(March 2) To hear Tom Williams tell it, the field of facility design sounds a lot like the real estate industry.

Only instead of “location, location, location” being the three most important things, in facility design, they’re “planning, planning, planning.”

“Everybody who has a problem with a facility tells us, ‘We didn’t plan enough,’” said Williams, director of business development in the Newport Beach, Calif., office of The Facility Group, Smyrna, Ga. “We plan, plan, plan, plan and plan, and then we execute.”

It may sound obvious, figuring out what you’re going to do before you actually do it. But Williams has seen case after case in which a construction project changed directions many times after it was started because of poor planning.

In fact, in fresh produce facilities built in the past several years, he estimates that 10% of the eventual costs of the project were due to change orders — tasks that popped up midconstruction that hadn’t been planned.

That’s not The Facility Group way, Williams said.

Before a spadeful of dirt on a new facility has been turned or an existing packinghouse retooled, the company presents its clients with a guaranteed cost and a guaranteed end date, he said. Then every two weeks, The Facility Group provides its client with a written update on the project’s status.

What allows The Facility Group to control the design and building process with such precision is not only its extensive planning but also its status as a “turnkey” company. A turnkey company is one that controls every aspect of the process.

The people who will actually build the new facility or transform an existing one, for instance, are on board from the beginning, working on the design with the project’s architects and engineers.

When it’s not done that way, Williams said — when the construction management team doesn’t see the blueprints until the design team’s done with them — it’s not uncommon for the construction managers to tack on another $1 million in change orders the first day work begins.

With that level of control and that commitment to proper planning, turnkey companies like The Facility Group can deliver their projects on time in not much time.

The company recently completed a 650,000-square-foot citrus packinghouse in Florida. From the time hands were shaken on the deal to the time it opened for business was 10 months.

In terms of what customers are looking for in new packinghouses or redesigns, and in terms of what The Facility Group recommends, food safety, automation and room to grow are at the top of the list, Williams said.

Williams sees The Facility Group as ideally positioned for that increasingly regulated work environment. That’s because the company also builds facilities for meatpackers, and the meat industry has been regulated for years.

MORE STAINLESS

One food safety trend Kim Snowden, owner of Snowden Engineering, Salinas, Calif., has noticed in facility design is the replacement of carbon steel with stainless steel, a more expensive option. With stainless steel, Snowden said, companies don’t have to worry about rust and the need to paint.

As real as the concerns about carbon steel are, image is a big part of it, too, Snowden said.

“It has a lot to do with the perception of buyers,” she said.

The key to food safety is traceability, Williams said. That will be made easier by the adoption of radio frequency identification technology, he said. Williams predicts that “pretty soon,” all produce packinghouses will be equipped with RFID readers.

He disagrees with the naysayers who are turning to bar code technology and other alternatives while they wait for RFID to leap a generation or two.

“If you would have asked me three years ago, I would have said, ‘Yeah, it could be awhile,’” Williams said. “But there have been so many technological gains in those three years. The cost of RFID tags has gone from several dollars apiece to 15 cents apiece.”

MORE AUTOMATION

Williams has another prediction: Packinghouses will continue to become more and more automated.

Part of the allure of automation is labor shortages, Williams said. While California grower-shippers may be able to scrape up enough labor to pick the crop, they have a harder time filling all the positions in the packinghouse, he said.

Snowden was sampling an Australian chardonnay recently with a California vintner who told her that because of labor shortages, the Australian wine industry was far more automated than the California industry. Snowden noted that the wine tasted good and was affordable. She saw that as a possible forecast of a movement toward greater automation in California as labor shortages there become more pronounced.

One recent advance in automated packinghouses is the ability to use equipment from different suppliers, Williams said.

“The new software allows these different manufacturers’ machines to talk to each other,” he said.

That’s an improvement over the past, when a company had to buy all its machinery from one supplier, even if that supplier was great at one thing but terrible at another.

When The Facility Group designs a new building, it does so with one eye focused on its client’s immediate needs, and the other on needs it may not have anticipated.

“We always design for future growth,” he said.

That means more than just building on a site bigger than the facility’s footprint. The Facility Group figures out which side of the building an annex will one day be built on, then pours extra footings there for the day when it’s built. The company also consults with local government planners, contractors and others to make sure the area to be expanded into is appropriate.

For more companies, “room to grow” applies to more than just buildings, Williams said.

“We’re doing some advanced long-term master plans for customers,” he said. “With these plans, companies have a blueprint for how to grow over the next 20 years.”