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Eating on the Run
Modular conveyor system, snap-in-place attachments and accessory devices enable food packagers to react quickly to consumer demand for convenience grab-and-go packaging.
by Ed Sullivan
The U.S. food service packaging demand will reach $7.6 billion in 2008 based on growth in away-from-home food spending,” according to a study released in 2004 by The Freedonia Group (Cleveland, Ohio). Food manufacturers responding to consumer demand for easy-open containers, portion control and grab-and-go packaging must be able to reconfigure production and packaging lines quickly and cost effectively. Yet, this is an area that has become more sophisticated. Conveyors and accessory fixtures that are not precisely integrated into a production scheme can diminish productivity and even compromise quality standards.
“The need to reconfigure, and inevitably replace, conveyor systems is an all-too-frequent occurrence with many food packaging operations,” says Bob Steele, president of Steele Equipment (Marysville, Mich.), a pioneer in the design and sales of modular conveyor systems.
“A major factor in configuring and reconfiguring a conveyor is the need to include optional components or accessories,” he says. “This could include a conveyor section that makes a radius turn, a device that counts items, cooling tunnels or sensors that detect unwanted foreign objects. In some cases, there is a need to make a conveyor more compact, or even run it overhead to get it out of the way. And the easiest, quickest and least expensive way to do that is through the flexibility of a modular conveyor system.”
Recognizing the need to meet frequently-changing production flows, Steele claims his favorite modular conveyor solution for light- and medium-duty applications is the DynaCon System from Dynamic Conveyor Corp. (Muskegon, Mich.).
Al Mitchell of Mitchell & Associates, a Milwaukee, Wis.-based manufacturers’ rep firm, and a 30-year veteran in the sales of manufacturing equipment, says, “it fits beautifully into many production and packaging schemes, and is a ‘quick-change artist’ that maximizes usage and ROI like nothing else on the market.”
According to Mitchell, food products often involve indexing, which requires that items must be conveyed in specific quantities according to exact timing. “With a variable speed conveyor motor and indexing capabilities, the DynaCon conveyor is ideal for applications such as inserting auxiliary packets into ready-mix fast-food packages. In a typical setup, the major ingredients are poured from a filling machine into master packages. In a secondary operation, the conveyor indexes a fixed distance up to 100 times per minute in lock-step synch with the filler line and deposits an auxiliary packet into the master Redi-mix package. That indexing capability can improve the efficiency of many applications.”
Mitchell adds that he also markets the modular conveyor into the dairy foods markets providing the food does not directly contact the conveyor. “For example, processed cheese wrapped and then packaged in cartons is a good candidate for the modular conveyor system,” he says. The conveyors are capable of wet operations because of the all-plastic/stainless construction.
Jill Batka, president of Dynamic Conveyor, says that the food industry is so large and diverse that the applications for the modular conveyor systems seem to be limited only by the size and weight of the product. “We’ve also sold systems for picking operations, such as a blueberry farm, where equipment has to be both flexible and highly portable, a prerequisite for many fruit and vegetable harvesting operations,” she says.
Here is a look at some attachments and accessories that integrate with the DynaCon conveyor systems.
Variable Speed Drive: Brushless, variable-speed conveyor motors have virtually no emissions and the conveyor belts are self-lubricating and contaminant-free. Variable control of motor speed means that belts can be slowed for certain operations such as label application or package loading.
Tholstrup Cheese, USA, with locations in Michigan and New Jersey, uses the system to synchronize the speed of the conveyor carrying cheese products from a scale to the packaging department where labels are applied midway with a label dispenser.
Cooling Tunnel Module: The use of rigid Lexan-Polycarbonate covers that fit snugly on either the top or the bottom of a standard DynaCon conveyor module allow users to create a “cooling tunnel.” Cold air is piped into the tunnel from beneath the conveyor module through a hose attached to an in-house forced air cooling system (up to 18,000 BTU/hr). This type of cooling tunnel can quickly drop the temperature of the products from 200° F to room temperature.
Water Bath Tank: This accessory is a 14-gauge stainless steel tank with a built-in cooling element that integrates directly into the standard-size conveyor system. It provides for water bath and washdown applications.
This module has been used effectively in secondary agricultural operations, for example, cleaning onions as they come in from the field. The raw onions come in big crates and are dropped into vats of water for cleaning. The onions are drawn out of the water vats on DynaCon conveyors, are sprayed, trimmed and transported to packaging machines.
Exit Chutes: Exit Chutes are another modular piece that can be bolted onto a DynaCon module. Exit chutes are used to control product flow. They can bend the flow of product to the left or to the right, channeling product in a particular direction.
Metal detectors: The metal detection accessory is highly useful in detecting the presence of metal contaminants on the conveyor belt and meets the FDA’s HACCP parameters. The conveyor system itself is composed of high-impact plastic, and is absent of metal itself, making metal detection a more insular function. An audible and visual alarm alerts personnel to the presence of metal. The Metal Detector recognizes ferrous and non-ferrous metals, so that iron, steel, aluminum, copper and brass will all activate the device.
A diabetic cookie manufacturer uses the conveyor system to convey products from a form-fill machine onto a tabletop conveyor belt that leads into a metal detector as part of HACCP program.
Automatic Box Filling: A box filling system can reduce manual labor and error. Using a supplied electrical signal, the box filling system counts the number of pieces going into each box. When the designated count is reached, the feeder conveyor is automatically stopped, a new box is moved into position, and feeding resumes.
Indexing: Indexing is an option that stops and starts the belt automatically in response to an electronic signal. It can have many uses including inspection operations. The belt would stop in front of a worker automatically so he could proceed with the inspection process, and then move on. Feeding a signal to the system is the best way to index the belt. Indexing can also be controlled by a manual foot switch that the operator uses once he has finished the inspection operation.
Electronic Eye: The Electronic Eye option is used for counting and placement detection on the standard DynaCon system. It is similar to the photoelectric sensor at the end of every grocery store check out line. The primary purpose of the Electronic Eye is to prevent pieces from falling on the floor. The conveyor belt indexes off the photo eye input signal. If product flow gets out of control, the Electronic Eye will automatically shut off the conveyor until the system is reset.
E-Stop: The Emergency Stop option is an on-off switch. Pushing it immediately cuts power to the DynaCon conveyor. It’s a form of insurance, allowing workers an emergency stop on the line as protection. A system manager can place this accessory anywhere along the assembly line in the proximity of the operator.
Colling Fan Module: The Cooling Fan Module is a cooling option that is installed between the belts of the conveyor. The required conveyor belt is a honeycomb grid configuration that allows ambient air to pass through it to cool the product.
Carriage Candy Company, London, Ontario found that a modular conveyor with variable-speed drive and attached cooling fans provided a remarkably cost-effective solution for cooling its Kapow! Pops brand lollipops by 215 degrees (F) on a relatively short conveyor run of 14 feet en route to the packaging department.
Many food products producers find that a truly modular conveyor system can not only help streamline and optimize production, but can also incorporate accessories that enhance quality and provide serviceability that increases uptime while lowering maintenance and replacement costs.
Ed Sullivan is a technology writer based in Hermosa Beach, Calif.