Kafer leads eight team members at Smithfield's Engineering and Environmental Affairs office, located near the company's corporate office in Smithfield, Virginia.

Veering to Virginia

After years of living with the long commutes, traffic and occasional crime of big cities began to wear on the family. His wife got a job offer to work in Fairfax, Virginia, that was too good to pass up and at a time when the couple and their family were ready for a change of scenery. Kafer left his job knowing northern Virginia wasn’t known for being a manufacturing hub but optimistic about new opportunities. Within a couple of months in 1991, Kafer took a job with a Washington, DC, gourmet food retailer, Sutton Place Gourmet (later acquired by Dean & DeLuca) as the director of maintenance and engineering. There he was able to utilize his coffee background and experience in all facets of his food industry background, which included maintenance, engineering and more. That stint lasted about six years and taught Kafer even more.

“It was great because it gave me exposure to retail, to marketing, to a lot of things that engineering and operations people normally don’t get to experience firsthand.”

Then Kafer’s yearning to get back into manufacturing became a reality when he got a call from a recruiter seeking a plant manager at North Side Foods Corp., near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He took that job and started working at the meat-processing plant in 1997. North Side would be acquired by Smithfield Foods the following year.

“I was happy I got back into manufacturing,” Kafer says, and he remembers walking through the plant in Arnold, Pennsylvania, with Robbie Hofmann during the interview process. Afterward, Hofmann asked him for his feedback about the plant.

“He asked me, ‘what did you think; what would you do if we were to hire you?’” Kafer quickly responded that he thought the plant should be automated. “I said my vision would be that you’d have somebody bring a pallet of meat in one end and somebody taking a pallet of product out the other end and nobody in between.” Once he began working at North Side, the automation efforts began, albeit slowly.

As a major supplier of pre-cooked frozen pork patties to McDonald’s, North Side had routinely loose-packed the patties in waxed boxes. Kafer’s keen eye quickly saw a golden opportunity and implemented a system for automating the process by packing the patties in bulk bags. He continued in his role as plant manager for a couple of years until, after a “functional realignment” of North Side, Kafer was given responsibility for engineering, maintenance, worker safety and environmental safety for the plants in Arnold, Pennsylvania, and Cumming, Georgia.

In the early 2000s, ISO 14001 was being implemented by Smithfield, which brought the environmental coordinators from all of Smithfield’s operating units together for training and gave Kafer the opportunity to meet with others from the company in similar roles. He remembers Dennis Treacy was hired as chief sustainability officer during this time period. He recalls too, his role in implementing a flexible production line at North Side’s Arnold plant in 2004, which consolidated two lines into one and increased throughput significantly. Next, Kafer began work on a plant expansion at the Cumming facility when he was asked to join Smithfield’s corporate engineering staff at the company’s headquarters. His first assignment was to help lead construction of a new plant that had just broken ground in Kinston, North Carolina.

“I took on the construction-management piece,” Kafer says, including dealing with the contractors, dealing with change orders all as part of getting the facility up and running.

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 Paul Kafer
At the grand opening of the Zhengzhou plant in 2015, the Smithfield team that helped get the plant up and running gathered in Chinca to celebrate the completion of the project. (Pictured from left: Dr. Michael Bradley, Scott Greiman, Dave Bergan, Bruce Owens, Bob Marshall, Dr. Brook Yuanxi, Jennifer Lau, Dr. Larry Hand, Lin Gu, Dave Taylor, Paul Kafer, Brad Keffaber, Rhett Xu, and Rob Delaney)

Worldly Experience

Smithfield has undergone significant changes in leadership, strategy and even ownership during Kafer’s tenure. But through it all, working with the other engineers within the company he’s always tried to focus on how the teams in each of the operating companies could work together effectively.

“We’ve divested companies and added companies, but I’ve always tried to maintain collaboration with the other engineers,” he says. “What are the things we can all work on together, like updating our RTE guidelines for how we build a plant?”

This big picture, team approach was never more important than when the Smithfield team committed to undertaking one of its most important projects to date and one of Kafer’s most significant accomplishments.

“Probably the biggest project I’ve been involved in is building a plant in Zhengzhou with Shuanghui Development, our sister company in China. That was a challenge,” Kafer says.

He assumed the role of construction manager of that project.

“We wanted to build a plant in China that, if you were standing in the middle of the plant, you would think you were in a plant on US soil,” Kafer says. The goal was also to manufacture products that are identical to what is produced in the US. To build a bacon, sausage and ham processing plant with a company that had never made the products before was a lofty challenge. “My team was tasked with making this happen,” Kafer says.

The project involved WH Group, the China-based, publicly traded parent company of Smithfield and a majority interest (73 percent) owner of Shuanghui Development, an independently operated company similar to China’s version of Smithfield in the US.

Along with plenty of translators and Smithfield team members, Dave Taylor and Lin Gu, Kafer went to China in March 2014 to meet with the design and construction firm there to create a plan for the plant.

“It dawned on me very early on that this was going to take a very high level of commitment,” Kafer says, giving credit to Taylor and Gu, who were there from Day 1. The US$117 million plant spans more than 226,000 sq. ft. with a daily capacity of 100 metric tons of meat products, including bacon for retail and foodservice; cooked, sliced ham; and smoked sausage. More team members became involved from Smithfield’s US operations as the project ramped up. Bruce Owens and Rhett Xu as well as food safety officials Michael Bradley, Ph.D., and Brook Yuanxi, Ph.D., were also added to the team that made up the core of the US contingency. Kafer, Taylor and Gu were tasked with getting the plant design finalized; deciding on the type and amount of equipment to install and work with the Beijing-based design firm to ensure the finished product could deliver on the expectations. The logistics of the challenging project meant dozens of trips back and forth from Virginia to China and constant communications between team members from two different countries in time zones that are 12 hours different, not to mention the logistics of communicating in two very different languages.

Nearly two-and-a-half years later, the project was completed. Equally challenging to the construction was the operational teaching and training aspect of the plant. That meant coordinating a recruiting campaign to solicit volunteers from workers in US plants to travel to China to provide training.

“That was another logistical jigsaw puzzle,” Kafer says. From September through November of 2015, representatives from Smithfield’s US operations were at the site. “Two of us from the core group were always there,” he says.

The entire team returned in December 2015 for the grand opening of the facility. Once up and running, conference calls and trips back and forth to China continued to work out operational kinks that are common in most start-ups.

Kafer heaps praise on “Mr. Pan” the complex manager at the Zhengzhou facility and how his team in China was as committed as their counterparts in the US.

“It was a really good example of how two diverse groups can come together and do a project of that magnitude and do it flawlessly. Whatever was needed, they figured out a way to get it done and we were there with them every step of the way,” Kafer says. “It was really a rewarding experience,” he says, adding that the plant is likely the most advanced facility in that country for manufacturing food on such a large scale.

The plant includes “a good amount of automation, but not overkill,” he says, and it includes the food safety interventions used by Smithfield’s US plants.

Teaching and training workers on the importance of sanitation was an integral part of the post-construction process that was somewhat novel in China, due to the fact that much of the food made there is shelf stable, unlike this plant, where perishable, ready-to-eat (RTE) products are made.

The plant is loaded with processing equipment, including some from manufacturers with US-based operations. Equipment makers from Japan, South Africa, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and The Netherlands are represented inside the facility. Bringing their technology to China meant equipping it to integrate with other companies’ technology and details such as translating the touchscreens to Chinese and communicating the operation of the equipment through translators presented unique challenges as well. “We had to pull together all the suppliers,” Kafer says, including logistics, travel, shipping and maintaining the project schedule. Ensuring on-time shipment, installation of equipment as well as equipment testing and employee training with a December 2015 deadline looming was more than a little daunting.

Looking back, he says, “It was just a phenomenal experience,” and this has been his crowning achievement with Smithfield to date. “Because of the nature of the challenge, what was expected and how it came out; it’s just a beautiful plant and it will provide many, many years of use.” This month, Kafer and part of his team will return to China to perform an audit of the facility now that it has been up and running for nearly a year-and-a-half.

Now, Kafer and his team are working on some new process improvements in the US. When it comes to his approach on new endeavors and goals, Kafer says considering all the options is the first step. “Sometimes you have to look at the unrealistic to know what is realistic,” he says. This is where relationships with the supplier community can be helpful, to determine if something is realistic, whether or not it can be scaled up to work. He says there is also value in maintaining relationships with the processing professionals working at all of the company’s facilities.

“I try to stay very engaged with the people in the business,” Kafer says, “including the VPs of operations at the plants and with our suppliers because that’s where a lot of good ideas come from.”

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Reality checks

One of Kafer’s current pet projects involves experimenting with augmented reality (AR) and how that technology may one day play a role in processing environments. He mentions Pokémon GO as one of the best-known examples of AR as well as the technology used during many professional football game broadcasts to indicate where the yellow striped first down marker is on the field. Advancing applications for AR are being pursued by the US Dept. of Defense already and by non-food companies, including Caterpillar Inc. and BMW.

Assuming all equipment in a plant is one day integrated and able to exchange data up and down the production line (a concept that is rapidly gaining traction), AR could eventually be a game-changing advance for the food industry. Like most new technologies, cost can squash widespread early adoption, but as applications increase, costs tend to decrease.

AR isn’t quite ready for prime time today, according to Kafer, but it could well be a reality in the next five to 10 years and he is a huge advocate for it and is challenging every equipment supplier in the industry to consider how it could be applied to their technology.

“I’ve been kind of pushing the suppliers,” Kafer says with a smirk, admitting that when he sees many suppliers at industry events, he hears, “Oh, here he comes again, he’s going to give me the augmented reality pitch.”

From a plant design standpoint, virtual reality is another technology Kafer says has already proven to be valuable, but AR applications can reflect real-time activity. Mixed reality, on the other hand, could provide the best of both worlds, by allowing third parties to interact with someone working in a virtual or augmented world. “The technology is there,” Kafer says, but implementation at this time isn’t realistic for many suppliers and processors. He says perhaps the next feasible step is AR. “I think that if this is something our equipment supplier base can collaborate on and work together for the greater good of the industry, I see that in 10 years there being wider applications, at least for AR. I’m doing a lot with suppliers to try to understand how that might work in a plant.”

Partnerships matter

When it comes to the components of good supplier relationships, Kafer has seen the benefits of partnering with companies that are in touch with their technologies and able to help processors manage the technology. He repeats: “You need to learn it and you then teach it.”

The ability of suppliers to manage projects is also crucial, as is the ability to provide ongoing support after the installation.

“We want to avoid catalog engineering,” Kafer says, where a piece of equipment might work, but it comes with some unintended consequences. 

Leading to success

Effective collaboration and clear communication are two attributes required of good leaders and are characteristics Kafer strives to emphasize as the leader of his team. “Being able to rely on people to make decisions and execute without a lot of oversight,” he says, is also a key to his success.

To illustrate his point about teamwork, Kafer references the adage: “The light bulb did not come about through the continuous improvement of the candle.” He adds: “You’ve got to take that next leap and letting people be creative in how they think is what stimulates progress.

“I like to think engineering is more about testing and experimenting than debating about what will and won’t work. I try to incorporate that in my leadership style.”

Kafer philosophically summarizes the role of engineers as solution finders. To illustrate that role, he quotes Theodore von Kármán, an iconic engineer who is known in the profession as the father of propulsion: “A scientist discovers that which exists, an engineer creates that which never was.”