There may be no more ubiquitous or overlooked machinery in food and beverage packaging operations than conveyors. Nor is there anything more crucial: Conveyors tie discrete pieces of equipment together to form an integrated production line. They can enhance or impede operations to help packagers reach-or not-production goals.
There are inherent differences between food and beverage production lines and the conveying requirements for each. One primary distinction is speed. Bryan Boyce, Intelligrated product manager, says food packaging production conveying speeds have ramped up over the last few years to a maximum of around 180 feet per minute (fpm) for secondary packaging.
By contrast, beverage speeds start at 180 fpm and currently operate at average speeds in the 200 to 240 fpm range. Because of those higher speeds, Boyce says beverage applications tend to use more specialty conveyors such as modular plastic belting conveyors. “You might not see as much sortation for beverage packaging as you’ll see merging,” he adds.
Garvey general manager Ben Garvey concurs. “For us, the biggest difference between food and beverage markets is the speed-beverage lines run two to four times faster than a typical food packaging line. Overall conveyor construction is similar, because of contamination concerns. They all require easily cleanable conveyors.”
That’s a major trend echoed by John Kuhnz, Dorner’s food marketing manager, who likewise sees a movement toward more use of stainless steel for washdown applications. Kuhnz also believes that there’s heightened interest in conveyor designs that reduce water requirements and improve sanitation. For example, Dorner’s AquaPruf sanitary conveyors require 55% less water during cleaning in comparison to other conveyors.
“I’m also seeing more requests for stainless steel equipment,” says Boyce, “and not just down at the production floor level, but also for overhead [case] conveyors.” He surmises that’s because stainless steel increases light reflectivity versus painted conveyors. It also eliminates the need for paint-another environmental benefit. “And there’s no need to worry about rusting,” he adds.
CSR, safety, and conveyorsThose benefits fall into an area where terms like “green” and “sustainability” are heard as often for conveyors as for other packaging machinery. However, Boyce maintains that sustainability is also within corporate social responsibility as a safety issue. This includes assessing pinch points-an aspect that has drawn interest from food and beverage customers.
“Risk assessment is a hardware issue handled through CE in Europe,” he explains. The CE designation on equipment indicates conformity to the legal requirements of European Union directives, though its reach is felt stateside, too. Risk assessment for CE can be done at the product level and/or at the systems level. “We’ve had at least six major clients recently request risk assessment for all of our products,” Boyce says.
Environmental improvements can also reduce costs. “In days past, personnel would turn the conveyors on first thing every morning and turn them off when they went home,” Boyce says. “That’s certainly not the case anymore.” He has seen an uptick in interest within the last year for Intelligrated’s low-energy consumption MDR line of motorized roller conveyor, where each roller module has its own motor that activates on an as-needed basis. It offers features including jam detection and sleep mode when no products are present.
Variable-frequency drives also permit packagers to adjust conveyor speeds for different package sizes or formats, which can save energy and offer convenient features.
“I love the new NEMA 4X VFDs that can be locally mounted in a washdown environment and have a built-in disconnect,” enthuses Garvey.
Another improvement on the components side is in helical gearboxes for motors, which use 15% to 20% less energy than worm gear reducers, Boyce claims.
However, there is a price to pay. “They cost triple or more than conventional gearboxes, but that’s what customers are buying,” he points out.
Sometimes energy savings are found in a conveyor manufacturer’s design improvements. Dorner has developed slave-driven product transfers that work without additional energy by operating off the conveyor’s drive/gear, Kuhnz says.
Sustainability has also led to aggressive material reductions that can affect container handling. “As sustainability pressures push material suppliers toward less rigid containers, manufacturers must constantly innovate to provide smoother transfers and better guiderail systems,” says Ben Garvey.
There’s a related development noted by Intralox industry manager Scott Shannon that challenges traditional roller conveyors. The combination of a movement toward smaller package sizes plus a reduction in packaging materials (including tray and pad elimination) has forced the market to move away from roller conveyors toward small-pitch modular plastic belt conveyors. These plastic belts transfer and support even the most delicate packages.
Our final consideration comes from Ben Garvey: “Conveyors by themselves provide a great service, but only if you develop a good layout ahead of time. We have invested a lot of development into finding ways to sharpen turn radii, smooth out elevation changes and optimize single filers, all of which are guaranteed to clean up production layouts.”
Conveyors will continue to have their ups and downs, though discerning packagers can experience more of the former and less of the latter by paying close attention to installing systems that can effectively carry their products and carry the day.
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