Not the work of refrigeration businesses, but the activity of companies that use refrigeration plants: it is a salient characteristic, a dominant note, a sommelier would say, of the process refrigeration in the food industry ambit. Without refrigeration there is no product, there is no conservation and there is no distribution. Moreover, there is no quality, no safety, the more and more important food safety, there is no conformity to the regulation, the by now consolidated HACCP
For this reason, we are starting an in-depth study on the use of cold in the productive process, precisely starting from food and its production, dealing with the theme in “critical” manner, i.e. through the witnesses of those who – with different operational orientations by applicative ambit – constitute an outstanding excellence in these issues, in Italy and not only.
We desired to speak with players who have unanimously highlighted some fundamental matters, some technical instances currently of common domain, some unsolved knotty problems but – not too strangely – all of them have substantially agreed on one factor, i.e. cold is a work tool in industrial production and then the plant is integral part of the manufacturing process and is integrated in both commercial logics (a high-quality cold grants a high-quality product) and in investment policies (we are ready to spend for a cold that gives productive certainty).
Ivano Zausa, Mario Bonera and Mario Scuderi are also the proponents of an integrated designing modality that takes important factors into account, like energy efficiency, innovation, the instances stemming from regulations and requirements (especially in the environmental protection matter) that are ever-increasing the importance of a very custom approach to any task. An approach that certainly generates costs but that at the same time is the only warranty of a tailored cold, coherent with the purchaser’s requirements and able to harmonize technological and cost variables according to the industrial targets and the specific characteristics of the processing at stake.
Moreover, another element shared by their activities is the centrality of the know how that, we daresay, is the backbone of their work: know how extremely rich in details and articulations, which identifies them as opinion leaders in their field, meanwhile perfectly highlighting a delicate element of refrigeration businesses’ market for the present and the future of the work, the training of competences that support the productive effort in a sector that is one of the feathers in the cap of the made in Italy, the food product area.
An Italian excellence that determines another excellence, the one of companies like those we are introducing you, as they offer their service to produce the quality of our food.
The food cold is not always the same …
“Is there awareness and understanding of the complexity? The food process refrigeration is a giant world and we, in Standard Tech, have been oriented for a long time to proposing our work style, which today makes us get in touch with customers who know what they need and ask for a quality that they acknowledge to our brand and to our activity.” Ivano Zausa, owner of Standard Tech, is cautious and at the same time proud of a course that starts from afar and is organized to grow much further in time. “The agribusiness universe is decisively variegated, but we can serenely state there is a more and more consistent share of players that consider quality as priority and, in this quality, refrigeration is one of the most significant components.”
“Our reference market has no geographical borders, we can operate and we operate in any area and we provide appropriate solutions for any context: this choice is certainly challenging, from an organizational, logistical and technical point of view, but in its turn it allows us to choose the partners with which to work. We have gained a high ranking, aware of the costs this implies in the ambit of competences and teams, but today those who turn to us know what they are buying and then they are also ready to face the investment that this involves.”
In what, however, does this quality “at physical distance” consist?
“First in reliability: we cannot afford to manufacture plants that need frequent maintenance because otherwise we should move staffs in very onerous modalities for our customers. This means to work in redundant modality, with often “double” plants, like in the case of one of our implementations in Haiti, and consequent starting costs, which are compensated by that reliability concept that makes the difference. Moreover, it is not a reliability generically meant but concrete and able to generate performances under granted technical conditions and low consumptions in smart modality, not simply low but instead the minimum necessary consumptions to assure the performance.”
Therefore, the comparison with competitors occurs according to high standards.
“We have not chosen the deep-sea fishing, to use a metaphor: in facing this world, we have fewer competitors than how many are in a sport fishing lake, but we need a boat and crew’s much more challenging skills, not only from us but also from our competitors. It is an interesting and certainly awarding market but at the same time it demands for precise and extremely committing organizational field choices.”
“Our team is available for long business trips, not to go back home in the evening, to work with criteria of utmost efficacy and efficiency and they cannot be allowed working with superficiality because remediating an error is difficult if the plant is at a distance taking more than one day. Let us not forget foods are involved and then a missed cold is not the discomfort of a split that does not work, it means hygienic risk and economic damage.”
What about the team trained on the field?
“In the past, when we started this process of Standard Tech ranking in the high-end market, we had labour forces who stemmed from experience, today, out of an employed team of eighteen workers, four are engineers, able to manage the job order since its design to the commissioning of all single elements. A quality-oriented operation generates the need of having work teams provided with outstanding theoretical and practical know how indeed, enabling them to face and to solve problems not by patching up but finding solutions. Otherwise, there is not quality. And let me be clear: this quality is also expensive for a company.”
Do customers acknowledge this cost?
“Along the years, our work has been precisely this: “educating” customers to appreciate the value of this intervention capability and to give the tangible sense of the correctness of the price paid to have it. This has defined some precise intervention and application standards and some limits that are typical for us, but they have also given us visibility and appreciation on the market: today, we perfectly know we are not competitive in terms of price and we cannot deal with very big job orders but if someone wants the most sophisticated quality, he knows he can ask us for it and we will do our best to provide it.”
Therefore, the “food cold” category is not univocal.
“There are deep, almost radical differences, in the attribution of importance to the cold quality: the “conservation” cold has a different setup from the processing one, where the imperfect management of temperature, humidity, air speed and oxygenation criteria can damage the edibility of the finished product, like in the case of dairy or meat processing. Moreover: also “poor” products, with low margins, are processed, such as sliced bread, where the hygienic process management needs a refrigeration featuring high possible sanitizing to assure the correct product quality and its healthiness. Then we are referring to processes that imply huge investments in reliability meant as sum of performance and continuity.”
A situation that does not leave room for errors.
“Unfortunately, it leaves some, because one third of our customers turn to Standard Tech after bad experiences made because they chose according to price and not to quality. Therefore, we can affirm the message once more comes from experience and spreads through an awarding word of mouth for us, but not too flattering, because both the “stung” customer and the “not up to par” supplier have been damaged, the first economically, the second in reputation, falling in the ranking with regard to the complexity of tasks it might acquire. Being reliable is a daily work.”
Let us try understanding, anyway, what are the ingredients of this quality …
“First of all performance and efficiency, two elements that, if they go hand in hand, determine quality: just to make an example, we have installed some plants in Dubai with approximate outer temperatures of 48 °C, with condensers that might seem giant, oversized to unexperienced eyes but that were necessary to face external conditions. Therefore, the combination of performance and efficiency depends on a sizing factor that is ascribable to a high design level, which does not stop at standards or does not oversize at random, but conceives the plant to keep its performance unchanged in time, correctly and not excessively stressing machines. Otherwise, the efficiency measured in the instant results in a structural inefficiency because, owing to standby caused by failures, costs of repairs and spare parts, the efficiency at the testing time easily loses its way.”
And this leads us to the performance continuity theme.
“A theme that the food process refrigeration must position at the first place. We supply a three-year warranty on our plants, but we are also ready to offer a service of interventions out of warranty. If – through our remote control systems – we point out performance not in line with our plants’ standards, we engage to supplying spare parts free-of-charge even after the three contract years because we are aware that our reliability depends also on this capability of granting the performance “beyond” the limits established by a contract, so that we can translate into concreteness the reliability promise that Standard Tech brand expresses today.”
“Service: service that consists in an intervention methodology that provides for the problem-solving, not its simple diagnosis and the undertaking of a commercial negotiation on the recovery costs of the performance demanded to the plant. The food cold sector cannot wait that we decide whether a price quotation is correct or not, due to its characteristic of intrinsic connection with the production quality and the hygienic correctness, a fundamental requisite to release the production on the market.”
Because you work is not exclusively subjected to thermodynamics laws …
“… but also, to hygienic and sanitary ones that are included in the framework of HACCP, which is a binding regulation in 99% of our implementations, but not only. Actually, refrigeration businesses that take care of food production process have expertise in cold but also in the specific characteristics of the product that is managed by the plant they manufacture, as well as in the hygienic rules that regulate the food production. Their task is actually to deploy all those thermodynamic and hygienic-sanitary technologies needed to comply with the product and the directive ruling it.”
What customers, anyway, buy plants of this kind? Big companies?
“Actually, the target that turns to us is oriented to high-quality products, the size does not make the difference, often they are instead players in the niche food production, those that produce and market high-end products and do not aim at a competition resembling large distribution’s, based on low unit margins and big volumes, and they focus on the appreciation of the product implementation in which the high-quality process refrigeration collaborates incisively. They look for plants that represent structural investments for them, often constitute the backbone of their production process and ask for durable solutions in time, able to overcome fashionable trends and to face in advance the regulatory bonds that will be established.”
Are you referring to the bonds to the use of “traditional” refrigerants?
“Tradition (going back to thirty years ago) was not the one providing for the often-simplifying Freon solutions, it was more complex, it provided for the use of gases like ammonia and plant engineering settings like cascade. The current recovery of this plant engineering philosophy is a choice that exceeds the interesting simplifying trends proposed in time with the use of CFC, HCFC and HFC, a trend that has levelled competences because it was simple to use R22 or R404 and to make direct-expansion plants. However, today the legislation and the environment protection do not allow it anymore, we must use our brain again and many have forgotten how to do that …”
How have customers reacted to this evolution?
“The awareness of having to overcome the technical and systemic limits imposed by Freon is diffused and therefore the European Regulation 517 has generated the necessary conditions to reopen the drawer of design ideas, of technical solutions, of executive modalities that allow facing the initial costs of more sophisticated and complex plants, with natural fluids, glycol, with secondary or cascade systems. We are studying devices that permit simple redundancy, like the possibility of using a cooling circuit that works at a strategic cell as backup of a circuit that runs for a seasoning warehouse. This example is not meant to represent a standard, because it exclusively proves the need of designing redundancy in accurate manner in each single situation, without incurring the simplification of replicated “copy and paste”-style plants, with consequences of inadequacy (in excess or in defect) that simplification determines.”
“Another example in the cold generation ambit is a plant we have just closed, where low-charge ammonia “works” glycol and a part of it condensates CO2 in specific circuits for low temperature or 0 °C temperatures in cascade systems where the operation is also aimed at recovering cold from 0 °C, to carry out the supercooling of the low temperature and to work under subcritical conditions, so avoiding the characteristic inefficiencies of the transcritical phase. They are the “new solutions”, which are challenging essentially in design, to reach an overall efficiency proportioned not simply to energy consumption values but to the overall costs that a performing plant generates.”
Quality in cold
It is the counterpoint of “in vino veritas”, at least if we judge according to what tells us Mario Bonera, partner of Bonera Refrigerazioni, expert in refrigeration applied to the wine production process. He explains us a fundamental irremissible competence, we daresay even vital for the sector that is the mission of his company, precisely the oenological ambit: a bad plant in this market can put an entire grape harvest at risk and then one year of work, of sales and turnover.
“We also supply the dairy sector and the refrigeration one in general, but we know one thing that makes our role delicate. In the wine-growing, the must that comes from the grape harvest is the result of one year of work and the preliminary condition for other years of delicate refinement and therefore the plant that manages each phase of the product life in the cellar and towards the distribution is determinant, to conserve its value and to justify its price.”
A noteworthy responsibility, especially considering the geographical and dimensional target in which you have developed your business
“Ours is a small-size reality, which has decided operating in a precise definite ambit: we supply an excellence zone in the national wine survey, Franciacorta, with over one hundred customers that produce wine in this area with its proper characteristics. Challenging features, due to both the quality acknowledged by the market and to the consequent implications deriving from it, from the regulatory compliance to controls and up to the will of making the perception of this value grow.”
Haven’t customers a single entrepreneurial core?
“They have a character that I would define passionate and entrepreneurial, able to recognize the role and the importance of refrigeration systems in both the must conservation phase and in the stage of product refinement and qualification.”
To what extent are these customers aware of the task performed by the refrigeration plant in production?
“Today, even in the smallest realities, we deal with aware, committed and ambitious people, looking for the solution that gives prestige to their product. The refrigeration plant is a cornerstone in the productive process and they are aware of it, in both positive terms, knowing the quality a good cold can confer to the product, and in negative ones, rightly fearing the risks that an entire grape harvest can run if things go wrong.”
The storage time in the cellar is another determinant factor.
“We are speaking of wines that often take more than two years from the grape harvest time to when they are served at the restaurant table or on the supermarket shelf, and then the management temperature of their life in cellar is a determinant operation factor, in terms of both performance and of costs.”
What problems does the implementation of plants intended for oenology face today?
“One above all: refrigerants. We have left the comfort zone in which traditional Freon solutions had hosted us, since they allowed achieving more than satisfactory performances according to quite codified design concepts: R404A-based systems, with valves that managed quite easily loads and pressure at stake. Today, as we can no longer use these gases in plants with load exceeding 10 kg, things have become much more complicated, not owing to plant engineers’ missing applications but owing to the real confusion that characterizes the ambit of alternatives.”
Yours seem a signal of real concern: but whose fault is it?
“It is not a fault, but the issue is clarity: nowadays gas producers in their turn grope, proposing solutions that are often useful just “to pay off a debt”, to delay the problem later on, as it happened with R407F, portrayed as “the” solution and shortly after entered in phase down. The new mixtures, R448 and R449, have not the historical stability, yet, to give us the management reliability that our customers demand and we are living a phase in which we are strongly boosted to look for solutions that provide practical warranties because buyers need them, even if they must bear higher costs.”
How is this “warranty solution” explicated?
“With the adoption of redundancy criteria that give the tranquillity to face emergencies, with plants that facilitate the maintenance in temperature without whipping appliances along, excessively stressing them, creating balances that allow us to give operational continuity through the recovery of the cold used in an environment to enrich the operation developed by another circuit. In other words, with solutions that engage us to a design customized into the slightest details for each single plant.”
However, does the trend towards natural gases arouse your scepticism?
“No, on the contrary, we would be pleased to install plants that do not impose us the experimentation conditions to which we have been compelled by the new generation of fluorinates, but today the plant sizes with which we deal make working with ammonia or CO2 scarcely convenient indeed. The initial cost, the investment demanded to adopt these refrigerants is very high and also the variables of maintenance costs influence the choice. Perhaps, purchasers with bigger plant engineering requirements than Franciacorta entrepreneurs can think of bearing this type of initial spending, as they reason on the efficiency achievable in time, but we address a production pole worth 16 million bottles, whereas for instance the Prosecco area exceeds 300 millions and then it is possible in other zones they have more bent for this reasoning.”
You operate in challenging operational conditions: what are the determinant variables?
“Service above all: the product does not wait, the food product less than ever and a product characterized by a yearly productive cycle less than any other. We must intervene promptly, face with determination and promptness the criticalities that a plant shows, carry out an attentive preventive maintenance that keeps the plant under safety conditions and provides tranquillity to the cellar manager. Service in our field is becoming an increasingly relevant issue, to the extent we can affirm the implementation of a plant does not end at the testing time but it goes on in the management of its performance, of its service continuity.”
This implies anyway competence spread in all operational units, shared know how and excellent intervention capability.
“If we want to express everything with one word, we can mention professionalism, a factor that springs from theoretical competences very hardly found on the market but that prosecutes with as rare operational willingness and propensity for gaining expertise on the field. The job as refrigeration business is “obscure”, we always act behind the scenes and on the stage appear the products whose release on the market is enabled by our plants according to law criteria and with the utmost quality protection. However, the fact our job is obscure is not a reason for deeming is as approximate: today we rely on a technology that compels us to provide excellence but we, first, must know it, to be able to apply it where and how customers demand. Training a sector professional is not simple indeed, it is perhaps the hugest cost we are called to face.”
However, in an age characterized by so strong youth unemployment, isn’t a job in some ways “safe” as yours sought?
“Well, on one hand it is a “job” that calls for a clear willingness to a strong engagement, in terms of both necessary information and notions to perform it and concerning the real availability of work hours and days. Cold – in the field of the food process refrigeration – cannot miss, therefore our service cannot miss either on Saturdays, Sundays or festivities. This discourages many to take up the profession. However, also those willing to become refrigeration players or cold technicians have not an easy life because there are no professional schools. The initiatives by Assofrigoristi, like the one proposed at Magenta in collaboration with Assocold and Aslam are welcome, but to produce a new competent generation of operators on the field the road is really uphill.”