For example, the company has provided extra capacity with redundant installations of cartoners "for multiple customers in the category" producing frozen breakfast sandwiches, entrées and more. The units typically run in tandem, ramping-up or -down speeds so that processing and packaging lines are in-synch. He explains that when multiple lines are running side by side at 100 cartons per minute, if one of those legs goes down, product is diverted to the other line, which can then run twice the product at 200 per minute.
Equipment flexibility and adaptability is critical for tackling new and expanding applications in a cost-effective manner. "Versatility is key," says Christine Banaszek, application engineer at Charles Ross & Son (www.mixers.com), Hauppauge, N.Y., maker of mixing and blending equipment.
To handle the varied sizes and densities of mixtures, vendors must "provide the proper piece of equipment but without over-engineering," she says. "If a customer intends to use one blender to make several formulations, the machine features must accommodate the customer's expectations in terms of clean-ability, flexibility in working volumes, heating/cooling requirements, controls [and] integration with upstream and downstream equipment."
Despite their slow adoption of automation technology, processors work closely with and drive incremental innovation in mechanical systems.
Customer-driven blending equipment upgrades at Ross, Banaszek says, have included high-speed choppers for breaking up agglomerated powders, liquid spray bars with nozzles for adding minor liquid components, lantern rings on the stuffing boxes to air-purge and prevent any fine materials from entering the shaft seal, jacketed vessels for heating or cooling and vacuum designs.
Kliklok-Woodman's Parlour notes that new screw infeed conveyors, used for endload cartoner applications, better ensure that each flight of a conveyor chain is populated with product, which "dramatically" increases the efficiency of packaging equipment. The design was partly inspired by the screw conveyors used on bottling lines upstream of the filler. "The user can run the machine and in-feed at the same rate," he says, "for any product that needs to be ‘singulated,' especially in a rigid container such as trays of frozen entrées [or] even round bowls."
Heat and Control (www.heatandcontrol.com), Hayward, Calif., in February debuted a new horizontal blending conveyor that mixes and maintains multiple snack, cereal or frozen food ingredients using load cells that keep the mix accurate to 2-4 percent as the product moves to packaging stations. Compared to vibratory conveyors, the company claims product breakage reductions up to 60 percent with less ingredient separation, coating loss and conveyor-pan buildups for cleaner operation and less downtime.
Also in February, the company announced a compact, five filling-head tray sealer that accommodates manual loading or can be automated to seal 200 trays per minute. Like its bigger siblings, it has options for handling liquid products, MAP gas flushing or vacuum-gassing, and the integration of inspection and checkweighing equipment.
In addition to machines related to breakfast sandwiches, Reiser is seeing higher sales of systems for "skinless" breakfast sausage, which convey product 28 links across and fill an oven belt completely with exact-weight sausages, says McIsaac. Recent innovations in sausage-making machines have combined separate processes for stuffing meat into casings, freezing them and then cutting them with a slicer into a single machine.
Mechanical steps also are integrated in Reiser's high-speed slice-depositors, which cut cheese blocks into exact-weight slices and precisely place them on a moving target – such as breakfast sandwiches being assembled on a conveyor.
Automation, the final frontier
All these mechanical processes are, of course, somewhat automated so that cheese or other ingredients can be sliced, placed, cooked, conveyed or otherwise advanced through the process with speed and accuracy – as well as safety, where human intervention introduced microbial risk.
Heat and Control's tray sealer, for example, uses software recipe management, equipment automation and robotic hardware, and helps streamline human processes with an "Intelligent Tool function" that instructs personnel on the specific tools they need to cart to the unit to accomplish a changeover in just a few minutes.
"Automation is the last frontier," Kliklok-Woodman's Parlour says, adding that the company is measuring "just crazy numbers" when comparing traditional technology to today's systems. For example, citing rapid servomotor-based setups and changeovers on cartoners, he says that in some cases on older lines, "It was not uncommon for operators to spend four or six hours setting-up and dialing-in settings that today take minutes. Today, users can achieve changeovers in two or three minutes with the push of a button. The process is repeatable and at an ongoing, automated pace. And that doesn't just apply to us – these kinds of advances are evident across the board among vendors on the higher end of the industry."
As Food Processing's own research shows, automation is near the bottom of the list as a capital spending priority, per our 2010 Manufacturing Trends Survey. Still, there is plenty of room for productivity improvements going forward; fewer than 12 percent of plants reported automating their entire processing lines, or their packaging lines, end to end. Never mind the benefits to come when entire plants are integrated and connected to the business office.