CONVEYING CHALLENGES FACING THE FOOD INDUSTRY

Colin Fairweather, CEO, Facet Engineering

The ever-increasing demand for automation in food production often presents a number of interesting challenges in transporting goods from one point to another within a production facility.

Each product application is unique and brings with it a unique set of material handling challenges. It is for this exact reason that the design of a conveyor or material handling solution needs to be tailored to meet the precise requirement of both the product and environment in which it is being conveyed. In this article we look at a few aspects that can be a challenge when developing conveying solutions for the food industry.

The environment

A critical factor to consider in the design of a conveying system is the environment in which the product is being handled. The working conditions under which a conveyor operates must be taken into account in order to ensure that maximum output capacities are achieved, and product integrity is maintained.

Some examples of unique environments include: ovens operating under very high temperatures, freezers and cold rooms where maintaining extremely cold temperatures is required, controlled environments such as food and pharmaceutical plants, washdown and caustic environments where water and chemicals are used regularly for hygiene purposes, and highly controlled environments such as cleanrooms and explosive environments.

Product characteristics

The physical characteristics of the product or item to be conveyed determines how it should be handled and therefore the type of conveyor that will best suit the application. If a product is fragile and may be prone to breakage, then gentle handling is required to ensure that damage is kept to a minimum. Products that are prone to spillage also need to be transported gently. Product spillage requires clean-ups, which result in unnecessary downtime. Conveyors used to transport these types of foodstuffs need to be designed to specifically in order to prevent or reduce the likelihood of product spillage.

Some goods are characterized as being more difficult to handle. These include products that are moist and sticky, and prone to smearing or bulk dry powders that are prone to caking or packing. In these instances, conveyors used to move these products need to be manufactured with a number of features and configurations to overcome the potential complications that may arise in the handling process of these types of products. 

Products that are highly abrasive are particularly harsh on the equipment used to handle them; and as a result, require conveyors and handling equipment to be of a more robust construction, and resistant to wear and tear. The maintenance requirements and need for replacement parts of which will most likely be much more than non-abrasive products, and this must be factored into the running costs of the plant, particularly when advising on after-sales service.

Corrosive materials

Food processing plants are generally quite corrosive environments. This is due to the chemical properties of certain foodstuffs and the use of water and chemicals during the cleaning process.

Foods may be corrosive simply due to their chemical composition, particularly those that are highly acidic such as citrus, jams, sauces and pickled foods. Also, some food products are treated with certain chemicals for preservative purposes, which can be highly corrosive to metals.

The food industry is particularly stringent in its requirements for hygiene and sanitation in food production plants. Large amounts of water and, very often with it, cleaning chemicals are used in daily cleaning procedures within a processing plant. In addition, water is also used extensively in steam heating, cooling, and cooking. Water is one of the most corrosive elements within a production plant, and although its use cannot be avoided, its impact can be reduced. Conveying equipment should be designed and manufactured with corrosion-reducing attributes such as smooth surfaces, minimal projections, protective coatings and the use of corrosion-resistant materials.

Dust control

The control of dust within a food processing plant is a critical challenge that must be addressed. A number of foods produce fines and dust when handled. This dust can pose a serious health hazard for people working within the production plant, as exposure to fine dust can cause skin and even respiratory conditions. Some substances, such as flours and sugars, when moved, also produce dust that can be highly explosive. This creates a safety risk that can have potentially disastrous consequences. Under these conditions, it is vital to ensure that conveyors are designed to be fully enclosed and supplied with necessary dust extraction systems to remove dangerous dust particles. 

Other challenges

Some food processes that involve the blending or mixing of products require the homogeneity of the mixture to be maintained, particularly when the product is being transferred from one process to another, such as from mixing to packaging. It is vital that the right type of conveying equipment is used in order to ensure that the mixture integrity is preserved.

Other issues in a food production plant many include potential safety risks, when handling hazardous or explosive products. Sanitation and product contamination may also be an important concern.Ultimately it is critical that the correct type of conveyor be used for the specific product application. It is vital to work with conveyor suppliers that have experience within the food industry and understand the many challenges that may be encountered in food production; who can advise you on best practices and are able to custom design conveyor systems and solutions that are tailored to your exact requirements. This will ensure better and more consistent end-product quality, less downtime and that the equipment lasts longer.

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