A new breed of flexible conveyor systems is providing local food manufacturers with a competitive edge. Sarah Falson reports.
THE food and beverage industries have traditionally used conveying systems to speed up their processes and save on manual labour. But with increasing overseas competition, changing consumer habits and tightening safety standards, manufacturers are under pressure to deliver smaller runs of varying product lines more quickly than ever before.
Considering Australia’s food and beverage market is smaller than that of, say, America or China, local manufacturers need to become more flexible than their global counterparts, constantly changing their processes to deliver products faster, cheaper and of a consistently high standard – not only for local customers, but also for growing export markets.
Key to this flexibility is production equipment, in particular conveyor systems, which need to allow smooth processing and prevent bottlenecks from occurring. Customised or ‘turn-key’ solutions are becoming increasingly popular, and are often integrated into a plant’s automation or robotics system to allow for greater control.
Flexibility in demand
According to Australis Engineering’s engineering manager, Anthony Gustafson, flexibility of design, development time and cost are all top priorities for local food manufacturers when choosing a conveyor system.
“Australia’s small market means most production lines run multiple products so machinery has to cater for multiple sizes, shapes, speeds and be able to handle these differences with the shortest changeover time possible,” Gustafson told Food Magazine (Manufacturers' Monthly's sister publication).
Sydney-based Australis Engineering provides a range of conveyor systems for fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) production, including slat chain, modular belt, roller and pallet conveyors, and also bucket elevators.
The company customises standard conveyor designs specifically for each project – for example, a bucket elevator that can go around corners. This keeps cost and development time down, says Gustafson.
Golden Circle is one manufacturer that utilises a number of flexible conveyor systems to produce its many lines of canned fruits, fruit juices and cordials. The company’s Northgate, Queensland cannery produces over 180,000 tonnes per year of product to cater for consumer demands. Golden Circle Northgate project engineer, Craig Kent, agrees that conveyor flexibility is the key to delivery.
“Modular conveyor systems must have short lead times, and spare parts must be easily sourced and readily available,” Kent told Food Magazine.
Kent’s facility relies on a combination of slat chain conveyors with Rexnord-branded stainless steel chains, modular belt conveyors with Intralox-branded chains, belt conveyors with rubber belting, and low back pressure carton roller conveyors.
“These were all manufactured by site contractors to site specification for cleaning and the surrounding environment,” Kent said.
Hygiene, safety priorities
Though conveyor systems for manufacturing facilities come in all shapes and sizes, those engineered for the food and beverage sector must be made of hygienic materials that allow for easy cleaning, and must prevent cross-contamination between products and operators.
According to Heat and Control business manager, packaging & inspection systems Australia, Robert Marguccio, it is essential in the food business that processing equipment is hygienic.
“High levels of hygiene, easy-to-clean with a quick cleaning turn-around, and reduction in product breakage are important to food manufacturers,” he told Food Magazine.
Heat and Control is a global processing equipment supplier, with a manufacturing facility in Brisbane, Queensland, which has been operating since the 1970s.
Robert Marguccio recommends looking at sanitation, operator safety, cross-contamination, sustainability and product quality control when purchasing a new conveyor or upgrading an existing system. System layout, feed modulation and methods to divert product are also important, he says.
Golden Circle’s Kent agrees: “Conveyors must be cleanable to maintain a hygienic standard in the factory. Where possible inner surfaces should be visible and cleanable. Some products even require the use of food grade cleaning agents that run continuously on the conveyor during production,” he said.
“Safety is always important. Conveyor systems must be easily accessible and maintained. Construction methods must not leave sharp edges or produce nip points with moving parts”.
There are a number of Australian standards to which food manufacturers must adhere, in order to sell their products both locally and overseas; equipment suppliers, including conveyor system manufacturers, must ensure their machinery makes it simple for food and beverage producers to meet these standards.
For example, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Australia), an Australian government agency that ensures the country’s reputation remains favourable in export markets, stipulates that animal- and plant-based products leaving our shores must comply with Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) requirements for health and safety.
AQIS works alongside Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) to enforce Australian quarantine laws, and performs a number of safety checks on edible exports (and imports) including using X-ray machines and sniffer dogs.
With the Australian dollar recently dipping below parity with the American dollar, allowing new, local players to enter export markets, more manufacturers must ensure their processes and equipment allow them to meet export standards.
Once again, equipment that can be cleaned easily and quickly, and offers safety features for the operator, can help companies avoid potentially-severe health hazards – not only for the purpose of passing export quality control checks, but also to meet local food safety standards like those governed by FSANZ, and machine safety standards like those from the Safety Institute of Australia (SIA).
“Easy cleaning is always on the top of the agenda when we speak with our food production clients. It is very important especially where AQIS requirements are involved,” said Australis Engineering’s Gustafson.
“Equipment is normally in Stainless Steel and particular attention is paid during the design phase to ensure cleaning can be easily performed.”
SIA stipulates that the safety of line workers and capital equipment in the factory is just as important as product safety, and conveyor equipment suppliers can work with manufacturers to design systems that meet these requirements.
“Safety in conveying is extremely important. We offer complete safety integration which includes machine guarding, air safety and electrical safety,” said Gustafson.
“Our guarding can be constructed in either Stainless Steel or now more often in our Alusic Aluminium Profile system, which is a cost-effective way of bringing an older machine up to current OH&S/Machine Safety standards; in some cases retro-fitting modern guarding has saved our clients from completely replacing a capital machine.
“Australis is also an official partner with ABB Jokab Safety so we also integrate electrical safety systems into our guards and machines. This can be as basic as door interlocks or light curtains on machine guards, or can be a complete system such as a Safety PLC monitored CAT 4 system.”