering growing the business.



The design of dairy facilities presents challenges unique to the dairy industry. The sanitation requirements of these plants typically encompass both internal surfaces and external surfaces. Most piping, pumps, valves and equipment also need to be capable of clean-in-place (CIP) sanitation. Moreover, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also requires specific types of dairy equipment meet the 3-A Sanitary Standards. The rooms in which processing takes place must also be able to withstand the rigors of heavy sanitation. Cultured-product plants and cheese plants have acidic byproducts that piping, floors and drains must be able to tolerate. 

 “A dairy plant receives some regular and pretty harsh sanitation, and so a lot of the thinking has to go in to how to provide a design that is maintainable and durable in the conditions that they have to work in,” Marconnet said. “It’s very, very tough on a food plant and especially a dairy plant, so the caustics and the acids, chlorines, all have to be considered when you’re selecting materials. So, a lot of thought has to be put into a carefully selecting materials and the design.”

The dairy industry’s hygiene requirements and zoning of plants requires that internal surfaces are designed to be easily cleanable and easily maintained.

No one that is a part of the building process is exempt from adhering to food safety regulations and guidelines set forth in FSMA, McNabb said. It’s very important that all the team members, whether it’s the owners, design team, sub-contractors and any other consultants involved with the construction are aware of what those guidelines are. 

“The day we start construction on a plant, is the day you inject GMP (good manufacturing practice),” McNabb said. “Implementing GMP and regulatory requirements that are going to be required to operate the plant in a high sanitation manner really have to happen well into construction.”

Dairy is a very aggressive product and it can do a lot of damage to floors and walls of a plant. One of the biggest things to consider is how the facility is being cleaned and ensuring those responsible for cleaning the plant understand the chemicals and the mixtures they’re using in order to avoid damage to the finishes, in order to maintain the facility. 

“It’s really about building a top-level facility and then transitioning into operations and making sure that everybody coming on board is trained in the process,” said McNabb. “When we build dairy processing facilities, it’s like a high-end racecar, and you have to have somebody that can take that high-end racecar and actually get it to perform on the track.”



Dairy processing facilities are split into four zones, ranging from zones with a product contact surface to zones in areas outside of a processing zone, each having varying hygienic and sanitation requirements.

“One of the first things we do on the 2D image is identify the zone so everybody clearly understands the sanitary zone that we’re in and that drives the sanitary design of that room,” Marconnet said. “The HVAC in that room, the floor drains ... that’s absolutely critical to understand what’s going on in that room.”

Many companies use CAD (computer assisted design) systems to look at layouts and flow in the plant when it’s being designed. Those simulations provide valuable insight.

“One of the things that’s paramount is doing virtual construction,” McNabb said. “Being able to have all parties look at it and see how the walls interact with the ceilings, how the process equipment interacts with the building ... to see what the plant really looks like and how it’s going to flow. It’s almost like saying, ‘here’s the future, you can see it.’ That is a powerful tool.”

Marconnet agrees that there is value in virtual simulations, but warns they’re not a ‘silver bullet’ in the design process.

“You have to ask questions ... and make sure you understand the flow of the product,” he said. “So if you had just a building plan without the equipment in it, you may not understand the use of that room and you might over-design or under-design, so it’s really important that you understand what’s going on in that room and how it need to be designed.

“That’s always the balance that the processors have is to not over-capitalizing their plan, yet having the good sanitary design that they need so they can meet the regulatory requirements.”



A new facility is often designed to take account of potential future expansion and to optimize the space available. There are instances in projects where additional expansions are planned into the initial design and the basic sanitary design review is done to make sure that the design can support it.

“Almost everyone that we work with wants to think a little bit about expansion,” Marconnet said. “But sometimes there’s a real rush to get into production, and they’ve got a space and they’re like, ‘just remodel it and we’ll figure it out later.’”

McNabb said that having all parties vested in the project from Day 1 is crucial to a company’s long-term masterplan, leaving plenty of opportunity for growth in the future.

“Every decision we make is long-term play, not short-term play,” McNabb said. “Making sure that the decisions we’re making through that design side are not short-sighted and cause impacts to operations and cost decisions that become punitive down the road."

This story is featured in the September issue of Dairy Processing.