The flour mill of the third millennium

by Teresa Acklin
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The flour milling industry at the beginning of the next millennium will have a vital responsibility to provide the world's growing population with affordable, nutritional, grain-based food products, according to Martin Schlauri, milling engineer and director of marketing for Buhler, Ltd., Uzwil, Switzerland.

"Grain products are considered the basis of a good diet, and are healthy, pure products," Mr. Schlauri said in a presentation Nov. 3 at the Victam ‘99 feed and food industries conference in Bangkok, Thailand. "Maintaining this status for the next century is a true challenge for the milling industry."

In his presentation, "The Flour Mill of the Third Millenium," Mr. Schlauri said intense competition, consolidation and globalization in the flour milling industry in the early part of the next millennium would influence companies to expand their product base.

"The milling industry is driven by an increasingly global market, changing consumer demands, product diversification and more competition," he said. "Population forecasts present a fairly positive outlook for flour milling and other parts of the grain-based foods industry."

To meet this responsibility, a flour mill in the coming years will have several challenges — to produce consistent, quality product while achieving high flour extraction rates, to be highly efficient while keeping production costs low, and to be equipped with increasingly automated, long-lasting equipment that will require little supervision and minimal maintenance.

"Profits can only be assured by keeping production costs as low as possible," Mr. Schlauri said.

Low energy requirements, minimum manpower, low maintenance costs and high flour yield all have a great impact on product costs, he added.

"These factors justify investment in high-quality equipment and state-of-the-art technology," Mr. Schlauri said. "Research and development should focus on high-capacity equipment which requires less building volume and, hence, lower building costs."

Equipment manufacturers and engineering firms will focus on increasing plant efficiency through automation.

"Automation ensures production efficiency and optimizes process parameters," he said. "Minimal down time, achieved by well-planned equipment and plant design, means better utilization of the plant."

At the same time, a lack of training worldwide for operating personnel will require "total reliability" of equipment.

"Research and development with clear targets in technology and machine design is needed," he said.

Flour millers in the next century will likely encounter increasing difficulties with the quality of wheat produced around the world, Mr. Schlauri noted. Mills will need to be equipped with highly efficient cleaning and blending systems to ensure constant quality and purity of their product.

Production mistakes, infestation, mold and other deterioration in quality could have "enormous consequences" for product liability, damages and loss of market share, he said.

"In view of the increasingly rigid health and safety regulations, product liability and very demanding consumers, only products of highest hygienic standard will be accepted by the market," Mr. Schlauri noted.

He underlined the importance of using only raw materials that are safe for food production and for the environment, as well as equipment that eliminates and prevents product contamination. Suppliers must be able to prove that their products are of "appropriate quality and safe for the consumer," he said, adding that the highest degree of sanitation should be enforced for product and plant safety.

Emissions that affect the environment also can lead to financial penalties or even plant closure.

But changing eating habits will require new types of food, and this will present additional opportunities for millers, Mr. Schlauri said. Increasing product variety and speciality products will require the use of ready-to-use mixes to ensure efficient production.

The non-baking industry, including the fast food and frozen food markets, is another area hardly explored by flour millers, Mr. Schauri said. By using heat treatments to modify quality parameters, flour can be used in such applications as batters, flour, thickeners and fillers.

"Flour with properties inactivated by heat treatment can replace starch for some applications," he said.

To make the most of these market opportunities, millers will need facilities that are flexible enough to produce a wide range of products required by a variety of customers, he added.

"The millers' success will be secured by professionalism in wheat buying, by making the most out of the natural raw material and by developing new approaches to marketing and customer service," Mr. Schlauri said.

"For these reasons, a flour mill must be reliable, efficient and operate with the lowest possible cost structure and personnel available."