Planned obsolescence is a sales concept reserved for consumer goods. In the world of industrial equipment, durability usually is a given, and a well-constructed machine should continue to perform long after the person who originally bought it has retired.
That’s certainly the case with machines that slice, dice and pulverize food products and raw materials. Heavy duty and industrially hardened, this equipment class takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
The bigger, faster, cheaper mantra doesn’t define the incremental improvements in these machines. Greater precision, for example, that reduces waste and improves yield characterizes the advances in many machines. Tool-less disassembly for cleaning and sanitizing that takes less time and is more thorough is attractive to virtually all food processors. And with consumption trends constantly shifting and new opportunities arising, the flexibility to produce a range of products is highly desirable.
In an in-plant trial, a Carruthers AE 5000 dicer with large diameter, low-speed gang blades and a slicing blade for perpendicular cuts didn’t dice any more chicken breast than an older two-dimensional dicer outfitted with circular gang blades for lengthwise cuts and blades mounted to a drum for cross cuts. However, the AE 5000 diced with considerably more precision and fewer fines.
Besides producing more visually appealing chunks of chicken, 93.4 percent of the newer machine’s throughput was in the 8-16mm (0.31-0.62 in.) range, compared to 75.8 percent of the older unit’s. The plant processed 5 tons of poultry product per hour, making a reduction in out-of-spec finished goods a big contributor to a better bottom line.
“People are always looking for something bigger, faster, more sanitary,” allows Mike Jacko, vice president-applications and new product innovations for Urschel Laboratories Inc. (www.urschel.com), Chesterton, Ind. Urschel engineers checked those three boxes when designing the SL-14, a 14-station slicer that replaces as the company’s new standard a machine that has sliced potato chips and other products since the 1960s.
Fourteen slicing stations are better than eight, and the new machine doubles the throughput of the older unit, but engineers also wanted to address production issues like maintenance. “If you’re running dirty potatoes, it’s normal for people to change over knives three or four times a shift,” says Jacko. Rocks and sand can destroy a machine’s knives, and replacing them typically takes two hours, he adds. A quick-clamping system and release levers in the new machine enable operators to replace a knife in approximately 2 seconds instead of 1-2 minutes.
Cutting and shredding cheese is another application for the SL-14. Hardness varies considerably, depending on the type of cheese being shredded. Soft European-style cheeses are easy to shred, but European cheese makers want “homestyle-look cuts, which are harder to do,” Jacko says. “It’s a bigger challenge than a consistent cut” and requires multiple passes.
Efforts to create an artisanal look in a mass-produced product isn’t limited to cheese. Sausage makers also are producing links with a butcher-style look in high volumes. To create that look and improved mouthfeel, some are reintroducing bowl cutters upstream of grinders and stuffers.
The Seydelmann vacuum cutter typically creates a homogenous emulsion, with vacuum removing oxygen to increase density and extend shelf life. By removing some of the blades and modulating the speed, “we can get a more gentle cutting motion, as opposed to a squeezing, brute force approach,” explains Joseph Ascoli, a chef with Reiser Corp. (www.reiser.com), a Canton, Mass., food equipment fabricator that includes the Seydelmann line in its portfolio.
“We’re doing a particle reduction in the bowl cutter and still using an in-line grinder before the stuffer,” continues Ascoli. “The result is a homestyle look with the best possible mouthfeel because all the muscle fibers are aligned.”
The core technology is old, he adds, but understanding of the machines’ capabilities and the ability to manipulate outcomes continues to grow.
Optimal bacon slicing
People might prefer one thickness of bacon over another, but the only variable of interest to processors is optimal yield. No two hog bellies are exactly alike, and engineers at Provisur Technologies Inc. (www.provisur.com), Mokena, Ill., focused on hardware and software improvements to get the most slices out of each belly when they overhauled the firm’s Cashin Edge machine in 2012.
Physical changes included extending the lower infeed conveyor, which used to stop several inches short of the slicing blade, to the edge of the blade, improving control of the meat and one or two more slices per belly. Servo drives replaced motor-driven timing belts, further improving control. More importantly, a laser sensor that maps the topography of the belly and feeds data to controls that adjust the blade profile accordingly enabled higher operating speeds, according to Brian Sandberg, global product manager-slicers.
The re-engineered slicer makes up to 2,000 cuts a minute, a 33 percent boost in throughput, he adds. Just as importantly, yield has improved 3-5 percent from the 200-plus machines commissioned in the past five years.
A more recent advancement is the SX380 (a reference to the slicing throat’s 380mm width, approximately 15 inches). Sandberg calls it “the lunch meat version of the Cashin Edge.” Kunzler & Co., a Lancaster, Pa., deli meat processor, is an early adopter of the machine. Facility director Rodney Shultz pegs yield improvement at 1.5-2 percent and says blade changeover time is reduced compared to the prior generation slicer.
The clamping system for deli logs accounts for most of the yield gain. Only a small butt end needs to be clamped, allowing more of the log to enter the slicing zone, according to Sandberg. A 14-step steel hardening process and product-specific serration patterns extend blade life between honings.
Servo drives are an upgrade option on the newest 2D dicer from Carruthers, with variable frequency driven belts powered by a drum motor the standard offering. Less product slippage is provided with a redesigned spiral knife, providing more precise cuts. The machine is manufactured by Marlen International Inc. (marlen.com), Riverside, Mo.
Bourbon distilling is a booming segment, and that’s good news for milling equipment suppliers. The corn, rye and malted barley at the heart of the process is milled immediately before starch-to-sugar conversion, and even boutique distilleries mill on premises.
Aurora, Ind.-based Stedman Machine Co. (www.stedman-machine.com) makes a 316 stainless version of its cage mill, and the coarse grind it provides is perfect for distillers like Michter’s, a whiskey and bourbon maker that counts George Washington’s Valley Forge troops among its historical clientele. For those who want finer grist, Stedman engineers have introduced a hammer mill.
The hammer mill is air-fed, resulting in less dust than gravity-fed mills, notes Tyler Cianciolo, design engineer. Manufacturers can choose from screen meshes with openings ranging from 1/8th to ½ inch. Because the hammers are wear parts, they have carbide overlays and run in two directions to reduce the frequency of maintenance.
Whether materials are being sliced, diced or pulverized, size reduction is a fundamental process in food manufacturing. The machines that perform that function may appear unchanged, but their incremental improvements and steady evolution are helping food processors boost yields and meet higher safety and product-spec standards.