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How Not to Make A Spash When Cleaning

Wed, 08/30/2006 - 6:31am
Tony Goff, President, Goff's Enterprises

Separator Curtains Are a Flexible Solution for Productivity, Compliance, Better Asset Utilization

Living under the lid of tight margins for food processors creates the mission of getting as much production out of equipment as possible, while getting the most out of every square foot of floor space.

The snag in all of this careful planning comes when that equipment has to be cleaned.

The overspray problem

The inside of a piece of process equipment is not a problem. COP and CIP cleaning systems take care of sanitizing the working parts, lines and tanks without mess. The issue arises with washing down the outside of equipment. Because of high pressure sprays and cleaning chemicals, system wash down within these tight quarters means having to clean all the process lines. The overspray from hand held sprayers can contaminate people and machinery up to 20 feet away.

The over splash not only includes the solution but the dirt and food particles blasted off along with it. Even if the operator is extremely careful about where the spray is laid down (and that is almost impossible) blowing off the solution with as little as an air hose can contaminate nearby equipment.

Under these conditions, there is no way that a food processing plant wants to risk non-compliance by operating a production run. Typically, equipment that undergoes an exterior wash means shutting down operation in the entire area of the cleaning. This routine leads to a partial, if not an entire graveyard shift, usually at night, devoted to cleaning, ultimately with no product being run during that period for the entire plant. Many plants would like to see the means to free themselves from these rigid cleaning times.

The solution

The answer to this problem is to figure out a way to contain the spray. Confining individual operations with their own room would impede the ability of a plant to reconfigure its layout and hampers efficient material flow. Portable screens would only be knockdown targets for the high pressure water.

One possible answer has come in the recently developed vinyl separation curtains expressly made for the food processing industry. The primary features of the curtains are a slick surface that sheds solutions and soils, welded seams that prevent the trapping of contaminants and stainless steel attachments and track. In short: food grade construction that stops the water pressure and allows fluids to go to drain.

The immediate benefit from using these curtains is that now plants can operate processing equipment more often, in some cases tripling production. This arrangement of being able to divide off a large production means that product lines that have different run times can be cleaned at different times. This means when a product run goes through a processing line for 20 hours and is shut down to be cleaned, it does not have to cause the adjacent line, which has a processing time twice as long, to stop its operation.

Cleaning time, though necessary, is down time and a drain on revenue. If a line that can turn out product over 40 hours can run uninterrupted, the number of cleanings could drop from four times a week to just three, transforming the six hours of cleaning time into a production run instead. That line gets to turn out product on its own time, and is not dictated by when other systems in the area complete their run and need cleaning. This puts fewer demands on the scheduling department to juggle the demands of multiple systems.

Basically, the type of plant that can benefit from hanging separator food curtains in their processing room has multiple lines running over multiple shifts, with many product changeovers and a need for flexible cleaning schedules. Co-packers tend to gain the most from using separator curtains. Market demands are compelling food processors to offer a variety of product lines, running in much smaller quantities than those seen years ago.

The size of the cleaning area can be determined by the length of the curtain track hanging from the ceiling. The track can run in many directions around the various processing areas, and if the configuration is set up with a level of forethought, one curtain can be used throughout an area housing multiple processing systems.

When the curtain is not being used it can be folded up close to the wall, enabling unimpeded material handling from the receiving dock, through the processing/packaging area and then out to shipping. When a line has to be shut down for cleaning, the curtain can be run out along the track that encircles the area.

For an investment of less than $15,000, an area of thousands of square feet can be enclosed in different places at different times by a single separator curtain.

Continually morphing product lines and on-going lean production programs requires flexible equipment floor plans. This kind of thinking cannot be confined by walls. Taking down and reinstalling the curtain track can enable the track pattern to accommodate the workflow and new equipment placement.

The food curtains can be provided for any room height or to confine any size area. Curtain material can be PVC, USDA grade PVC or antimicrobial PVC, thick enough to prevent tearing from passing vehicles or carts. The material should be transparent to allow light into the area for those performing the cleaning.

Further benefits

Adjacent processing lines are not the only concern facing food processors when attempting to utilize floor space. The FDA will not allow processing to happen near storage areas. The food curtains can make a barrier between the processing lines and racks, eliminating the creation of this "dead" area.

Processing companies are always searching for ways to expand their run times, while at the same time trying to avoid expanding their floor area to meet increased sales and growing product lines. Vinyl food curtains provide a flexible answer.

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