One size never fits all; in food and beverage production, one size often doesn’t fit more than one. Minor tweaks or major customization is more the rule than the exception.
That’s true not only of complex machines but also of seemingly basic conveying equipment. Even when a project entails straightforward horizontal movement of finished goods or raw materials, production managers must consider a variety of factors before choosing the most appropriate belting and conveying option.
Mrs. Miller’s Homemade Noodles Ltd. (www.mmhn.com) went through the decision process twice in recent years. Based in northeast Fredericksburg, Ohio, the heart of the state’s Amish country, the family-owned firm is riding growing demand for preservative-free foods. Beginning in 1975 as a home-kitchen operation, the firm moved into its first production plant in 1990, later expanding it in 2013 and adding a line. In between, Mrs. Miller’s transitioned from manual processes to machine production.
The first pneumatic conveyor for flour relieved workers of the backbreaking task of emptying 50-lb. bags into a feeder tank. The conveyor resolved some issues but created others. The forklift that brought the one-ton sacks to the holding tank had to remain in place until the sacks were empty, rendering the truck unavailable for other tasks.
“The conveying line periodically plugged up, and we’d have to shut down production to unplug it,” recalls Brian Miller, son of founders Esther and Leon Miller. “The gear boxes for the two augers at the bottom of the holding tank would burn out” due to the torque needed to feed flour through the line. Up to 4 percent of each sack’s contents stuck to the inside walls and was wasted, and flour that accumulated behind the holding tank couldn’t be accessed, creating a sanitation issue.
Before completing his medical training and establishing a practice — he was known as the Noodle Doc at Mrs. Miller’s — Brian Miller oversaw a re-do of the bulk conveying system. A local manufacturer’s rep referred him to Belleville, N.J.-based Vac-U-Max (www.vac-u-max.com). A new bulk bag discharge system with a smaller footprint that facilitates clean-up utilizes a bag frame to support flour totes. Lift-truck operators connect bags to the frame, then lift the frame into position above a 7.8-cu.-ft. feed bin. The truck is then free for other tasks. When it’s time to swap out the bulk bag, there is enough flour in the bin to ensure continuous production during changeovers.
A venturi design accelerates the force of compressed air to generate conveying vacuum, a simple and cost-effective solution for moderate-volume processors, explains Mitch Katz, vice president of Vac-U-Max. Fewer moving parts keep maintenance and downtime low, but the biggest improvement is flour movement through the dilute-phase system.
An 8-ft. semi-flexible food-grade hose connects to a 25-ft.-long stainless steel pipe to deliver flour to a high-speed pre-mixer, where other dry ingredients are combined. Nonlinear material movement is a Vac-U-Max distinction, says Katz, and plugged lines no longer are an issue for Mrs. Miller’s.
Materials of use
The industry’s need for multiple conveying options to address the challenges of a specific plant is reflected in new solutions from vendors. A case in point is the new metal mesh belting from Dynamic Conveyor Corp. (www.dynamicconveyor.com), a Muskegon, Mich., supplier that introduced its Dynaclean line for food and beverage processors five years ago.
Plastic-link belting, then solid thermoplastic were the early options from Dynamic. Tool-free assembly and sanitary design were the conveyors’ selling points. “If we’re going to go into the food market, we want to be different and very efficient,” President Jill Batka remembers of the original design. Easy disassembly meant shorter cleaning cycles and reduced water use, but corrosion-resistance and the hygienic advantages of plastic over metal also were distinctions.
At the urging of a client, the firm earlier this year added a plastic belt that can withstand temperatures as low as -50°F. (The solid belts function in the 20-100° range, the link belts at 34-200°.) More recently, Dynamic added wire metal to the mix. The beta application involved salmon patties sprayed with water from the top and bottom before entering a freezer.