In the manufacture of most foods and beverages, conveyors are used to move products from one station in the process to another. Because they perform such a fundamental role in manufacturing, it might be easy to think of conveyer equipment as a basic commodity. But just as the food industry has changed, so have the conveying systems offered to food manufacturers.
"The 'ideal' conveying technology depends on the type of food product and the stage of the production process,'" says Steve Johnson, director of marketing at Key Technology (www.key.net), Walla Walla, Wash. "The conveying equipment features and designs that are most important to food processors today contribute to maximizing sanitation, equipment reliability and line efficiency." Tighter regulations and demands from retail customers have made that higher sanitation level a key priority, Johnson notes.
Changes in consumer demands also impact how that food is formulated and produced, says Karl Seidel, marketing manager at Cablevey Conveyers (www.cablevey.com), Oskaloosa, Iowa. What are the driving factors that cause food plant managers to seek better conveyors?
"I suppose you'd immediately think of process speed and the associated costs for not processing timely," Seidel says. "But I'm not certain that's true today across the board. More processors are looking at using specialty ingredients. Specialty equals additional costs for raw materials. So you don't want to damage the specialty ingredients before packaging."
Cablevey's solution is designed to permit gentle conveying by way of rotating discs, which are enclosed in a tube and move along a central cable.
"Building processes and employing specialty conveyors that are enclosed protects the materials being conveyed from ambient conditions in the plant," Seidel adds. "Some food plants and coffee roasting operations displace oxygen using a nitrogen flush. This preserves the product during the packaging process and preserves shelf life."
Key Technology's newest conveying machine is a horizontal motion conveyor that features a maintenance-free mechanical drive. Click on image to enlarge
Of course, it's not just the ingredients you don't want to damage. Vibratory conveyors do a great job of moving sturdy, and especially sticky, products along. But they can damage fragile products. Horizontal motion conveyors gently glide product along the pan to prevent cracking and breakage. They're especially suited to snack foods.
Heat and Control (www.heatandcontrol.com), Hayward, Calif., offers the FastBack horizontal motion conveyors. Blake Svejkovsky, product handling systems manager, says its advantages include reduced product breakage, decreased seasoning loss, no seasoning buildup on the conveyor, lower maintenance and replacement part costs, reduced noise and lower installation cost.
And if you have a relatively expensive finished product, perhaps even in its package, you may not want to damage it on the chance that a metal detector gave a false positive reading. That was the idea when Bunting Magnetics (www.buntingmagnetics.com) Newton, Kan., developed its drop-down nose conveyor.
"This conveyor gently moves the product to a reject area where it can be reinspected – by hand or by sending it through an X-ray system or metal detector for a second time," says Rod Henricks, metal detection product manager. It doesn't interrupt product flow. "If you're making expensive cheesecakes, you don't want to waste one because of a false metal detection. And you don't want the product to be damaged before it is reinspected."
Key's Johnson says quality and freshness are factors that affect everything food manufacturers do, including their choice of conveying systems.
"The industry's focus on food safety is directing more attention on product quality in general and product freshness," he says. "Food processors want to deliver a uniformly high quality product so consumers have the same experience with their brand every time they open the package. Conveyors can play a big role in these efforts. Among the most sanitary and gentle, horizontal motion conveyors are replacing belt conveyors in many food processing facilities."
Key's newest conveying technology, introduced in 2011, is Horizon, a horizontal motion conveyor that features a unique maintenance-free mechanical drive. The company says its gentle, quiet and sanitary horizontal motion conveying makes the system ideal for many fragile, seasoned, coated and frozen food products. Its drive is capable of moving product at speeds up to 42 ft. per minute on a single continuous conveyor up to 100 ft. long.
One conveying innovation that might have a major impact on the food processing industry in terms of improving line efficiencies is the more thorough integration of conveyors with other equipment on processing and packaging lines.
"Rather than consider conveyors as separate machines that are connected, lines are increasingly being designed holistically, which includes the integration of control systems," Johnson says. "The advantages include increases in OEE (overall equipment effectiveness), faster changeovers and increased line output.
Cablevey recently sold and installed systems in a large nut processing facility for cashews. Installation of the system resulted in a 4.5 decrease in breakage.