With over 34 years in the herbal supplement arena, Traditional Medicinals has combined the ancient art of traditional formulating with the most modern scientific methods of quality assurance and production, and remains dedicated to preserving earth's natural resources, both human and natural.
Already a leader in sustainability, operating 70 percent from solar power, the company, located in Sebastopol, CA, continues its commitment to preserving human resources by continually improving the work environment for its employees, striving for the most desirable and safe workplace.
At the facility that operates 20 hours a day, four days per week to produce 2 million teabags per week, raw materials are brought in from around the world in already tea cut form, reinspected and repackaged into barrel containers to feed into the blenders via a hopper system. Once the formulas are blended, they are transferred to the packaging area where they are gravity fed from a mezzanine level to IMA machines that process between 135 and 185 teabags per minute.
While working on a major efficiency project that culminated in the building of new rooms for the blending area Mary Goff, Plant Manager, says that the company also wanted "to cut down the amount of lifting that the operators were doing manually in our production department."
Previously, the operators were weighing individual hundred pound batches into barrels, taking those barrels up to the top level, and then dumping them into hoppers manually by hand. In search of a better method, the VP of Quality Control and the Site Manager researched open conveyor systems as an ergonomic solution for transferring the raw materials.
Traditional Medicinals uses pharmacopoeial grade herbs and one of its biggest concerns was how to transfer the herbs and blends from one area to another without breaking down the product or losing any of it.
"We did a lot of studies up front," says Goff of choosing the right systems to transfer ingredients. "We spoke with some of our raw materials vendors about the systems they used to transfer materials and a gentleman from the consulting firm we were working with on the efficiency project told us about Vac-U-Max."
A pioneer in vacuum pneumatic conveying, Belleville, NJ-based Vac-U-Max specializes in the design and manufacture of pneumatic systems and support equipment for the conveying, weighing, and batching of dry materials in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and food industries.
Although the company's herb suppliers warned against pneumatically conveying the herbs thinking that it would damage the ingredients, the information Traditional Medicinals pulled from the conveyor manufacturer's website convinced the company the method was worthy of investigation.
Pneumatic conveying systems have many advantages over open conveying systems such as belt or bucket conveyors. Ease of cleaning and the smaller footprint of pneumatic conveying systems are two of its biggest advantages.
In addition, pneumatic conveying systems are fully enclosed, protecting materials from air, dirt and waste. Because product does not escape from a pneumatic conveying system, particulates that can endanger or jam expensive equipment are prevented from entering the environment.
Although the advantages of the pneumatic system in theory seemed to outweigh the open systems, Traditional Medicinals needed assurance that the vacuum system would perform reliably without breaking down the product.
Working with an Expert and a Lab -- Try before you Buy
"If the product is too fine it creates problems with separation and blending and also creates problems with packaging if it is too dusty," says Goff. "Before purchasing the equipment, we wanted to be sure that it could transfer the product correctly and that it was holding its integrity from a quality standpoint."
Vac-u-Max offers testing at no charge to potential customers in their fully functional state-of-the-art 6,000 square foot test and demonstration facility equipped to conduct a plethora of vacuum conveying tests to simulate the actual conditions at a customer's site.
After consultation with the company to arrive at system design and equipment specifications, Goff traveled with the VP of Quality Control and the Site Manager to New Jersey to test the equipment with 15 of the company's raw materials. "They spent a whole morning with us running through the testing making sure that we were happy with their equipment," she says.
"One of our biggest concerns was the breakdown of the materials themselves and that's one of the negatives that we kept hearing from our herb suppliers, but Vac-U-Max assured us that it wouldn't. And they've proven that it is a very gentle way to move product," says Goff.
During the testing, it was determined that the three filter system initially specified for the application was capturing more product than desired so Vac-U-Max came up with a single system filter instead and adjusted the flow rate. "We we were able to get it to the point that we were satisfied with it and that didn't take much effort at all."
Because Traditional Medicinals runs between three and four blends per day in the department, the conveyor manufacturer set the company up with a cloth-type cleanable filter that is able to be cleaned, sanitized and reused. The company has several filters on hand for each blend.
When the new blending area was finished, the Vac-U-Max system was implemented into the new process where raw materials are brought in and taken to a second level where they are run through magnets and then scaled into a barrel. The pneumatic conveyor system transfers the product back up to another room where the system performs as the hopper feed for the blender itself.
Now rather than operators using forklifts to bring barrels up to the mezzanine level, and manually scooping materials into the hopper, operators insert use a wand into the barrels and product is pneumatically transferred from the wand to the blenders.
"The system has eliminated all the forklift traffic, and from an ergonomic standpoint it's saving a lot of wear and tear on our blenders' backs," says Goff.
In addition to creating a better ergonomic environment for the operators, Goff says "their system is more efficient too, and we are really happy with that side of it."
Although Traditional Medicinals has only been working with the new system for 30 days performing a full protocol of validating the equipment, process and cleaning procedures, Goff says, "I am predicting that we'll be able to improve capacity by 20 percent."
Cleaning and Maintenance
When running three or four blends a day, ease of cleaning quickly becomes an efficiency point when sanitation between runs is required. For this application, the Vac-U-Max system has a food-grade polished surface for effortless cleaning and product flow; and, all systems are equipped with heavy-duty clamps that enable quick take apart without tools.
Goff says, "it is very easy to take it apart. We're taking it apart three to four times a day and we change the filter between each blend."
Overall Goff says, "Vac-U-Max was very helpful and spent time to make sure the system worked for us. With the pneumatic system transferring the materials is a lot quicker and we expect that it will work well when we bring in a higher capacity machine later this year."
Doan Pendleton is an expert in vacuum technology with more than 20 years of experience designing and engineering vacuum conveying systems and industrial vacuum cleaners.