A closer look at operations in refrigerated and frozen environments
Conveying product in temperatures at or below freezing presents unique challenges to food manufacturers. Special consideration for selection begins at 32 °F, but in temperatures as low as -40 °F, paying added attention to specifications for conveyors and their internal components can be vital in avoiding downtime and getting the most from an equipment investment.
Although the same can be said for many areas of a facility’s operation, balancing the performance and investment of equipment used in freezing environments is essential. This translates to an overwhelming need to understand the best route to take in selecting equipment for these challenging environments.
To this end, Food Manufacturing recently sat down with Nercon Engineering’s Dennis Buehring, who has over 30 years of project management experience related to the specification, design and installation of frozen environment conveying systems.
Q: Looking specifically at conveying equipment in frozen food environments, what type of information would you recommend gathering before any specifying or purchasing decisions are made?
Going in sequence, the best place to start is in assessing your expectations of the new or upgraded conveying system you want to obtain. This will help you understand the full scope of the project in terms of performance and workload in determining your requirements for size, speed, durability, maintenance and sanitation levels.
Then, look at how these factors will relate to the specific temperatures of the room or area in which this conveying system will be used. Varying temperatures will have different effects on equipment and their functionality. This is especially important to remember if you’re specifying more than one conveyor for differing functions in a range of temperatures. It’s simply not a one-size-fits-all dynamic.
Taking these steps will help establish a clear idea of what you want and establish relevant criteria for developing a condensed list of expert, potential vendors. A shorter, more preferential list will allow for a thorough analysis of fewer bid packages, while simultaneously cutting down on the amount of time needed to make a decision and get the equipment implemented.
Q: What are the most common problems you see from frozen conveying equipment that is currently in use?
The most common issue we encounter is the shortened lifecycles of systems. This usually stems from mechanical breakdowns related to improperly specified internal components or lubricants. Basically, a lower-priced system simply won’t contain the heavier-duty motors or bearings that frozen environments demand in order to operate successfully over a long period of time.
So many of the systems we replace required additional maintenance due to these less durable operating components, and they ended up costing processors more due to maintenance-related down time.
Q: Other than temperature, what are the biggest challenges involved with conveying — or maybe just handling — products in a frozen environment?
Because of all the safety concerns that accompany working in a frozen environment, removing as many people as possible from that extreme working environment is a key element of such a purchase. This means eliminating the need for a line operator and implementing as free-flowing a production system as possible. In many cases implementing some additional automation equipment is necessary, but primarily it comes back to simply having equipment that won’t fail or need additional maintenance.
Also, because these areas are often smaller, yet more expensive to operate, ergonomic conveyor designs are both crucial and challenging. They have to accommodate production flow but still function as efficiently as possible in these tight spaces.
Q: What advice would you give food processors in tackling some of the cost issues associated with frozen environments?
First, identify the sources of your greatest costs. This will help in calculating ROI (return on investment) expectations on any new equipment, whether it’s conveying, packaging, etc.
Once you have a better handle on both of these factors, you can see where additional investments might make sense in obtaining both cost and efficiency improvements. In order to get where you want to go, it helps to first really understand where you are now.
Q: What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in frozen conveying over the last 10 years?
Cost cutting has produced smaller and smaller operational footprints. This is a challenge not only for some of the previously mentioned reasons like ergonomics, production flow and safety, but also because of the more complicated functions that are now taking place in frozen environments.
Sustainability efforts in packaging and packaging materials have produced thinner packaging products, as well as a greater variety of sizes and types of containers. When you combine this dynamic with a greater amount of private labeling, frozen conveying systems and complimentary equipment now need to handle a greater number of SKUs in varying size, shape and weight. So, functional demands have increased significantly while the actual space continues to shrink.
We worked with one customer who had 20 different pieces of palletizing equipment associated with their lines to handle all the different SKUs. These types of situations have also led frozen food processors to invest in equipment that will help monitor product to ensure greater accuracy and overall quality.
Q: Assessing things from a broader perspective, what advice would you offer food processors as they look to integrate greater levels of automation and technology throughout their facility, not necessarily just the frozen environment?
Again, understand your ROI and know your break-even point when making new equipment investments. Items and technology like vision systems, bar code scanning systems and light curtains can all help eliminate manual labor and get the most out of the your equipment. This is especially important because of the costs associated with frozen processing areas and the safety concerns that go hand-in-hand with trying to limit the number of workers within the frozen operations area.
Additionally, the use of inventory management strategies and forecasting software allow processors to take more of a JIT (just in time) approach to production and inventory management. This translates to less need for larger distribution centers that, again, are more expensive to operate. So it helps save time and reduces exposure to excess inventory.
Interview by Jeff Reinke, Editorial Director