• Industry Insight

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.

  1. 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, highly controlled environments such as cleanrooms and explosive environments.

  1. Product characteristics

The physical characteristics and nature 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. The same would apply to products that are prone to spillage. Product spillage requires clean-ups, which result in unnecessary downtime. Conveyors used to transport these types of foodstuffs need to be designed to specifically prevent or reduce the likelihood of spillage.

Some products 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 will 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, so this must be factored into the running costs of the plant.

  1. Corrosive materials

Food processing plants are generally quite corrosive environments. This is due to a few factors; 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, with it very often, 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.

  1. 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 design to be fully enclosed and supplied with necessary dust extraction systems to remove dangerous dust particles.

  1. 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.

Facet Engineering (Pty) Ltd | 011 769 1168 | sales@facetengineering.co.za | https://facetengineering.co.za/


The importance of grain cleaning

Colin Fairweather, CEO, Facet Engineering

Harvested grain is usually fairly clean. Usually being the operative word, as this is dependent on a number of critical factors; the correct settings and capacity being used, the grain being dry, no heat damage taking place and kernels not being broken during the harvesting process – many factors, which are difficult to control. In addition the quality of grain begins to deteriorate as soon as it has been harvested, so it is imperative that dirt and impurities are removed to delay the deterioration process and ensure that the stored grain is of a high quality for end users.

It is therefore highly recommended that harvested grain is passed through a grain cleaner and/or pre-cleaner in order to ensure that the quality of the grain is optimised before it goes into storage.

Pre-cleaning grain before storage plays two vital roles:

  1. Adding value to the grain through the removal of dirt, impurities and damaged particles.
  2. Ensuring a longer life of the grain whilst it is in storage.

The importance of cleaning grain before storage is important for a few reasons. Foreign matter also referred to as fines (any dirt or particles smaller than the grain) can collect in areas inside the storage silo. These pockets of fines can cause hot spots inside the silo, which has a negative impact on the aeration of the grain. This can also result in moisture collecting in these areas, which can cause rot, mould and other damage to the grain.

The additional impurities also take up valuable storage space inside the silo – an unnecessary cost that can be avoided if the grain has been cleaned before being taken into storage. The impurities can also contain harmful or poisonous seeds or particles which can cause further damage, negatively affecting the quality of the grain.

Clean grain is of a higher quality and therefore fetches a better price than grain that is full of impurities. Even if a grain producer does not have their own storage facilities, clean grain will bring a higher return on investment for the producer. Grain that is rejected by a buyer or co-op usually results in the costs of cleaning and re-submitting to be carried by the seller, costs which can ultimately be avoided.

Grain cleaners are the first and most important piece of equipment used to clean any type of grain, seed or beans. When analysing all of the elements that can have an impact on grain quality, it makes good business sense for a grain producer to seriously consider procuring their own grain cleaner. It is estimated that the cost of a grain cleaner can generally be recouped over two to three seasons, making it a viable purchase, even for smaller grain producers.

Innovation in the field of grain cleaning

Facet Engineering is an innovator in the field of grain handling and cleaning, and has been for over 30 years. Over this period they have developed a range of conveyors and grain cleaners that can process grain at capacities of as high as 120 tonnes per hour.

Their range of grain cleaners includes four models, all locally manufactured in South Africa in their state-of-the-art workshop facility. All these models can be used to clean a variety of different grains, either for pre-cleaning or fine cleaning. This is achieved by virtue of the ability to change the settings on the machines as well as fitting different screen sizes on the removable screens.

These easily-operated machines work on the tried and tested principle of vibrating screens and air extraction to separate the grain from impurities. These impurities include anything larger than the grain such as sticks (also known as overs), and anything smaller than the grain like broken kernels or sand, as well as anything lighter than the grain such as husks and dirt (also known as fines).

All the models can be supplied with an optional air extraction fan, galvanised ducting and receiving cyclone for the collection and recovery of all of the light impurities.

Facet Engineering also offers other machines for the cleaning, separating and sizing of grain, seed and cereals. These include:

  • Destoner – used to separate and remove stones which are of a similar size to the seed or grain kernel. This machine works on the principle of separating by specific density or weight of the particles.
  • Gravity table – another machine in the range which separates grain into different fractions based on specific densities. This machine is ideal for the removal of kernels which are rotten inside or eaten away.
  • Electronic colour sorters – highly specialised machines designed to separate or grade products such as seed, grain, beans and nuts, by virtue of their colour differences which can be configured/calibrated using pre-programmed colour parameters.

Facet Engineering’s process division works extensively in the Agri-food sector and offers solutions for: storage, conveying, cleaning, separating, grading, mixing, sorting and bagging of grain, seed and cereal products. Facet Engineering’s experience within the Agri-food processing industry spans more than 30 years. They have a wealth of knowledge in developing solutions for the handling and processing of grain, seed and cereal products.

The benefits of using local manufacturers

As more and more locally produced products continue to be displaced by imports, one South African company is proving that local is as good as international any day. Colin Fairweather, CEO of Facet Engineering, talks about the importance of procuring local.

There is no denying that manufacturing in South Africa is under pressure. It’s not an easy environment to operate in; with ever increasing imports and a tendency to look to the East for bulk handling solutions. The stagnant economy has also not helped matters much. Never before has it been so important to boost local industry.

“There are many benefits in using local manufacturers,” says Fairweather, whose team has been working on a major contract for the past few months replacing a host of imported conveyors.

“We were called in after the company continued to have challenges with the conveyors that were just not performing. The contractors had all left the site and returned to their home countries,” he says citing the first and probably most obvious benefit – having a local team available at a moment’s notice.

Working with local manufacturers from the beginning builds relationships that ensure long-term solutions are cost-effective rather than bringing in suppliers to troubleshoot.

Too little too late

“In that instance one is literally putting out fires. Sometimes the challenges are fixable through a few adjustments or some basic changes, but often the solution is to replace completely. That involves designing, manufacturing, installing and commissioning the entire system from scratch again. It is a costly process,” he says.

Whilst many companies have been looking internationally for bulk handling solutions, local companies are as capable of delivering the required equipment as their overseas counterparts.

“I truly believe that we are able to provide not only the same quality, if not better, products but also at a highly competitive cost.”

Facet Engineering has been in business for the past 27 years, he says, and has proved their longevity in the market as well as the quality of their products.

“We have worked hard towards being able to deliver a service that can meet the needs of any of our clients. Our systems work well because we understand the local conditions and we are able to tailor-make to the specific requirements of our customers.”

Price competitive

The tough economic environment has undoubtedly forced many businesses to cut costs and price has become the major driving force in the market.

“Cheap imports are available but these need to be weighed up against quality, the cost of maintenance or even a complete stop in production,” says Colin. “Our products, when compared internationally to the same quality and workmanship, are completely price competitive. At the same time the availability of spare parts, maintenance and servicing becomes more affordable if all is procured locally.”

Whilst the initial cost might have been marginally cheaper, the cost of waiting for spares, communication problems or even finding a local team to step in in the interim all adds up.

While there has been a tendency to procure internationally, according to Fairweather, there does seem to be a shift back towards utilising local suppliers.

“We have been extremely busy over the past few years despite the slow economy. This is good news because it does imply that there is still faith in the local manufacturing sector.”

When it comes to aftersales service, local manufacturers have the upper hand.

“Aftersales is critical in the bulk handling sector. A breakdown can stop production for days and it has a massive cost impact,” he says. “Local teams are quick to respond and can address the problem much faster, which means loss of production is minimised.”

Service first and foremost

For Facet Engineering the principles in bulk handling have been tried and tested over many years. “Familiarising oneself with a variety of systems means that you can problem-solve much easier,” says Fairweather. “We have found that where we are involved from the get go right through to commissioning our conveyors don’t give hassles. In fact they don’t break down. We are able to deliver that critical aftersales service continuously and maintain the equipment to the right standard and that is what makes the difference.”

“Service has become a differentiating factor. We believe in finding solutions for our clients that meet their exact needs and delivering a service that allows them to focus on their core business and not worry about the equipment – that is our job. We pride ourselves on that service.”

Facet Engineering has found it vital for the business to diversify and to work in a variety of sectors. “This approach has been beneficial and we have seen an increase in our agri processing work in the last few years, as this sector is one that is gaining ground in the country,” says Fairweather. “We are also able to offer a diversified service to our clients. We have an inhouse design team that can develop bespoke solutions or we can supply standard options. We then manufacture, install and commission the equipment and have a full after-sales service and maintenance programme that we implement.”

Being able to offer such complete service is important as it does make us more competitive.”

Facet Engineering ensures that they stay up to date with the latest industry developments and trends. All of their systems are updated annually and the company continuously invests in machinery for their factory so that they are always in the position to deliver the best solutions available.”

With several sectors under strain at the moment – mining due to low commodity prices and the agri sector being hit hard by the drought – Facet Engineering has started to implement their growth strategy looking beyond Southern Africa.

“There are some good opportunities on the African continent and we have the expertise and the ability to service the market well. We completed a large project in Tanzania – an agri-procesing plant – and are installing a number of conveyor systems within the plant,” says Fairweather. “But we are not only looking to Africa, but also other regions in the world. We recently supplied conveyor systems to an Australian company and the project went off very well. This is a market that we are actively looking at engaging with more.”

Facet Engineering recently opened a branch in Cape Town. “Even though we are growing outside of the South African border we also need to ensure that we are servicing the local market well. It is important that we have a presence in Cape Town and the new branch does cement our foot print in that part of the country, especially when it comes to the agri-processing business.

“It’s a move that will bode the company well in the long run.”

The benefits of automation

  • Automation ensures product consistency; this important, particularly for quality control of the final end-product. Incorrect ratios of inputs can result in an overpriced product or a product that is of an inferior quality or nutritional value.
  • Highly sophisticated computer software is used in automated process plants and allows for close monitoring of all activity in the plant. It also enables highly accurate reports to be generated which are used for record-keeping and quality control purposes. It is absolutely vital to be able to closely check the plant’s input (raw materials) and output (final finished products) levels.
  • Automation creates more scope for altering all the parameters; both production inputs and outputs. It allows for greater control throughout the plant. PLCs throughout the plant enable instantaneous fault-finding, particularly with the electrical components of the plant such as motors and gearboxes. Product levels and operating capacities throughout the entire plant can be carefully monitored.
  • Plant automation has also developed to such an extent that the system allows for remote access to the plant, particularly with fault and capacity reporting. This allows for off-site monitoring and management.
  • Automation in production results in a significant reduction in labour costs. Labour costs continue to be one of the most expensive inputs for the manufacturing sector. With an uncompetitive and unreliable force, often prone to unrest and inconsistency, labour problems are often costly and impact heavily on the production capacity of a plant. By reducing the need for workers, many of the costs involved are substantially reduced.
  • By having more control on production inputs allows production costs to be reduced Automation ensures the plant runs as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. It essentially becomes cheaper to produce the end product, which creates opportunities for an increase in competitiveness, growth and profit for the product manufacturer.
  • The reduction in production and labour costs also greatly assists in the automated process plant to effectively pay for itself in a relatively short time period. The initial capital expenditure is offset fairly quickly by the cost- and time-saving benefits of the plant.
  • Automated process plants are fully customisable and are designed around the client’s specific processing capacity requirements.