Processors upgrading production and processing equipment have a significant investment including machines, shipping, installation, and commissioning. To consider an upgrade of controls may also mean a change of procedures and processes. Food manufacturers must weigh their concerns, such as payback, capex budget, downtime, and life cycle costs. Mepaco® has helped customers with manual, entry-level, and advanced controls options. Here are some examples of the rationale why customers choose a which level of controls strategy.
The payback for a controls solution depends on the application. Artisan food processors with less production volume may be well-suited for manual controls. Another example of a simple controls package investment could also be testing equipment, R&D equipment, or perhaps short run product lines.
In food processing lines with automation as the driving strategy, many processors utilize higher-end controls with computerized recipes and automated controls of integrated equipment to meet goals and return on investment.
Financial reservations are a top concern for all sizes of companies to consider in an equipment or system investment. The pros and cons should be carefully considered on the system solution and the equipment and controls partner.
Increased production goals drive food processors to invest in automation to sustain growth and competitiveness, with other factors including food safety, personnel safety, and labor utility costs.
In some examples, a capital commitment to a new system with advanced controls are a solution to reduce loss of downtime, specifically downtime related to manual processes such as loading and unloading.
Some processors struggle with effective loading times when using non-integrated, manually intensive equipment. New equipment solutions with an integrated recipe and process control package can be engineered to solve automation goals and reduce or redirect labor.
Life cycle of equipment is affected by environment, proper use, and hours of operation. Stainless equipment, however, generally lasts a long time. Mepaco® has Mixers that are still in operation after 40 years.
From a controls package standpoint, advanced controls packages can be changed and upgraded unless it is a legacy system, which would require a full processor and software upgrade.
In a round table discussion of Mepaco® application specialists, engineers, sales and service technicians, the team offered up trends and considerations from component level options to entire system solutions that help solve automation and reduce labor in food manufacturing processes. For more information, read our e-book “Processing Automation Trends”.
Click here to download infographic.
A recent article, “It’s About Labor”, published in Food Engineering magazine, processors were interviewed about the ongoing difficulties finding and retaining workers, even beyond the post pandemic labor levels. Mepaco®’s customers, too, have been driving automation conversations, so we are developing resources to share our application expertise with solutions that are semi- or fully automated.
Some applications lead food manufacturers to consider equipment that allows for versatile functions to reduce labor and manual processes that can either be locally controlled or fully automated.
The ThermaBlend® Cooker is a highly efficient cooking/blending solution with a substantial heat transfer area featuring highly efficient agitators and a patented scraper system that proves fast processing times. The ThermaBlend® Cooker is engineered for specific customer goals and is capable of cooking, searing, caramelizing, chilling, sautéing, and blending. Mixers, cookers, and blenders are highly engineered and highly controlled systems for large-scale batch operations up to 1000-gallon capacity.
In one example, Mepaco’s customer, a chicken processor, used manual processes for tenderizing, cooking, and shredding. The labor was nearly eliminated with the introduction of the ThermaBlend® which combined five processes to temper the meat, massage, tenderize, cook, shred and blend with thickening sauce.
Mixer-Blenders and Buffering Mixers: Product Temperature Control
Mixing equipment can be modified for the needs of the application to include direct or in-direct steam options. Cooling jackets, insulation/cladding, or injection systems (CO2 or N2) also add versatility to mixing and blending efficiencies.
Mepaco has engineered buffering mixers to streamline operations. In one application, Mepaco engineered heated buffering mixers which kept the particulates in various densities in suspension until downstream operation signaled for more product. In this example, the buffering mixers solve for automation, and maintain the integrity of the product.
Screw Conveyor Systems: Versatile loading while maintaining product temperature
Another application specific solution, screw Conveyors are among the most modifiable equipment solutions to suit the processing layout and versatile loading positions in an automated line. Screw conveyors can have automatic loading based on product weight or downstream signals, as well as automated pivoting between equipment.
To learn more about automation, or upgrades to controls packages, discuss your application and goals with Mepaco.
With the complex demands in food processing and production, safety, and quality, performance of every component within food equipment is critical.
The bearing type and style for your Mepaco equipment has been determined by application and plant preference. Many food processing facilities utilize stainless bearings which provide corrosion resistance in wet environments. Here are some tips to reduce wear issues and extend stainless food-grade bearing life:
Choose the bearing type that will uphold to the food processing application. Standard steel ball bearings are mounted in a painted cast iron housing. Mepaco’s coating on standard bearings is a sealant with anti-corrosive benefits.
In aggressive and gritty food product applications, food processors often choose polymer bearings. The polymer bearing has a moderate up-front investment – but the total cost of ownership is lower because it requires less maintenance when used in aggressive applications.
Our service techs, engineers, and application experts have pinpointed the five most congested production areas in food manufacturing plants. Here are their tips for mitigating these delays, starting with the loading of a system:
#1 Bottleneck: Inefficient and Ineffective Loaders
A common bottleneck is slow loading times preventing the start of batch mixing or blending. Some processors struggle with effective loading using non-integrated, manually intensive equipment causing higher than expected load times and product waste due to ineffective design for the application.
Ineffective feeding methods also add to processing bottlenecks including delays in food product barreling and other issues with non-positive conveyance.
Mitigation: While some efficiencies may be gained from an efficiency audit, new equipment solutions might be considered with an integrated recipe and process control package that drives automation. Depending on the consistency of the product, Screw conveyor and Belt Conveyor systems can be designed for the application to provide the necessary feed rate to load quickly and efficiently while maintaining product integrity and temperature. If the product must be delivered from a buggy, combo or vat, Column Dumpers or Vat Dumpers can also be designed for the application and fully integrate with the system.
#2 Bottleneck: Over-blending
While it seems like systems will gain more throughput from over-filling, it creates the opposite effect of over-blending and is a waste of production time and efficiencies. The consequences of over-blending are extended load/discharge and blend cycle times. A slight increase in the batch size leads to losses in the overall production rate, sacrificing quality and accuracy.
Some production bottlenecks are caused by inefficient feed rates or lack of surge, causing another case of over-blending.
Mitigation: The process may benefit from a different agitator to produce a quicker, more effective blend. It may also be a process issue where the recipes and timing require tuning to control the blender more efficiently.
The system may warrant an efficiency audit and adjustment to reach the gains and efficiency possible from the equipment. Some customers schedule yearly efficiency audits, having discovered that the service calls pay for themselves in improved quality, accuracy, and throughput.
An efficiency audit may address inefficient feed rates, or a new equipment solution with surge loading may offer more automation.
#3 Bottleneck: Overtaxed Agitators
Mixers and Blenders are the workhorses of a food processing line. It is vital to keep them well maintained. Flexed or stressed agitators do not perform efficiently and in some cases minor efficiencies turn into critical downtime scenarios when not maintained properly.
Mitigation: The drive end motor may not be shimmed properly. A bad bearing on the idle side may be creating flexing in the agitator. Over chilled food product will cause additional stress on the agitation process.
It is critical to understand the expected performance of your mixer or blender as well as the maintenance and inspection of the agitator(s). If plant personnel make a repair, it is important to schedule an after-event service call to make sure the repairs hold up to stainless welding fortifications and proper straightening to prevent future issues. There is a 3-month to 6-month lead time on replacement agitators. High volume processors often keep a spare agitator in inventory in the event of a critical agitator repair, so production can continue using the inventoried agitator.
#4 Bottleneck: Cooker Scraper Damage and Performance
Batch cookers set the pace for downstream processes and production goals in a prepared foods production line. It is not uncommon to run cookers for long periods, especially by high-volume producers. Scraper systems may degrade prematurely when preventative maintenance is stretched too far between intervals. Worn scrapers are a liability to food safety and product quality that can cause a critical shut-down if scrapers crack or break up into the food product; or become ineffective due to excessive wear.
Mitigation: Mepaco® field services experts recommend always having a complete set of scraper assemblies (including springs) in inventory. High volume processors often create blanket orders to maintain a steady inventory of scraper assemblies.
A preventative maintenance check on the scrapers is just as important to prevent downtime associated with scrapers. Evidence of product burn-on and product build-up is a sign that the scrapers are worn. It is important to note scraper usage compared to the hours of operation. Maintenance checks and sanitation protocols should include checking scrapers for cracks, missing pieces, and other signs of stress or wear.
#5 Bottleneck: Manual or Inefficient Unloading
When cookers or mixers are manually unloaded into buggies or vats, several minutes of production are lost compared to automatic solutions. The equipment must be shut off, the operator must manually remove product around the doors, then close the doors before taking the tote by fork truck to the dumper.
Mepaco® techs have also seen delays with unloading when downstream equipment is not ready or can’t keep up with the cooker or mixer.
Mitigation: In manual unloading situations, equipment such as screw conveyors, metering screws or pump feeders may be able to be planned into the system to automate the process, even as a retrofit, if the floor layout allows.
In situations where downstream equipment does not allow for product, Mepaco® has engineered buffering mixers, which will maintain the mix and the temperatures, in a holding state until signaled by downstream equipment. The blender can continue production when the previous batch is discharged into the buffering mixer.
The greatest efficiencies in a processing system result from a coordinated effort to automate the processes in the system by determining:
This featured system doubled cooking batches within a minimal footprint used well-planned equipment selection, floor layout, and controls customization. Mepaco®'s cooking system featured side-by-side ThermaBlend® cookers, with a shared maintenance and sanitation platform.
The multi-recipe prepared foods processor benefited from flexibility in production scenarios. The system can run two batches at once, staggered, or different batches in each cooker, all driven by production demand and recipe controls.
The ThermaBlend® Cooker supports quick homogeneous batch turn for their multi-recipe production requirements. The wrap-around heat jacket design, bi-directional scraper system, and an application-specific agitator create cooking and blending efficiencies.
Further efficiencies of the ThermaBlend® cooker include the variation of processing capabilities in one unit, such as cooking, searing, caramelizing, sautéing, and blending. A versatile unit, ThermaBlend®'s is designed for large-scale cooking operations. Customization such as integrating vacuum and cooling, also provides added efficiency.
The batches are discharged into a heated buffering mixer that maintains product temperature and consistency until signaled for release to downstream operations.
The opposite cover design on the dual cookers with the shared platform and the electropolished food contact surfaces create a high degree of sanitation efficiency.
The system is highly controlled and reliable. Mepaco's ThermaBlend®'s are engineered with extremely robust stay-bolt ASME-rated jackets. Cookers are customized to the application, including experienced agitator designs to meet rigorous production requirements.
Two column dumpers are used to add ingredients to two ThermaBlend® cookers. The Mepaco® Column Dumper offers a very heavy-duty design and is engineered for maintenance ease. Mepaco® often makes modifications depending on the application, such as column heights, dump angles to 60 degrees, dumper capacity, extended chutes, and stainless upgrade kit.
Mepaco® has a new test cooker for processors with new products or recipes requiring cooking and blending. The test cooker is a 75-gallon ThermaBlend® unit with steam injection, vacuum, pneumatic covers and doors, and dual ribbon agitators. Learn more about scheduling a trial.
The Mepaco® brand has been around for a long time. The company began in 1932, and we are well known for our blending systems. Mepaco®'s team of long-standing technical sales managers, engineers, and project leaders work with customer teams to solve for the best solution that fits the application and production goals. Our equipment and systems uphold increased yield performance, optimal designs for ease of maintenance and operation, single-source manufacturing capabilities, the highest sanitary equipment finishes available and vigilant compliance of food safety criteria.
Case Story: What can happen when an agitator problem is ignored?
A high-volume pet food processor utilized a Mixer/Cooker in their operations which produced 45-minute batches. The application called for 28 RPM and mixing cold product at 35 – 45 degrees. During the process of loading different ingredients into the Mixer-Cooker, a Vmag buggy fell into the mixer, causing damage to the agitator.
The processor made repairs to the bent shaft and paddles and was able to get the Mixer-Cooker back online into full production.
Many processors assume that if the paddles do not rub the side of the tub, that the agitator has had a successful repair. But in many cases (and in this case), there was extensive damage and over time the shaft began to flex, causing the agitator to break. This failure completely stopped production.
There are a few choices to stay ahead of agitator care:
Preventative Maintenance: Partner with Mepaco Services to inspect agitators to ensure the shaft is straight and look for stress and other damage.
After Event Care: Processors may be able to fix the shift to continue production, but contract with Mepaco Services to inspect the shaft and straighten if necessary.
Most importantly, processors should avoid emergency maintenance, causing down-time and lost production.
It is not uncommon to have dropped tools into Mixers, so prepare for the event if it does happen. Consider an audit to assess the life of the agitator and consider ordering a replacement so you can have duplicity for uninterrupted down-time.
Delivery of agitator replacements are 3 – 6 months out due to the availability of stainless material. Mixers, Blenders and Grinders are the work horse of the processing system, so be sure that agitator care and component availability are part of the maintenance program.
Mepaco Services offer on-site audits, training, and service contracts as well as emergency repair.
If you would like to learn more about food safety and sanitation equipment innovations trending in food processing equipment and systems, we are offering a Lunch & Learn presentation.
Our focus will be to customize this presentation to talk about your production needs, and safety and sanitation goals.
We will monitor COVID-19 travel and distancing regulations and if allowed, we can have the Lunch & Learn at Apache Stainless or at your facility. Just let us know and we will take care of lunch.
We will also offer a virtual meeting if that works best, and we will send attendees a gift card for lunch on us!
We look forward to hearing from you!
Contact a technical sales manager to schedule!
In terms of material used in food processing and commercial equipment, here is the list of stainless materials from smoothest to the roughest RA range.
Electropolished surfaces range from 6 RA – 14RA microinches. Electropolishing can change RA values up to 50% smoother, depending on the material being treated.
2B Mill Finish – This is a widely used stainless steel finish, common in industrial, chemical and food applications. It is corrosion resistance and has a typical range from 15RA (16 gauge) – to 40 RA (7 gauge) microinches.
No. 4/Dairy Finish – For processing industries, the Dairy finish is required to meet the basic 3-A standards. It uses a 180 grit and has an RA range of 18-31 microinches.
No. 4 Finish – This finish uses a 150-grit abrasive creating a polished brushed surface. The RA range is 29-40 microinches.
No. 3 Finish – The No. 3 finish uses a 120 grit abrasive. It has a semi-polished finish with an RA range of 36 – 58 microinches.
Bead Blasted surfaces have a soft satin appearance and low reflection. The process of bead blasting utilizes bead material such as glass or ceramic beads to produce a non-directional, textured surface. The finer the blasting media, the more corrosion resistance the surface performance. The RA values are typically higher than 45RA microinches, but are dependent on the blasting process and the stainless material.
Improve your Stainless Finishes IQ; read our complimentary e-book.
An equipment safety and sanitation audit can provide direction for implementing improvement procedures and specifying equipment updates that mitigate risk and solve for safety and production goals. Here’s an excerpt from our audit checklist:
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