Food Safety / Process and Operations / Technology

Equipment, Control Advances Provide More Precise Portioning

Machine makers are moving beyond sanitary design to address precision and throughput in portioning systems.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Keystone Foods and Formax are food industry partners joined at the hip since the 1970s, when they teamed up to change McDonald's distribution model.

Keystone developed a cryogenically frozen hamburger patty for the fast-food company, enabling McDonald's shift from dependence on refrigerated patties from many local grinders to a regional supply chain consisting of a fraction of as many suppliers.

Those suppliers had to produce many more patties than the local grinders. So Formax engineered the patty-forming machine that could match demand, beginning with a 26-in. wide machine that could process 4,000 lbs. an hour. The partnership continues and has grown to include chicken breast formers used at Keystone's Gadsden, Ala., facility.

The Gadsden plant began production in the second half of 2009 and allowed Keystone to expand its presence in industrial sales, including formed chicken breasts for restaurants and other foodservice accounts. Before signing the contract for the Maxum 700 portioners, Keystone requested numerous design changes, most related to food safety and many geared toward reducing the time necessary to clean and sanitize the machines, according to Bryan Reynolds, Keystone's quality and food safety manager.

"Solicitation of the voice of the customer is a big focus, and food safety tops everybody's list of design changes," acknowledges Tom Tonra, global product manager-forming at Provisur Technologies Inc., the Mokena, Ill., supplier that builds Formax machines.

Sanitary design is a must, concedes Kathi Jones, marketing director at Marlen International, Riverside, Mo., but cleanability is a given in Marlen's current generation of portioning machines. The real need now is on increased precision and reduction of waste, Jones suggests. The pump/vacuum combination developed by Marlen "results in removing any sponginess that might be found in the product" and delivers portions that are within 0.5 percent of the setpoint, she says.

One-stop shopping

Portioning machines must work in synch with other processing units, and OEM consolidation has increased the likelihood vendors can provide end-to-end solutions. Icelandic OEM Marel specialized in fish processing until it entered the North American market a decade ago and began acquiring OEMs that fabricated equipment for poultry, meat and pork processing. The result was a higher degree of automation across the board, with the best elements of each firm's equipment incorporated into the other lines.

Those synergies are reflected in a fixed-weight portioning and packaging line Marel installed last year at Nordlaks, a Norwegian processor of salmon and trout fillets. The combination of an advanced portion cutter, pick-and-place robotics, conveyors that provide continuous and stable product flow and advanced controls helped reduce labor inputs 20 percent while boosting throughput 44 percent above the target.

Even greater synergies have been achieved at Provisur, which combined Formax, separation-specialist Beehive and Weiler, maker of grinders and mixers, under one umbrella in 2009. Consolidation allows closer integration between portioners and upstream processes such as maceration and tumbling, process steps integral to producing chicken breasts by companies such as Keystone.

Reducing end users' "true cost of ownership" has been a priority since the mergers, according to Tonra. Common controls platforms now are used in all the machines, and best practices at each of the brands are transferred to the others. For example, dual-lobe pumps used by Beehive have replaced the hydraulic transfer systems formerly used by Formax.

"Hydraulic systems are accurate, but they don't supply the same degree of control of motion that we've achieved with the servo-controlled rotary pump," Tonra explains. Early this year, the firm replaced its mechanical-motion F19 former with the NovaMax 500 slide-plate machine featuring servo drives and motors, a change that should improve both precision and reduce maintenance costs.

Similar changes are reflected in VerTex 1000, a meter-wide rotary former that can process up to 18,000 lbs. an hour, a big boost over the Maxum 700's 10,000-lb. capacity. Servo motion also reduces the amount of energy imparted into the product. Mechanical energy from the 700 increased product temperature 3-5°F; with the new generation formers, "as little as 0.5° temperature change occurs," which means less impact on the texture of the meat, he says.

With household sizes shrinking and portion control a priority, automation that can meet single-serve demand without adverse effects on product quality will be critical. Portioning OEMs are focused on building machines that will meet that demand.